There’s no question that Jakob Junis has been one of the unluckiest Royals this season. Before the season even started, Junis tested positive for COVID, and his recovery caused him to start the season on the injured list. On August 15th, he was scratched from a start against the Twins due to back spasms and landed again on the IL. And if that wasn’t enough, this happened on September 2nd at Kauffman Stadium against the Cleveland Indians, which shortened one of his better starts of the season:
It hasn’t been the easiest of seasons for the soon-to-be 28-year-old (his birthday is September 16th). Furthermore, his line hasn’t been the most impressive this year either, as he is posting a 5.57 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in 5 starts and 21 IP during this COVID-shortened campaign. His ERA is 0.33 points higher than a year ago, and nearly 1.40 points higher than 2018, his first full-season in the Majors in which he threw 177 innings and made 30 starts for the Royals. For the second straight season since his “breakout” 2018 campaign, Junis has become quite hittable and susceptible to the long ball, as he is posting an 11.1 H/9 rate (and increase from his 9.9 rate a year ago) and a HR/FB rate of 23.1 percent, a near 7 percent increase from 2019 in that category.
Hence, Royals fans are probably wondering: what is Junis’ future in Kansas City in 2021? Furthermore, where does he fit in, especially after a season where he has not only been hit by bad luck, but has failed to progress for a second straight year?
Next Spring Training, Junis certainly will have a hard time keeping up in the rotation with not just established starters such as Danny Duffy and Brad Keller, but also Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, who both made strides during their rookie campaigns. Additionally, Junis will likely face stiff competition from Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar, arguably higher upside pitching prospects who likely will be shooting to usurp a rotation spot from Junis this upcoming Spring.
With this being likely the situation, let’s take a look at Junis and how he fits into this Royals pitching staff in 2021. Furthermore, let’s examine if a “different” role for Junis could benefit not just the Royals, but Junis himself, who’s looking to recapture the magic and effectiveness from his solid 2018 campaign.
The 2020 profile of Junis is concerning, especially when Royals fans take a look at certain metrics on Fangraphs. His strikeout rate is down, as it has gone from 21.3 percent in 2019 to 15 percent in 2020. Furthermore, his FIP is also up at 6.54, which makes sense considering his high HR/FB rate, as well as high hits per nine innings allowed (H/9) rate, as mentioned above. Thus, at the surface level, one might think that the Royals would be better off parting ways with Junis, with the thought that he’s an unnecessary square peg in the round hole that is the Royals pitching staff.
While Junis has been far from stellar, there are a couple of promising signs that show that 2020 hasn’t been completely terrible. First off, Junis has increased his groundball rate (from 42.4 percent to 45.8 percent) while decreasing the exit velocity on batted balls as well (from 90.1 MPH to 88.9 MPH). What does this mean? Well, while Junis is still having home run issues (which has always hurt him over his career), it does mean that when he’s not giving up dingers, he’s generating preferable contact. Junis has always been one of the better groundball-inducing pitchers of the rotation since 2018 (though not as good as Brad Keller), so the fact that he is inducing more groundballs this year is an encouraging sign, even if it hasn’t made that much impact on his general pitching metrics.
Another key development for Junis has been the change in his pitching rotation, as he has abandoned his traditional, step-back windup for a side-step one. Here is video of his old windup:
And here is a photo of that adjustment he made this year, which is more akin to what Singer does with his windup (I could not embed a video of the windup from this year). Notice how he is starting out of the stretch and does a side step windup from there.
So what kind of impact has this new change had on his pitches? Well, he’s lost some velocity on his fastball (91.7 to 91 MPH) and sinker (91 to 90.5 MPH), according to Statcast data. He also has increased the usage of his slider as well, as he went from using it 29.7 percent of the time in 2019 to 43.3 percent of this time this season. However, despite the slight velocity dip, and increased reliance on his slider, it actually has improved his fastball and sinker’s effectiveness. After generating a whiff rate of 16.4 percent and a put away percentage of 11.7 percent in 2019, according to Statcast, he has increased those rates to 18.3 and 16.7, respectively.
As for his sinker, he was posting a whiff rate of 9.2 percent and a put away percentage of 11.3 last year. This year? Those rates have increased to 19.2 and 20 percent, respectively. Granted, his slider, his premium pitch a year ago, has lost some luster (26.7 put away percentage in 2019 to 15.5 percent this year). That being said, the improvement of his fastball and sinker could make him a more well-rounded pitcher, especially as he adjusts this off-season to this new windup, and new “slider-heavy” pitch repertoire.
That being said, Junis is still a pretty flawed starting pitcher. Even though he is posting a hard hit rate of only 33 percent, according to Statcast, he is still giving up more contact overall (80 percent) than a year ago (78.3). For the last couple of years, the big challenge for Junis has been trying to limit the long ball. However, as evidenced against the Indians in his last start, home runs continue to be a problem. For as pretty and effective as his slider can be, he leaves pitches up in the zone far too often, and good hitters just continue to make him pay, even though he has roughly 471.2 innings under his belt at the Major League level. For a team that is looking to become competitive again, that kind of profile just doesn’t bode well for the future of the rotation.
But what about the bullpen?
That could be more feasible, especially with Greg Holland most likely leaving Kansas City by season’s end, and with Tyler Zuber still a work-in-progress. Add in the lessened need for a left-handed reliever in the bullpen due to the three-batter minimum rule (which has made Gabe Speier, Richard Lovelady, and Randy Rosario expendable), and it seems more than likely that if Junis wants to have a future in Kansas City, it will have to come out of the bullpen as a reliever, not in the starting rotation.
However, the Royals have had some good luck with turning failed Major League starters into good relievers. Ian Kennedy went from a failed starter in 2018 to a decent closer in 2019 (though he did fall apart this year). Jesse Hahn has also gone through a similar rejuvenation, as he is currently posting a 1.04 ERA in 8.2 IP and 10 appearances this year. Junis is healthy, and he has a pitch that could be even more premium in limited doses, which would only happen with a move to the bullpen.
Lastly, Junis harkens the profile of another starter turned reliever in Kansas City who was mediocre at best in the rotation, but turned it around once he moved to the bullpen full time. This pitcher in 2013 posted an 8-11 record in 135.1 IP with a 5.32 ERA and 1.97 K/BB ratio in his final season as a starting pitcher. In fact, his 1.5 WAR in 2013 was the same WAR Junis posted in 2019.
Who is this pitcher? None other than Wade Davis.
Now, am I suggesting that Junis will be the next Wade Davis? No, not exactly, but he could also be a success story with a transition to relief work. The Royals have too much invested in the rotation with Lynch, Kowar, and Lacy, and wasting a rotation spot on Junis would not only hurt hurt the Royals on the field, but also hinder the future of the Royals as well, especially since so much is riding on the Royals promising crops of starting arms.
However, in 2014, Moore made the decision to move Davis to the pen to make way for young-phenom Yordano Ventura and the move paid off. Now, Moore can make the same decision: push Junis to the bullpen to make way for Lynch, Kowar, or even Lacy (though the latter may be a longshot, unless he absolutely kills it in Spring Training).
I am curious to see if Moore can replicate that 2014 success again, only this time with Junis, the former 29th round pick who’ll be entering his first year of arbitration this Winter. Junis may still may want to be a starting pitcher, and that could affect not only his contract negotiations, but possibly his status on the roster in 2021 as well.
But honestly, it is worth it for the Royals and Junis to take a shot on this experiment for at least 2021.
Because Junis and the Royals have little to lose at this point…
And if it works out, it will definitely be a win-win for both Junis and the Royals, not just in 2021, but beyond as well.
After all, look at how Wade Davis turned out as a Royals reliever.