Jakob Junis’ resurgence and his impact on the Royals rotation

Jakob Junis continues to be one of the more fascinating stories on the Royals pitching staff. A 29th-round draft pick in 2011, Junis has made 93 career appearances (85 starts) and has pitched 488 total innings since debuting with the Royals in 2017. In all honesty, most 29th round picks tend to be organizational depth, if that, over their professional career. And yet, Junis will most likely surpass 500 career innings with the Royals by the end of 2021, and the Royals will still have two more years of club control over him after this season as well.

However, going into 2021, the future looked murky for Junis, especially after a rough 2020 season in which he posted career worsts in ERA (6.39), FIP (6.23), and WAR (-0.2), according to Fangraphs. Junis did battle COVID-19 early in the season, and he also struggled with other nagging injury issues throughout the year. That being said, his K/9 dropped from 8.42 in 2019 to 6.75 in 2021, and his HR/FB rate also increased from an already high 16.7 percent to 25 percent in 2020. Thus, with the addition of Mike Minor this off-season, and the solid rookie debuts of Brady Singer and Kris Bubic in 2020, it seemed like Junis’ future in Kansas City would be destined to the bullpen in 2021.

But of course, as baseball tends to do, things have changed dramatically for both the Royals and Junis since Spring Training began in February.

In a non-surprising move before the start of the season, the Royals optioned Kris Bubic to Triple-A Omaha to work on some things after a non-inspiring Cactus League performance and Spring camp. The move didn’t come as a shock since the Royals wouldn’t need a 5th starter for the first couple of weeks due to multiple off-days, and Bubic didn’t look right in Spring Training either. That being said, Junis was thrust into an emergency starter role after some early issues with Brad Keller to begin the year.

Thankfully, for the Royals, Junis has thrived in the role, as he is posting a 1.50 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in two starts and 12 total innings so far. Furthermore, he is coming off a stellar start on Thursday against a hot-hitting Toronto Blue Jays team, as he limited the Jays to only five hits and two runs in five innings of work.

And thus, what initially began as a short-term measure to fill out the rotation, Junis in the fifth spot in the rotation could open up some interesting possibilities for the Royals starting pitching staff in 2021.

Especially with how Junis’ has revitalized his approach and pitch arsenal this season.

In: Cutter; Out: Slider; Result: Success (so far)

In 2019, Junis’ pitch tracking profile proved to be intriguing, especially when looking at it through the lens of runs value, via Baseball Savant. According to Savant, Junis’ slider was maybe one of the best pitches on a run value end, as he earned a -14 run value on his slider in 2019, which was the 11th best mark on the pitch in baseball that season, according to Savant. Junis also generated a 44.4 percent strikeout rate on the pitch in 2019, as well as a CSW of 34.1 percent, which further showed that Junis had at least one pitch that could generate whiffs and outs on a consistent basis.

However, the rest of his pitch track profile looked rough. His run values on four-seam fastballs and sinkers were 11 and 13, respectively, both sub-par marks for a starting pitcher. Thus, if he wanted to continue to earn innings after 2019, he would need to find a way to either minimize the damage on those two pitches, or perhaps utilize his slider more in order to generate more consistent success on the mound.

In 2020, Junis tried to utilize his slider more, while emphasizing his fastball and sinker less, in order to see if that approach produced results.

It didn’t.

While he threw his slider 46.2 percent of the time, nearly 16.6 percent more than in 2019, it increased in run value to zero, and his strikeout rate also regressed on the pitch from 44.4 percent in 2019 to 27.7 percent in 2020. Additionally, the decrease in usage of his fastball and sinker didn’t help Junis any on the mound: both his sinker and fastballs produced K rates of 7.7 and 9.3 percent, respectively, pretty pedestrian marks.

Instead of perhaps leaning on his slider even more in 2020, Junis decided to modify his slider this off-season into a cutter, with the help of his brother Noah, as evidenced by an Athletic piece from Alec Lewis, this Spring. In the piece, Junis mentioned that his slider wasn’t working the same in 2020, and that he may have gotten too comfortable with the pitch last season:

To compound matters, Junis showed up to summer training camp at Kauffman Stadium and tested positive for COVID-19. Once he was cleared in August, he threw the slider and realized it wasn’t the same. The grip felt uncomfortable. The ball wasn’t moving like it used to. He thought throwing the ball slower would help, but that only made it worse. Sometimes the slider looked like used to. Usually, it did not.

“I know I took my slider for granted,” Junis later said. “I’ll definitely never make that mistake again.”

“Brothers in arms: What Royals pitcher Jakob Junis learned from his little bro” by Alec Lewis; The Athletic

This off-season, Junis worked out with his brother, using different Driveline Mechanics techniques and technology to help add some velocity back on his slider, and in the process, add a cutter to his arsenal as well (Lewis’ piece does a great job going into the detail of this progression). So far, Junis has not only utilized the cutter frequently this year, but he has pretty much eliminated the slider from his arsenal as a result.

Luckily, the substitution has produced some early results for Junis on the mound.

Junis has utilized his cutter 32.5 percent of the time this season, and he is producing a sensational whiff rate of 55.6 percent as well as an eye-popping strikeout rate of 66.7 percent on the pitch. On the flip side, he has only thrown his slider once this year, and it’s likely that with the cutter’s effectiveness, he won’t throw it much more.

Junis’ cutter definitely looks like a more amped up version of his slider. Here’s a look at Junis’ slider in 2020:

Junis has always had great control of his pitches throughout his career, and this pitch above demonstrates his ability to paint the corners of the zone. But while his control is good, it’s not an impressive pitch: it’s only 79 MPH and it’s pretty loopy for a slider as well. If that pitch is up or more in the middle of the zone, it is going to be hit hard, as was the case quite often for Junis in 2020.

Now, let’s take a look at his newly-added cutter:

Junis paints it in the same zone as the 2020 slider, but it’s a much better pitch. It’s faster at 85 MPH, and notice how it breaks sharp and late, which fools a good power hitter like Franmil Reyes. But even then, if Reyes laid off of it, it’s so close to the edge of the zone that the ump could have rung him up as well.

What is also interesting to see is that not only has Junis added a cutter, but he has become more confident again with his fastball in 2021. Take a look at his pitch tracking chart from 2017-2021:

As Royals fans can see, Junis has never had his fastball cross that 40 percent threshold in regard to usage from 2017 to 2020. However, this year, he is throwing it 62.7 percent of the time, a remarkable jump. While the pitch hasn’t really increased in velocity (it is averaging 91 MPH, which is .1 less than a year ago), he is more effective with it, as he is posting a K rate of 17.9 percent on the pitch, a nearly eight percent increase from 2020, and his wOBA on the pitch is .153, nearly 228 points lower than his wOBA on the fastball in 2020. Lastly, his run value on his fastball is -3 so far, which signifies the improvement he has made on the pitch since 2019.

Thus, while his cutter by itself is an effective pitch, it has also paired well with his fastball, which in turn has made his fastball even more effective (and more widely used) in 2021.

Can Junis pair with Bubic or Lynch in future starts?

The only issue with Junis’ new approach is that he essentially is becoming a two-pitch pitcher. It’s really difficult for a starting pitcher to be a two-pitch pitcher and find long-term success.

For example, Tyler Glasnow of the Rays was pretty much one last season, and he had to add a slider to his arsenal to give himself more value. However, Glasnow sports a fastball that averages 97.3 MPH, and if Glasnow struggled to find consistency as a two-pitch pitcher with an electric fastball, it will be difficult for Junis to find lasting success as a starter with a much more mediocre four-seamer.

Furthermore, the hard hit and exit velocity percentile rankings may be something to worry about in regard to Junis as he garners more innings as a starter, as evidenced in the chart below:

That being said, it is possible that the Royals could utilize Junis as an “opener” of sorts who could go anywhere from 2-4 innings in his starts, which was what the Royals expected from him initially when they threw him in the rotation. Thus, they could throw in a long reliever to combo with Junis, like Ervin Santana, who is currently on the active roster after being activated recently.

However, while Santana may be the solution for such a strategy in the short-term, Dayton Moore and Mike Matheny could explore utilizing Bubic or Daniel Lynch in that “pairing” with Junis, which would make sense and could give hitters fits with the righty-lefty switch after 2-4 innings. Santana is a bit too similar of a pitcher to Junis, and I’m not sure if he would find lasting success in that “pairing” role with Junis. That being said, I think Santana could be more successful in that kind of pairing with Danny Duffy, though Duffy has been dealing thus far this season, and may not need that “pairing” as of now.

Pairing Bubic or Lynch though with Junis would be a win-win for both Lynch or Bubic as well as Junis.

The Royals would be able to ease Bubic and Lynch into starting roles at the MLB level, which may be necessary after they had rough Springs. While the Royals most likely will give those two some time in Omaha in 2021, it is highly likely that they will be in Kansas City at some point in 2021, and hopefully, the Royals will still be competing by then. If that’s the case, the Royals will want to put one or both of those guys in a situation that would be both beneficial to their development as well as the team’s chances of competing. This solution could perhaps accomplish those two goals.

As for Junis, the move would also not “over-extend” him, which has been a problem for him over his career. There have been times when Junis looks incredible on the mound, but he does have those really bad stretches when the ball flies out of the park on him. His low exit velocity and hard hit rate percentiles hint that he has been a bit lucky so far when it comes to batted balls. That could change when the weather become hotter, and the heat will make fly balls carry even more. Thus, not “over-extending” him, and letting him succeed in more limited outings could be the best bet to ensure that Junis finds lasting success in 2021.

It will be interesting to see if the Royals would employ such a strategy. They have so much invested in their young arms like Bubic and Lynch, but they have seen Kyle Isbel’s struggles at the plate thus far, and even Brady Singer has had his share of issues to begin the year. While the Royals know there will be growing pains for their young starters, the Royals are also displaying so far that they can be competitive in the division at least somewhat, and I’m sure Moore and Matheny want to field the best rotation possible to help them win the most amount of games this year.

Does Matheny and Moore think a Junis-Bubic/Lynch pairing will help them do that? Or do they think Junis can handle the fifth spot himself? Or do they think Junis will go back into middle relief and either Bubic/Lynch or Jackson Kowar will step in the fifth role later in the year?

The Royals have possibilities in that fifth spot that could help the Royals generate more wins in 2021.

And that is thanks to Junis’ new approach and productivity on the mound so far this year.

Photo Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

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