Jakob Junis Might Be On His Last Chance

The one-time key to the rotation is now behind a lot of young pitchers.

Jakob Junis was masterful on a spring day in 2018. I don’t mean some May game against the Yankees. He was masterful in spring training. After losing Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain to free agency and before they signed Mike Moustakas to a one-year deal, the Royals were looking for a new identity and, one day in Surprise, Junis was absolutely dealing. I don’t remember anything else about the game, but I remember thinking this guy was the real deal. After seeing a lot of 90 and 91 in 2017 in his rookie season, he was hitting 93 and 94 on the Surprise gun (which meant 92 and 93 really) and that slider was biting.

I was worried at the time that he wouldn’t be on the Opening Day roster because, well, Royals. But he was and he had himself a really nice season that was basically his rookie season but longer. He struck guys out, limited walks and while he gave up too many home runs, he looked like a guy who could be part of the solution moving forward, even in a 104-loss season. But he struggled in 2019 and then struggled even more in 2020. He came into 2021 spring as a reliever, but pitched so well he was the first guy they used when they needed a fifth starter.

And he was okay. The results were great with three of his four starts ending with him allowing two runs or fewer. He gave up just one home run. But if you were watching, you felt like the bottom was going to fall out at just about any time. The Royals were winning and wanted to get one of their top pitching prospects, Daniel Lynch, to the rotation, so Junis was moved back to the bullpen, which was his original spot all along.

We all know what happened. Lynch struggled. Junis struggled. In his first game in relief, against the Indians he faced last night, Junis gave up five runs in 1.2 innings with two home runs. He gave up seven runs in 9.2 innings after that with three more home runs allowed and he was sent to the minors to stretch back out.

The struggle continued, culminating in him allowing eight runs on nine hits in 2.2 innings to the St. Paul Saints. He allowed three home runs. After the game, he went on the minor league IL and wasn’t heard from again until earlier this month when he made three starts in Arizona. He came back to Omaha and made two starts that were very impressive, allowing no runs on three hits in 7.1 innings. When Brad Keller went on the IL with a shoulder issue, there was an opening and the Royals decided to call Junis up. And now we’re back to last night.

I thought Junis was better than the overall line. Yes, he gave up three runs on four hits in 4.2 innings and he did give up a home run, but it was an inside-the-parker to Amed Rosario. I appreciate Mike Matheny leaving him in for the fifth inning, but after throwing just 57 pitches his last time out in Omaha, I think he was probably a little worn down and probably should have been removed after four, but I totally understand the idea behind it.

It’s a little tough to look at individual pitches for Junis because I think he’s broken Baseball Savant. His cutter looks like his slider. His slider can look like a curve. I think he’s added a second slider that’s a little loopier. It’s probably a slurve. Baseball Savant picked that up as a curve once. But maybe it is a curve? I don’t know. I’m going to include that curve as a slider because it seems like it has to be.

So anyway, I thought his slider was as good as ever last night. That’s his moneymaker pitch. He threw 33 of them, got 13 swings and six whiffs. He had seven called strikes. The average exit velocity on it was 78.5 MPH. It was really moving for him. This one to Austin Hedges was filthy.

Or how about this one to Bradley Zimmer?

It was working for him all night, really until the fifth when he left a couple up. They were just balls so they didn’t hurt him, but you could really see that he was getting a bit tired after not throwing that many pitches in a long, long time. He made a couple mistakes with it in the zone as you can see below, but he was moving it so well that it didn’t matter.

During spring, the big story was the cutter that he had added. In his first couple bullpen appearances before he started in April, that cutter was nasty. As a starter, it seemed to lose a little of its bite, but I thought it also looked really good last night. Here’s where he threw them, which I thought was a lot of nice spots on the 14 he threw (one may have actually been a slider, but I don’t know, so I’m going with the official classification), other than the two in the middle.

It didn’t seem to bite as much as I remember from his first couple outings, but it was an effective pitch. This one really got in on Bobby Bradley’s hands.

It was well thrown for the most part and got some pretty weak contact with just an opposite field single coming off of it.

That was kind of the story for Junis. He gave up one ball hit over 100 MPH and that was a groundout to Nicky Lopez. Even the Rosario home run was hit at just 96 MPH. Sure, that’s hard-hit, but it’s not a rocket or anything. It was a ball that just sort of kept carrying that Edward Olivares badly misplayed.

But here’s the problem for Junis. He turns 29 two weeks from tomorrow. He’s in his first year of arbitration this year and is making $1.7 million. I can’t imagine he’s in line for much of a raise and he has options left, so he’s got a chance to stick around on a pretty cheap deal next season in his second go-round in arbitration. But he’s been pretty clearly passed by Daniel Lynch, Carlos Hernandez, Brady Singer, Brad Keller and maybe Jackson Kowar (we’ll see about that tonight and hopefully for the next few weeks before the season ends). Others like Alec Marsh, Jon Heasley, Austin Cox and maybe even some surprises could pass him quickly.

Keller’s injury and the desire to keep innings off young starters is going to give Junis an opportunity to prove that he deserves his roster spot over the next month. If he pitches like he did last night consistently, he’ll probably earn that, but with the talent starting to rise through the system, 40-man roster spots are a much more valuable commodity than they have been in the past, so he’s going to need to show that he can be a valuable piece of that roster rather than just filler.

I still wish he’d throw harder. I know there’s more velocity in there. But if he can use his cutter and slider as effectively as he did last night, he has a chance to put himself in the conversation as someone the Royals find valuable next season and beyond. If not, we may be seeing the last of Junis in a Royals uniform. This is his opportunity to seize.