Junis feeling good with 'legit' new pitch
MESA, Ariz. -- This offseason, Jakob Junis was ready to take the advice that Royals pitching coach Cal Eldred had long suggested.
It was time to develop a cutter.
The 28-year-old pitcher made it a priority over the winter to work on the pitch that Eldred said he’d be a good candidate for based on his arm path and natural delivery. Junis worked with his brother, Noah, in Arizona over the offseason to develop the new pitch, which didn’t come easy when Junis first threw it. But through tinkering with the grip, he was able to find one that he felt comfortable with. He stuck with that and found consistency across his bullpen sessions, watched the velocity increase and felt his confidence growing.
And now that he’s been able to show the new offering in Spring Training?
“I wish I wouldn’t have waited this long to add it,” Junis said.
Junis made his spring debut in the Royals’ 3-2 loss to the Cubs at Sloan Park on Tuesday, pitching two scoreless innings with one hit, three strikeouts and no walks. He stayed in after a comebacker hit his calf on his first pitch, and he also avoided Jason Heyward’s flying bat toward his head a few batters after the comebacker.
Junis struck out Kris Bryant swinging, flashing the cutter on the first pitch of the at-bat to make Bryant check-swing. Then Junis threw a diving slider that Bryant chased for the second out. Junis ended his outing with a 94 mph fastball to strike out Rafael Ortega.
The results of the cutter were strong, building on Junis’ live batting practices early in camp where he threw to most of the Royals’ regulars and saw success, too.
The pitch, Royals manager Mike Matheny said, is “legit.”
“You’re looking at a ball that looks like a four-seam fastball -- I think he hit one at 91 today,” Matheny said. “I think it’s going to be something extremely important for Jake instead of just being fastball-slider. To be able to use the changeup but to really speed them up with that cutter.
“Lefties don’t like that cutter, when it’s well placed on the belt near the hands. It does speed up their hands and their bat to make them more conscious of getting the head out, which makes them more susceptible to down and away and slow. It’s a good pitch for those who can make it happen naturally.”
Junis has gone through four years in the Majors with a dominating slider to go along with his fastball. And up to this point, that’s all he needed. He threw the slider 46.2 percent of the time last season, compared to throwing his fastball 34.8 percent of the time. In 2019, it was similar: His fastball was thrown 33.7 percent of the time, while his slider was clocked at 29.7 percent.
But in 2021, he knew he needed another weapon if he wanted to stick with the Royals, much less stay as a starter. Junis tested positive for COVID-19 to begin last season and struggled when he was cleared, especially with his slider, which wasn’t moving like he was used to. The season-long struggle continued: On Aug. 15, his back tightened warming up for a game and he was scratched from his start. On Sept. 2, he was hit by a comebacker and removed from the game. Junis ended 2020 with a 6.39 ERA in six starts and two bullpen appearances across 25 1/3 innings, striking out 19 and walking six.
He went into this offseason with the cutter as a top priority and was able to tinker with his changeup, too. He doesn’t know yet what his role will be this year; the Royals are going to see where he fits based on what the club needs come Opening Day. He could slot into the rotation. He could become a high-leverage reliever.
“I think it’s going to be important for our team position player-wise and pitcher-wise for everybody to have versatility,” Matheny said. “And Jake kind of personifies that, where he could be a guy that pitches the first inning of the game with his kind of stuff. He could pitch the last one. I don’t know if you can get more versatile than that. We’ll just kind of see and be open-minded to -- with some of the changes that he’s made -- how might it make him a different pitcher than we saw a year ago and what will the need of the team be.”
For now, Junis is being stretched out to carry multiple innings. And while he’s ready to do whatever the Royals need, he wants to be a starter, especially with the cutter in his arsenal.
“That’s what I want to do,” Junis said. “That’s where I feel comfortable. And I think adding the cutter is just going to give me more weapons to stay at starter, or at least get another shot at it. I like where I’m at right now, I feel good, I feel like my stuff’s pretty good, and I’m excited to go three innings next outing.”