Jakob Junis spent the first 11 seasons of his professional career in the Kansas City Royals organization. He made his major-league debut in a Royals uniform. He enjoyed a bevy of career firsts and lifelong dreams with the club.
But when last season ended, he had little doubt that he needed to turn the page and begin a new chapter of his career with a change of scenery.
The Royals designated Junis, who was arbitration eligible, for assignment off of the 40-man roster in November. Rather than go to the minor leagues, he became a free agent.
After the lockout ended in March, Junis signed a free-agent deal with the San Francisco Giants. He’s currently on the injured list because of a hamstring injury.
In the Giants clubhouse prior to Tuesday’s game at Oracle Park, Junis was asked if he considered a return to the Royals this offseason.
“No, I was definitely ready to (leave),” Junis said. “I’d been there for 10, 12 years, whatever it was. I was ready to get out, experience something different and go somewhere new.
“That was definitely a good part of my career, the only part of my career up until this point. I was definitely happy for all the opportunities they gave me, but I was definitely ready to move on, experience something different, go somewhere else.”
Junis, 29, has had a great start this season with the Giants. Through his first nine appearances (seven starts), he has posted a 2.63 ERA with a 0.96 WHIP, a .205 opponent’s batting average, 40 strikeouts and 10 walks in 48 innings. He has a 4-1 record.
A 29th-round draft pick out of Rock Falls High School in Illinois in 2011, Junis made his major-league debut in 2017.
He held or shared the Royals’ team lead in wins in 2018 and 2019. He got a late start to the shortened 2020 season because he contracted COVID-19 and began the regular season on the IL. He appeared in just eight games (six starts) that season.
Despite a disrupted 2020 season, he went into 2021 having pitched more innings (377 2/3) and making more starts (67) than any other Royals pitcher since the start of 2018.
But the way things unfolded last season made it even more clear that his time with the Royals had run its course.
“To say things ended well over there would be a lie,” Junis said. “I think things didn’t end great, and that happens. That’s part of it, part of the business of baseball. The end of the road has to be at some point. I think last year was definitely it.
“As you see, they non-tendered me. They let me go, and I moved on and they moved on. There was no reason for me to think about re-signing over there when I had multiple other teams trying to sign me elsewhere.
Junis made his comments matter-of-factually, and he expressed no animosity towards the Royals.
While he’s rehabbing his hamstring injury, he’s not taking part in pregame workouts and said he’d likely not get the chance to visit with his former club during their visit this week. But he said he had communicated with members of the Royals via text message.
Last season, Junis began his final year with the Royals working out of the bullpen. But he then made four starts from April 7-27 and went 1-1 with a 3.80 ERA with a .231 opponent’s batting average, 24 strikeouts, seven walks and one home run allowed during that four-game stretch.
Despite the start he had, the Royals moved him back to the bullpen when they initially promoted top pitching prospect Daniel Lynch to the majors and inserted him into Junis’ rotation spot.
Junis struggled upon going back to the bullpen (11 earned runs in 11 1/3 innings, .380 batting average against). The Royals optioned him to Triple-A in June. He went on the injured list in the minors from July 9 through Aug. 24. He returned and pitched in both the minors and the majors late last season, but he finished the season on the IL with a shoulder injury.
“Like I said, I’m thankful for the opportunities they gave me and all the years I spent over there, but it was definitely time for me to move on and leave that in the rear-view and move on with my career,” Junis said.
Another needed change with the Giants
Junis described the deal with the Giants as something that “came about very late” this offseason. He said he spoke with a few teams prior to the MLB lockout, but that stopped when MLB transactions froze. He heard from teams again when the lockout ended and it quickly came down to the Giants and one other club.
The Giants had the best offer, and Junis loved the idea of being on the West Coast, having spring training in Arizona and having so many games in that region of the country because of the division schedule.
Junis makes his offseason home in Scottsdale, so the Giants spring training facility is about a 10-minute drive. During the season, he can get home fairly quickly to spend an off day with his wife and their three children.
On the field, the Giants had a clear vision for Junis and his arsenal.
“When I signed over here, they basically said we have a plan for you,” Junis said. “We think the way you throw, your delivery, it’s going to be beneficial for you to throw two seams and obviously your slider is your slider.”
Junis said the Giants have shelved the cutter he added towards the end of his time with the Royals. But they added a pitch he couldn’t ever master previously in his career.
“They told me that they were going to develop a changeup with me, which I was skeptical of at first because I’ve always been searching for that pitch,” Junis said. “I’ve tried a million different grips and never really been able to land one.
“They said, ‘We’re going to develop one, we’re going to show you one. Then we’re going to get that fine-tuned.’ That didn’t happen right away either. That took into the season and up until maybe a month ago to get a feel for it and trust it.”
What has been different, so far, about this latest attempt by Junis to develop a changeup?
Well, part of it is that he didn’t get the type of results he’s seen this season, that includes the lack of consistent action with changeup in the past. Now, he feels like he has been able to repeat the pitch, get consistent action, throw it for strikes and get outs with it.
Another big part of the success has been that the Giants have shown him how to throw the changeup off of his natural pitching motion and release. He now can get the movement on the ball he wants without having to turn his hand over — or pronate — as is common with a lot of changeups.
The Giants introduced him to his concept of seam effects. As Junis explained, the grips he uses now on the changeup and two-seamer create a rotation of the ball which causes the air to create the desired movement.
Junis described his first outing against the Washington Nationals as a “turning point” for his changeup usage because he threw it so frequently and his catcher in that game, Joey Bart, called it so often in key spots against left-handed hitters such as star Juan soto
“It’s been fun to have that in my back pocket to accompany my slider and my two-seamer,” Junis said.
Junis has only faced one opponent twice this season after coming over to the National League for the first time. His success over time will be a key indicator in how effective the changes he has made have been. But he’s enjoying the success and his new surroundings at this stage.