Jakob Junis Is The Latest Giants Pitching Revival

Heading into the 2021-22 offseason, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and general manager Scott Harris had the unenviable task of filling not just one or two, but four rotation spots. Each of Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood and Johnny Cueto were free agents. Of the team’s 2021 starters, only Logan Webb was under club control.

Granted, much of that was the front office’s own doing. A generally risk-averse unit, at least insofar as signing free agents to lucrative multi-year commitments, the Giants inked each of Gausman, Wood and DeSclafani to one-year contracts prior to the 2021 season. The continued with a generally risk-averse approach this past offseason, replenishing their rotation for a combined $125MM paid out to Carlos Rodon (two  years, $44MM), DeSclafani (three years, $36MM), Wood (two years, $25MM) and Alex Cobb (two years, $20MM).

Obviously, a $125MM investment is hardly a no-risk proposition, but spreading that number out across four pitchers without committing more than three years in length isn’t exactly working without a net for a team that averaged a $179MM payroll from 2015-19, topped out at $200.5MM in 2018, and has averaged a $152.5MM payroll over the past two seasons.

The quintet of Webb, Rodon, DeSclafani, Wood and Cobb had plenty of potential to be a strong group. It also had plenty of potential to be an injury-plagued unit that created ample headaches for the front office. Each of Rodon, DeSclafani, Wood and Cobb came with lengthy injury histories. Depth beyond that group was needed, and the Giants lacked it in the upper minors.

What followed was a series of sensible additions. Matthew Boyd inked a one-year deal worth $5.2MM, as the Giants hoped the longtime Tigers southpaw would be back from flexor surgery by mid-June. Former Royals righty Jakob Junis put pen to paper on a one-year, $1.75MM contract after being non-tendered by Kansas City. Carlos Martinez, a former All-Star with the Cardinals, signed a minor league contract.

Of all the names in that group, Junis was likely the most anonymous. A 29-year-old righty and former 29th-round pick, he looked the part of a player-development success story for the Royals during his first two seasons before flaming out in his final three years with Kansas City. From 2017-18, Junis gave the Royals 275 1/3 innings of 4.35 ERA ball with a strikeout rate just below the league average, a strong walk rate and slightly below-average ground-ball tendencies. It wasn’t a star-caliber profile by any means, but ask any scout in the world and they’d be thrilled at the notion of unearthing a viable fourth or fifth starter in the 29th round of the draft.

The 2019-21 seasons, however, didn’t pan out as either Junis or the Royals hoped. Although he made what’s still a career-high 31 starts in 2019, his ERA spiked to 5.24 as his walk rate ticked upward and he began to allow increasing amounts of hard contact. Things got even worse in 2020, and by June of 2021, Junis found himself optioned to Triple-A for the first time since 2017. Between that and the 5.36 ERA Junis posted from 2019-21, it wasn’t a surprise that the Royals opted not to tender him a contract, instead setting him out into the free-agent market.

Junis’ one-year deal with the Giants looked like a sensible depth pickup of an experienced arm with one minor league option year remaining, but it’s proven to be far more than that. In 17 games for San Francisco, 14 of them starts, Junis carries a 4.04 ERA with a 20.9% strikeout rate and a superb 4.7% walk rate. Fielding-independent metrics like FIP (3.83), SIERA (3.72) and xERA (3.85) all feel he’s been a fair bit better than that. For much of the year, he’s sported an ERA in the mid- or low-3.00s, though a recent pair of six-run clunkers have inflated his ERA a bit.

Even with his recent scuffles, though, Junis has been far more than a simple stopgap in the rotation. He’s only averaging about five innings per start — more or less in line with the league average at this point — and has held opponents to three or fewer runs in 13 of his appearances on the season.

The Giants have altered Junis’ pitch selection and done so to good effect; he’s throwing his slider a career-high 51.9% of the time and has yielded only a .210/.255/.359 in the 192 plate appearances that have ended with that pitch. He’s also effectively scrapped his four-seamer and his cutter in favor of a sinker he’s throwing at a 30.6% clip, and while the pitch has still been hit hard, opponents are doing far less damage against the pitch than either of the previous two fastball iterations that Junis was using at a far higher clip.

Junis will probably end up giving the Giants anywhere from a win to two wins above replacement this year — he’s at 1.6 bWAR and 0.9 fWAR at the moment — which is a solid return on their minimal investment in and of itself. But the Giants will also retain Junis’ rights into the 2023 season, as he’s still arbitration-eligible and will finish out the year with five-plus years of service. He’ll be due a raise on this year’s salary, but jumping into the $3MM range for a serviceable fourth starter is nonetheless a bargain.

The Giants already have four starters under contract in 2023 — Webb, Wood, Cobb and DeSclafani — but could very well lose Carlos Rodon to free agency if he turns down his player option (which is a lock, so long as he remains healthy). They’re not going to simply replace Rodon with Junis and call it a day, so the likelihood is that they’ll add an impact starter and enter 2023 with Junis as the sixth or perhaps even seventh starter. That’d land him in the bullpen at the start of the season, likely in a long relief role, but given the injury histories of DeSclafani, Wood and Cobb, there ought to be innings available to him next year.

The Junis pickup obviously isn’t a masterstroke that’s going to alter the course of the franchise for years to come, but he’s quietly been quite valuable for a Giants club that has had its share of pitching injuries — and he’ll continue paying dividends on their investment into the 2023 season. Not a ton has gone right for the Giants this year, but their ability to rehab and, in some cases, reinvent pitchers remains quite strong.

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