This winter’s free agent market features a number of quite talented starting pitchers, including a few who would immediately step in as the presumptive ace of the Tigers. Naturally, they are drawing eyes from Detroit’s fans, as this team needs an anchor for the rotation. However, the Tigers also need to pick up some pitching depth as well, as that element was crucial to their relative success in 2021.
High spending and strong farm system work aren’t the only link between the best teams in baseball. The ability to find undervalued players and tune them up into a better version of themselves is key. It’s a particularly crucial part of the Dodgers’ recipe for sustained success, which is notable for Detroit fans because the Tigers are to some degree modeling themselves after Los Angeles based on their coaching hires.
Jakob Junis is an intriguing candidate for the Tigers in that regard. Having pitched for the Royals throughout his career, he elected free agency on Friday after refusing an assignment to Triple-A. Junis may be a familiar name, not only because he was a division rival, but also because he’s consistently been a thorn in the Tigers’ side. In 12 starts against Detroit, he owns an 8-2 record.
Zooming out to the whole scope of his career, Junis hasn’t exactly been a dominant force in the league. Despite very good strikeout-to-walk ratios, he’s remained too vulnerable to home runs to stick as an effective starting pitcher.
He’s spent most of his playing time as a backend starter, but transitioned to working the bulk of the 2021 season out of the bullpen. Surface level stats aren’t too kind to him — he carried a 2-4 record and a 5.26 ERA out of the season. Being ‘penned didn’t exactly unlock new velocity, either. His 91.1 mile per hour average is pretty much in line with career performance. However, Junis did produce all-time high strikeout marks working in shorter bursts out of the bullpen.
The Royals’ attempt to outright him to Triple-A despite his ability to refuse paints a clear picture of a player who the organization has lost faith in as he reached arbitration eligibility this offseason. The context provides little to entice a new team. However, there is reason to believe he would benefit from a partnership with the Tigers.
Chief among the problems that plague Junis is an ineffective fastball. That was pointed out by our friends over at Royals Review; among qualified starters during the 2019 season, none had a worst fastball than Junis. It wasn’t quite as dismal in 2020, but the pitch didn’t suddenly become effective either. The problem isn’t all that hard to diagnose — his low velocity and inability to command the pitch high in the zone means he doesn’t have the ability to really challenge hitters with the fastball.
What he does have in his pocket is the kind of movement profile on his fastball that seems to appeal to the current Tigers coaching staff. Thanks to the newly-unveiled seam-shifted wake data available on Baseball Savant, we can get new insight into how pitches function by comparing expected movement based on raw spin data with observed movement of pitches thrown. You can find much a more detailed description of how seam-shifted wake data functions in an article written by our own Brandon Day. Though the data functions more to paint a picture rather than parse good and bad, it can be instructive toward what kind of pitchers coach Chris Fetter is comfortable working with. Consider three pitchers who played for the Tigers last season.
Spencer Turnbull, who improved vastly before his season ending injury, features a four-seam fastball and sinker with comparable expected movement based on spin. The observed moment, however, diverges strongly from what the spin profile would predict. The result is increased deception as the two pitches present to the batter quite similarly but move differently. The same can be said of Wily Peralta, who outperformed any expectations in 2021. Even Jose Urena, whose results fell short of the already low bar, was someone the Tigers were willing to gamble on. Perhaps unshockingly, he also has major seam-shifted movement on his fastballs.
Junis’ fastball and sinker fall into the same category as those three hurlers. The pair of offerings are similar from an expected movement standpoint and diverge in observed movement. Thus, with that data in mind, the Tigers may be willing to give him a shot. Paired with Fetter and his staff, it’s not completely unreasonable to think he can make the improvements needed to reestablish himself in the starting rotation.
Even without a breakout of any kind, the Tigers could still find utility in signing Junis. He is capable of pitching both in the rotation and as a bullpen arm. Despite the lack of power stuff, he managed to carve out a place at the back end of the Royals’ rotation for years. While his 2021 season was not a triumphant one, his strikeout rate blew his personal highs out out of the water and he continued to limit walks, which he has done effectively throughout his career.
The pitch that has enabled that success is his breaking ball. He’s always had a GIF-able slider that has a place among the best in the game. Additionally, he added a cutter in 2021 that provided some early success, although it became less effective as the season wore on. Of course, one terrifying pitch isn’t enough in the modern game, but it does provide matchup potential out of the bullpen against teams who struggle with breaking balls.
Expanding further on his potential role with the Tigers, it’s easy to see him taking on a Tyler Alexander-esque slate of responsibilities. That’s doubly so if Alexander winds up pitching in the rotation at some point. The Tigers have the luxury of AJ Hinch leading the charge on game days and can trust him to find clever ways to utilize his pitchers strengths and paper over their weaknesses.
Of course, Junis’ checkered track record can’t be ignored, but it’s not as if he’s going to command a substantial contract. The Tigers proved that they’re willing to cut bait with players (for instance, Nomar Mazara and Wilson Ramos) when it becomes clear that they can’t play the way the team needs. Without prideful stubbornness clouding good judgement, a small financial commitment is basically all they have to lose by giving him a shot.
On the other hand, if it goes right, they have a lot to gain. Junis was scheduled to be arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason, meaning he’s under control until the 2024 season. If Chris Fetter can find a way to help him deal with his vulnerability to home runs, Junis could make for a versatile depth starter who is also comfortable working out of the bullpen.
The Tigers need to address their starting rotation with at least one pitcher of more proven quality as a starter. But they will need depth and a reclamation project or two as well, and Junis fits the bill. The Tigers had good luck poaching a division rival for Akil Baddoo last offseason. Junis probably won’t be that impactful, but he might make for a pretty good depth piece for Fetter and company to tune up. The Tigers could certainly wait and see what’s available once a new CBA is in place and the season is close, but if they like Junis as an option they might as well go ahead and make a play for him now.