On March 14, four days after the MLB lockout ended, the Giants announced the signing of two pitchers.
One was the top starter on the market, Carlos Rodón. The other, who signed on a one-year, $1.74 million deal, was Jakob Junis.
Given the juxtaposition, it was easy for Junis to fly under the radar in the eyes of fans. The righty had a 5.36 ERA in his previous three seasons with Kansas City. The Giants’ rotation was already full on paper, with Rodón joining Logan Webb, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood and Alex Cobb.
But two months later, Junis has stepped up to buoy a rotation in need. After Wednesday’s six-inning, two-run outing against the contending Mets, Junis has a 2.76 ERA in six starts. With Anthony DeSclafani (ankle) shelved on the 60-day injured list, Junis has gone at least five innings in every game — something no other Giants starter can claim this year.
“It’s who I’ve tried to be my whole career,” Junis said. “I want to be the guy that can take the ball every five days, go deep into games, take the burden off the bullpen. I pride myself on eating innings and taking the ball every five days. It’s been a breath of fresh air coming over here to San Francisco and getting the opportunity to go do that.”
The production hasn’t come completely out of nowhere. Both Junis and the Giants envisioned him contributing when he joined the organization in March.
“I always felt like I signed here for a reason,” Junis said.
But nobody could have anticipated exactly this kind of consistent success.
“I don’t know that we would expect (preseason) sort of a number two, three starter style of performance — or maybe even better from what we’ve gotten from him so far,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said. “But if he does nothing else, he’s already helped us win several baseball games.”
Junis fits the mold of what the Giants look for in a pitcher: someone who fills up the zone and leans into his strengths. He’s struck out 25 batters while walking just four in his six starts. He throws his best pitch, his slider, almost half the time.
On Wednesday, 43 of Junis’ 86 pitches were sliders. He generated seven whiffs and struck out four with the hook while allowing one hit on it.
For the season, Junis’ slider is holding opposing hitters to a .203 batting average. It has a whiff rate of 27.8% and ranks as one of the best sliders in the game, per Baseball Savant’s run value metric.
“The slider’s gross, man,” catcher Joey Bart told KNBR Wednesday. “I don’t think there’s anything to hiding that. The other teams know it. And he still continues to have success with it, which is awesome.”
That one pitch alone makes Junis an effective pitcher. But the rest of his arsenal suggests there could be an adjustment coming. Opponents are hitting .385 on his sinker; perhaps they’ll game plan more aggressively to lay off the bending stuff and attack more fastballs.
Junis has been working on his changeup; a third pitch could counteract some of those tendencies by keeping hitters off-balance. Against the Mets, the changeup became his second-most used pitch, a significant deviation from his season tendencies.
Deploying the change up early and often was the game plan all along, Kapler said. Junis executed it; 30% of his pitches were changeups against New York compared to his average of 11.3%.
Francisco Lindor, whom Junis admitted has gotten the better of him throughout their careers, took a changeup deep for a home run. Otherwise, New York didn’t do damage on the offering.
Even before Wednesday — arguably Junis’ most impressive start given the competition — Junis had posted a 151 ERA+, a stat that measures a pitcher’s performance adjusted to ballpark factors. A 100 ERA+ is average; Webb is at 114 and Rodón at 118.
Junis isn’t the Giants’ best starter, as that number might suggest. The Giants don’t expect him to be, and they don’t need him to be. But his sustained production has proven Junis can be a reliable member of the rotation going forward, Kapler said. The signing is already well worth it.
“He’s definitely been a sweet add,” Bart said. “He’s taken advantage of a lot of opportunities. He’s earned it. He’s earned everything.”