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Does Jake Junis have another level that we haven’t seen yet?

Junis’ changeup has a chance to take him to the next level, if he’ll throw it more.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Junis’ slider is absolutely filthy. I mean just look at this thing:

I’m assuming that just about every hardcore Royals fan knows about Junis’ slider to this point, and now, even hardcore national baseball people are paying attention. Junis has had a very good start to his sophomore season. He's pitching to the tune of a 3.53 ERA, 7.94 K/9, and merely 1.94 BB/9 in 51 IP in 2018. These numbers are good. Not great (save for that BB/9), but they’re good. They’re absolutely serviceable for a guy that most publications didn’t even see coming in their Royals prospects lists. Yet, I believe that Jake Junis holds the key to be even better, and he doesn’t even have to go looking for it.

The changeup can be a fickle pitch. It’s incredibly difficult to make a living throwing fastballs and changeups. It can certainly be done (ask Cole Hamels and James Shields), but it’s difficult. Most of the time, pitchers are better off banking on a curveball or a slider to be their best secondary pitch if they want to have long, successful MLB careers. The problem with this, however, is that the changeup is then often times over looked as a complimentary third pitch in an effort to make fastballs and breaking balls more effective.

A couple of weeks into the Royals season, my cowriter Patrick Brennan wrote this article about the Royals replacing changeups with more fastballs. At the time, the Royals were throwing 6.7% less changeups than they did in 2017. Here is a graph representing Jake Junis’ changeup use since his debut in 2017:

Do you notice the same trend that I’m noticing? Now look at a graph representing the swing and miss percentage that Junis is getting on his changeup since his debut:

Baseball is funny. It should be noted, that the two graphs correlate a little bit. Sometimes, the less you throw a pitch, the more surprised the hitter will be that you threw it. Makes sense, right? But in the case of Junis’ changeup, I think the pitch is effective on it’s own, and can produce similar whiff rates even if he started throwing the pitch more often.

Jakob Junis’ changeup is a solid major league offering. It’s a good pitch that gets good movement and is a decent change of speed from his fastball. He’s getting more whiffs on his changeup than even his slider. Throwing changeups 20% of the time all of a sudden wouldn’t make a ton of sense for Junis, given that he’s dominantly a fastball/sinker/slider guy, but there is a specific time that I'd like to see him throw quite a few more changeups.

Right-handed hitters this year are hitting a measly .190 against Junis. That will play. Left-handed hitters on the other hand are hitting .250 against Junis. That is less than stellar. That average rises to .275 with three home runs for LHH against Junis’ fastball. Junis’ slider has been incredibly effective against LHH, holding them to the tune of a .138 BAA, but the fastball/sinker combo just hasn’t been as effective.

Enter Junis’ changeup. On the surface, it may not seem like a great idea. LHH opponents are hitting .444 against Junis’ changeup on the season after all. I believe though that this may be due to some bad luck, and isn’t completely from a lack of execution on Junis’ part. Look at where he’s thrown his changeups to LHH this year:

That’s a pretty good map. Most of those changeups have wound up low and away from LHH, a formula that should spell success for Junis. Could it be a little better? For sure, but that’s pretty good and I expect that opponents wouldn’t hit .444 against that pitch for very long. Especially if Junis learns to control the pitch even better as he begins to throw it more frequently.

One thing that’s hard to explain to pitchers, much less the casual baseball fan, is the effectiveness of what’s called a “show pitch”. A “show pitch” is a pitch that some pitchers keep in their repertoire even though they have no intentions of throwing it in high leverage situations. I’ll break down two examples for you to try to make this a little more clear:

Example 1: Michael Brantley (LHH) is up to bat against Junis in the 1st inning with two outs and no runners on base. Extremely low leverage situation. Junis throws him a fastball followed by a pair of changeups and then goes back to his fastball or slider to get Brantley out. Inning over.

Example 2: Brantley comes back to the plate against Junis in the 7th inning of the game, the score is now 2-2, there are runners on first and third with 2 outs. High leverage situation. Junis is able to get ahead of Brantley in the count 0-1 with a fastball. What pitch do you think Brantley is thinking about right now? Remember the first inning? Junis “showed” Brantley his changeup, knowing that it wasn’t his best pitch, and now he can attack Brantley with his sinker/slider combo with confidence because Brantley is thinking about a changeup.

That’s a show pitch. Showing the hitter something, baiting him into think about it, in an effort to make your best pitches (fastball/sinker/slider for Junis) even more effective because the hitter has a third pitch in mind. Junis’ changeup doesn’t have to be an all-world offering. I’m not asking Junis to throw his changeup 25% of the time or anything crazy (currently throwing it 10.3% of the time to LHH). Just ramp that number up to 17-18%, bring the 4-seam usage against LHH down to 24-25% from it’s current 31.7% usage, and allow the changeup to make your 4-seam fastball even more effective. If Junis can find a way to limit LHH to a .210-.220 BAA instead of his current .250 pace, we may see the growth of Kansas City’s next homegrown ace this season at The K.