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Jake Junis is the Royals’ best starter, which is why Cal Eldred needs to go next

It’s time to continue to clean house.

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San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Jakob Junis (34) pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning at Busch Stadium.
San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Jakob Junis (34) pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning at Busch Stadium.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Junis, drafted and developed internally by the Kansas City Royals, is the team’s best starter. He leads Royals starters in ERA (1.74, next closest being Daniel Lynch at 3.30) and FIP (3.35, next closest being Zack Greinke at 3.44) and K-BB% (17.5%, next closest again being Lynch at 12.5%).

Junis has taken a step forward because of a radical change in pitch usage. This year, he’s used his wipeout slider a whopping 56.3% of the time per Statcast, a career-high rate. That’s an increase in usage, but he was already throwing it a lot. The bigger change is that he essentially junked his four-seam fastball entirely in favor of his sinker. To top it off, he’s throwing his changeup at a career-high rate, too.

There’s just one problem with this. Jake Junis does not pitch for the Royals, who had the chance to keep him in the offseason for relative peanuts. Instead, they chose to release him. The San Francisco Giants are now reaping the benefits of Junis’ revitalization.

Yesterday, the Royals, who even after a flurry of runs in the Colorado air were the fifth-worst MLB team in offensive production per wRC+, canned hitting coach Terry Bradshaw. The Royals replaced him with Alec Zumwalt, the man who deserves the most credit for turning MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto back into top prospects. He will be joined by Mike Tosar, the man who deserves the most credit for turning Salvador Perez into an elite slugger and for helping unlock Jorge Soler’s potential.

This is an undeniably great move for one simple reason: Zumwalt and Tosar have results. The Royals could have relieved Bradshaw of his duties and kept him around, or simply fired Bradshaw and replaced him with a random placeholder. To their credit, the Royals made the best move available to them.

It is not the time to stop. If the Royals are serious about accountability, they must replace pitching coach Cal Eldred. Organizational pitching philosophy can’t be fixed by replacing one person—even if that person is the pitching coach for the big league squad—but the team is undeniably in need of a change at the big league level.

Now, Junis has only pitched 20 innings so far. He could regress towards his previous career averages. But the very fact that he has been very good and has pitched extremely differently from when he was a Royal points to a fact that the Giants succeeded in teaching him something the Royals could not.

Eldred simply seems to have lost his authority, which is the one thing that you can’t let happen as a coach. Per Royals General Manager JJ Picollo, the team had tried to get Junis to change his approach, but he didn’t buy in—evidence that Junis simply didn’t trust the team to best guide him. Additionally, I know for sure there is at least one additional player in the Royals organization that had clashes with Eldred as a pitching coach, and if I know this information, other people are aware of even more shenanigans. Indeed, Alec Lewis has reported unrest within the Royals clubhouse at The Athletic:

Even though the Royals have only played 16 percent of their season in 2022, the angst is not confined to the fan base. Multiple players have expressed frustration with the state of things...

...Notably, current Royals big leaguers are not ignorant of the strides others have made elsewhere.

Additionally, Eldred has failed at his single biggest job: helping the young quintet of the 2018 draft class to improve. Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, and Jon Heasley have all done the hard work and have navigated the minor leagues to make it to the big leagues. But even if you don’t count Kowar and his historically inept MLB performances, the other four have a 4.84 ERA in over 500 combined innings. With Kowar, that ERA figure shoots over 5.00.

That is simply unacceptable performance. Bubic has gotten worse by every metric each year. We’re in year three with Singer and he is no closer to developing a third pitch than he was in the first year. Lynch has improved modestly, but he still walks too many and doesn’t strike out enough. And Kowar, well. Who knows with him—Eldred certainly doesn’t.

The fact of the matter is that good baseball clubs do not suffer poor performance. There is no reason to believe that, after five years presiding over pitching department that has sent zero pitchers to the All-Star game during his tenure, Eldred is doing a good job. We saw the Royals acknowledge that they weren’t improving enough on the hitting side of the ball. But that’s not all. The Royals have the second-lowest strikeout rate, the fourth-highest ERA, and the second-highest FIP in the league in year five of the rebuild. It is a comprehensive breakdown on a team whose raw talent is better than that.

Recently, Royals broadcaster Rex Hudler was discussing the Royals’ poor pitching performance. He let loose what seemed like an innocent Hudlerism: “Believe me, if Cal Eldred could fix it, he would.” What Hudler didn’t realize is that he was onto something—just not in the way he intended.