Look at This Stupid Breaking Ball

We haven’t written very much about Jakob Junis. And that much makes sense — he hasn’t been in the majors very long, and it’s not like he’s broken any records. He plays for a team that isn’t that great, and he only found his groove last season down the stretch. Junis has never been a top prospect, and he was drafted in the 29th round. He doesn’t throw with eye-popping velocity, and he doesn’t rack up a boatload of strikeouts. Junis has done little to call attention to himself. Baseball analysts have done little to call attention to Jakob Junis.

I had a note by my computer to write about Junis all offseason long. I never did it. The timing never felt right. It feels better now, after Junis shut down the Tigers’ offense on Tuesday. It was cold, and, it was the Tigers, and the Tigers are bad. It’s not as if Junis went out and blanked the Astros. But he still spun seven shutout innings, with six strikeouts, and he threw 71% of his pitches for strikes. We’re talking about Jakob Junis now. And if you’re going to talk about Jakob Junis, you’re going to talk about his breaking ball. I’ve prepared plenty of clips from Tuesday’s outing. Just look at this stupid breaking ball.

I know it’s not great to have an off-center camera angle. Unfortunately, I’m not in control of that. Hopefully you can still get a sense of the movement. Baseball, if you’re out there: Please provide exclusively off-center camera angles. They’re better for those of us pitching dorks. Anyway, here’s a laughable breaking ball.

That’s a hitter in swing mode. That’s a hitter who was already in trouble, before a pitch was even thrown. But still, that’s also a breaking ball that compelled a full swing. The pitch wasn’t even close. It looked as if it was going to be close enough. Here’s a breaking ball from another at-bat.

Here’s a very early breaking ball.

Perhaps the sequence of the game featured three consecutive breaking balls to Miguel Cabrera in the bottom of the third. First pitch went for a called strike.

You see Cabrera hold up. Junis successfully messed with his timing. After that, it was time to go away.

At last, the cherry on top.

That’s a good indication of movement, right? You can’t always tell how a pitch looks, from a screen, but hitters can tell you. Cabrera thought he might be hit by the pitch. It broke left to find the zone. And that’s in an 0-and-2 count, when umpires are disinclined to call strikes in the first place. Pretty good! Junis threw some other breaking balls that were good, even though they didn’t get strikes. This is a very good 1-and-2 pitch.

This is a very good 0-and-2 pitch.

And in case you’re worried, Junis isn’t a one-trick pony. He started throwing his two-seam fastball more often last August, in the majors. This right here is a visually appealing two-seam-fastball highlight clip.

Junis is good about throwing his two-seamer to the arm side. It’s a pitch that generates plenty of tail. But let’s go back to the breaking ball. It’s the breaking ball that first got Junis on my radar. As you know, we have information about just about every pitch thrown at the major-league level. Junis has thrown his breaking ball — apparently a slider — roughly a third of the time. That by itself is an indication of how much Junis trusts the pitch. It’s averaged a little better than 81 miles per hour. More notably, it’s averaged about eight inches of horizontal break, with slightly negative vertical break. I compared that pitch to other breaking balls thrown by current starting pitchers. The Junis breaking ball compares very well to the one thrown by Jose Berrios. It also compares very well to the similar ones thrown by Yu Darvish, Marcus Stroman, and Corey Kluber. It’s not easy to generate that much movement, and it’s not easy to control such a pitch in the first place. Junis knows his breaking ball is a weapon, and it’s given him a major-league career.

By itself, the slider could get Junis noticed. Maybe he’d end up in the bullpen. But since he started folding in a two-seam fastball, Junis has worked regularly with three pitches. Technically, four, since lefties have seen about 10% changeups. Dating back to last August, Junis has thrown just shy of 70 major-league innings. He has 10 walks and 56 strikeouts, with a 76 FIP-. As you can tell from the clips, Junis is hardly overpowering. His fastball almost never gets up to 93. But he’s armed with strong control and command. Over the same window, Junis’ zone rate has been 55%. Last year’s highest zone rate by a qualified pitcher was 54%. Junis throws almost nothing but competitive pitches, and he does so with a clean and smooth delivery. This isn’t an over-thrower. Junis just has the fundamentals down cold.

When I look at Jakob Junis, I find it easy to think about Corey Kluber. Now, Kluber might be the best pitcher in the league. And he has a little more zip than Junis does. Kluber, also, throws a cutter, that Junis doesn’t possess. But Junis has the same kind of breaking ball, and he has two very similar fastballs. He’s topped out as a fringe prospect in the minors, even though he’s able to throw his pitches with precision. A simple explanation is just that Junis’ talent doesn’t reveal itself immediately. The slider does, sure, but the velocity isn’t remarkable, and it takes a while to be sold on a pitcher’s ability to locate. The raw stuff isn’t there, so Junis doesn’t get slapped with an ace-level ceiling. Junis, though, can win you over, if you give him the chance. If you don’t like the Kluber comp, he’s also like a slightly less powerful Jose Berrios. He’s hardly overwhelming, but he’s always around the zone, so hitters get put on the defensive. The slider’s a real wipeout offering, when Junis elects to throw it.

The purpose of this post is not to announce that Jakob Junis is amazing. Plenty left to prove. Plenty of innings still to throw. I don’t know what Junis will amount to. I just think he’s worth keeping an eye on, because he’s flown under the radar, as a fringe prospect in an underwhelming system. I’m given to understand that the Royals know what they have. They like him a lot, and they won’t give him up. Junis might still disappoint, or get injured. But right now, he has one very good pitch. His fastballs work well off one another. And when you start from a foundation of having a clean delivery and a real secondary weapon, I think there’s still a lot of room for growth. I believe in Junis’ ability to get even better. To this point, he hasn’t been thought of as very much. Moving forward, it won’t really matter what’s been true to this point.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

Objective grades for the physical components of his slider are:

Velo = 81.5 (Grade 36.7), HMov = 7.0″ (Grade 73.1), VMov = -0.3″ (Grade 58.9)

It’s basically a lesser version of Ohtani’s. I would hang a 65 grade overall on it.

6 years ago
Reply to  n_scheffel

So what is the criteria for good or bad velo on a slider?

6 years ago
Reply to  turtlejew

Based on 2017 data, here is how the grades for slider velocity shake out:

80 91.5
70 89.2
60 86.9
50 84.6
40 82.3
30 79.9
20 77.7

Everything I’ve read suggests velocity isn’t super important for sliders, so when grading them overall I weight the movement more heavily with horizontal movement being weighted the heaviest.

If anyone is interested, here are all grades for sliders:

Grade vSL X Z
80 91.5 8.1 -5
70 89.2 6.3 -2.6
60 86.9 4.4 -0.5
50 84.6 2.5 1.6
40 82.3 0.6 3.6
30 79.9 0 5.7
20 77.7 0 7