Baseball is a funny game, and sometimes damn near impossible to predict. Take the 2018 season, for instance. As the start of spring training grew nearer and talented free agents sat at home without new contracts, we at Bless You Boys wondered if the Tigers should have waded into the pool. By signing a few boom-or-bust types to cheap, short-term deals, the Tigers could have tried to catch lightning in a bottle and maybe — maybe — compete for the playoffs.
Instead, the Tigers held pat, choosing to rely on young players like Dixon Machado and retreads like Leonys Martin while the rest of their prospects developed in the minor leagues. It has worked so far, to an extent; the Tigers are under .500, sure, but have played well against teams not based in Cleveland and seem like a pretty entertaining group to boot. We may not have a contender on our hands, but we have some players to root for even if the win-loss record goes south.
Meanwhile, the Royals did exactly what we were hoping for from Detroit. Kansas City signed Lucas Duda and Jon Jay to one-year deals in March. They re-signed Mike Moustakas on a comically cheap contract, and picked up reliever Justin Grimm when he was dumped by the Chicago Cubs.
Just about everything has gone wrong for the Royals so far. They haven’t hit well. They haven’t pitched well. The bullpen has been awful. Their schedule hasn’t helped, and they are currently without everyday players Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez. Some of it doesn’t add up — their rotation has actually been pretty good and Kelvin Herrera looks back to normal — but the numbers don’t lie: these Royals are pretty bad.
Well, except when Jake Junis is on the mound.
Kansas City Royals (3-13) at Detroit Tigers (7-9)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jakob Junis (2-1, 1.93 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (1-2, 3.86 ERA)
Game 17 Pitching Matchup
If you saw Jake Junis dominate the Tigers earlier this season and weren’t paying much attention last year, you probably did one of those “Who is this guy?!” spit-takes. A former 29th round pick, Junis has come out of nowhere to establish himself as a key cog in the Royals’ starting rotation. Whether he’s a cornerstone of their future plans remains to be seen, but he’s off to a whale of a start in 2018. After shutting down the Tigers for seven innings back on April 3, Junis repeated the feat six days later in a Royals win over the Seattle Mariners. He was tagged for three home runs by the red-hot Los Angeles Angels on Saturday, but still struck out seven hitters in 4 2⁄3 innings. Oh, and those were also the first four runs he allowed on the year.
While Junis won’t maintain a 1.93 ERA for the entire season, advanced metrics like what he has done so far. His 4.48 xFIP is rather modest, but he might be able to maintain a better-than-average home run rate given his home ballpark and history of limiting homers in the minor leagues. More complicated formulas like SIERA think he has been even better. He was a statistical darling in the minor leagues last year, posting a 30 percent strikeout rate with a 5.2 percent walk rate in 71 innings. His swinging strike rate has taken a step forward already in 2018, although opposing hitters aren’t chasing outside of the zone as often as one might like.
Junis’ arsenal certainly doesn’t scream “budding ace,” but he has the raw stuff to be a useful mid-rotation arm going forward. He mostly relies on his four-seam fastball, which sits in the lower 90s, and a mid-80s slider. He has thrown those two pitches nearly 75 percent of the time this year, and over 80 percent of the time against right-handed hitters. Righties see the slider 60 percent of the time (!) when Junis is ahead in the count, a big reason why they managed a paltry .316 weighted on-base average (wOBA) against him last year. Lefties fared a bit better, with a .274 average and .335 on-base percentage. Junis has mixed in the occasional curveball and changeup to them, but still throws the slider over 20 percent of the time, and nearly 40 percent of the time when ahead in the count.
Key matchup: Mike Gerber vs. that nasty little slump he’s in
Call it a hunch, but I think Mike Gerber was called up for Friday’s doubleheader with Jake Junis in mind. In particular, Gerber’s left-handed bat could come in handy against the right-handed Junis, whose platoon splits will probably end up being more significant than he has let on so far in his young career. However, Gerber is in a terrible funk right now.
If my arithmetic is correct, Mike Gerber is now 4 for his last 36 (.111) with 18 strikeouts since his opening weekend 7 for 12 bonanza.— KJC at the bat (@Tiger_Lifer) April 19, 2018
Come on, kid. We’re rootin’ for ya.
In his last 10 games, Gerber is hitting .182 with 19 strikeouts in 44 at-bats. This includes part of the aforementioned “opening weekend bonanza” so the more recent numbers paint an even bleaker picture.
However, there might be something to the adrenaline and focus that will surely come once Gerber steps into a major league batter’s box for the first time. He has never faced Junis, but hunting a fastball — something he will see over 60 percent of the time given Junis’ past tendencies — might be the cure he needs.
Junis rolls again and the Tigers drop game one of the doubleheader.