When Jakob Junis was a freshman at Rock Falls High School, he won a starting role on the varsity basketball team. In a town of 10,000 or so, 110 miles west of Chicago, this classified as major news.
The basketball program in Rock Falls was a respected power in the world of small-town Illinois hoops, the kind of place that competed for championships. In years of coaching at the high school level, then-Rock Falls coach Mike Winters had promoted just one other freshman to the varsity level.
But even then, Winters says, there was always something different about Junis. He was physically gifted, standing a mature 6 feet 1 as a freshman. He was skilled, a dead-eye shooter whose range could stretch into Steph Curry territory. Yet the most curious thing, the trait that sticks with Winters today, was Junis’s preternatural poise on the floor.
“People would take that as a lack of intensity,” Winters says now. “But even as a freshman, he had that composure.”
What was apparent then on the basketball court in Rock Falls is still evident now in stadiums across baseball. In his first season in the major leagues, Junis, 25, has brought his calm and collected demeanor to the Royals’ starting rotation, establishing himself as a rare bright spot in a late-summer fade.
Once a household name in his hometown and a Division-I prospect in two sports, Junis has posted a 6-0 record and a 2.95 ERA across 51 2/3 innings in the second half — a stretch that includes eight starts. After months of shuttling between Class AAA Omaha and Kansas City, he has 41 strikeouts and just six walks since the start of August, securing a full-time spot in a decimated rotation. On Wednesday, he tossed another 6 1/3 innings, allowing two earned runs in a 15-5 victory over the Blue Jays.
“He’s able to slow everything down and not let the situation rattle him,” Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland says. “He has a chance to be a solid starting pitcher in this league.”
Armed with a placid disposition and a retooled slider, Junis has impressed his veteran teammates and surprised his manager. Yet inside the clubhouse, he glides through the room in relative anonymity. Catcher Cam Gallagher, his roommate and long-time teammate, says his friend has carried the approach at every level in the minors. Royals manager Ned Yost likens the persona to a “dead fish” … before doling out a slightly more intriguing comparison:
“Corey Kluber,” Yost says, mentioning the stoic Indians’ ace who carries the nickname Klubot. “They’ve got no personality.”
There is more to Junis, of course, than just conventional praise for his intangibles. A graduate of a minor-league system that must develop pitching to sustain itself, he offers a degree of hope for the Royals’ next chapter. A product of a draft strategy that is no longer possible, he provides a useful history lesson.
A 29th-round pick in 2011, Junis is something of a relic from another era, one in which teams had no limits on draft bonuses for amateur players. The system allowed teams to overpay for players later in the draft, enticing promising talents to skip college baseball. From 2007 to 2011, the Royals did just that, ponying up millions for young talent in the later rounds.
The strategy stocked a farm system with talent and netted players such as Wil Myers, who would be flipped in a deal for James Shields and Wade Davis. But by 2011, the system appeared in danger. Sensing that a new collective-bargaining agreement would yield a slot system and curb draft spending, the Royals planned for one final splurge in the 2011 draft. So in the 29th round, they took a chance on Junis, a right-hander who had signed with North Carolina State and was asking for a $800,000 signing bonus.
“He was a projectable guy,” Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo says. “We thought he would add velocity as he filled out his frame.”
On that day, Junis sat at home in Illinois and saw the news. He was somewhat surprised. He had spent four years at Rock Falls, averaging close to 20 points per game on the basketball floor and starring as a standout pitcher and power hitter on the baseball field. He figured he was headed to North Carolina State, where he would pitch and hit.
“To be honest,” Junis says now. “I was perfectly fine with that.”
In the early rounds, a team had called and asked Junis if he would sign for $400,000, he says. He said no, which caused most clubs to back off. The Royals saw little risk in the late-round gamble.
In the weeks after the draft, club officials tracked Junis in a summer league in Illinois, watching his progress and building a relationship with his family. The Royals had an affiliate club in Kane County (Ill.) that summer, so Picollo would spend a few days there before peeling off to check in on Junis. In the days before the signing deadline, the two sides agreed on a bonus for $675,000.
“I just kind of had it in my head that I was going to college after getting drafted so late,” Junis says. “But I never imagined they would ever offer me as much as they did that late. Thankfully, it worked out.”
Like many investments, Junis’ progress was viewed through a long-term lens. Each year, he moved up a level. Each year, he kept pushing forward. Four years after he was drafted, he advanced to Class AA Northwest Arkansas for the first time in 2015. His breakthrough would come one year later.
Junis began the 2016 season back in Northwest Arkansas and surrendered 14 earned runs in his first four starts, posting a 6.75 ERA. The struggles resulted in a heart-to-heart chat and challenge from manager Vance Wilson. If Junis wanted to keep advancing, he needed to better, Wilson said. Something had to change.
Junis would focus on one thing: a slider.
“I think that’s the big pitch that separated him,” Gallagher says. “He’s always had a good change-up, and his curveball has just kind of been iffy. But that slider, with the spin, it definitely took him to a new level.”
In 2017, Junis has thrown the slider nearly 31 percent of the time. The pitch has changed his career. In the minors, he always exhibited solid command and action with his fastball. But now he can spin his slide for a strike. He can use it to coax swings and misses. He has transformed from a pitcher who once projected as a possible swingman in the bullpen to a right-hander who could fill out the back of a rotation.
“They can’t sit on one pitch or one location with him,” Eiland says.
For now, Junis is taking his success in stride. His teammates would not expect much less.
“That’s just who he is,” Gallagher says.
There is one topic, however, where Junis doesn’t mind touting himself a bit: It’s basketball.
These days, Junis says he never took the sport that seriously. But he did love to play. So he would spend his summers playing baseball, show up for open gyms in the fall, and then fill up the score sheet on Friday nights in the winter.
“It’s not something I really practiced with a ton,” he says.
Even so, college coaches from Missouri Valley schools like Illinois State and Northern Iowa sent some recruiting letters. Junis says he even received one from Iowa State. But each time, the story would end the same.
“College coaches would call me, asking about him,” says Winters, the high school coach. “But they always learned that his future was in baseball.”