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What can Michael King bring to the Yankees’ rotation?

With open slots in the rotation and at least one starter an injury risk, we may get a look at the longtime prospect early in 2020.

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New York Yankees v Texas Rangers Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

While the Yankees are first focused on relief pitching - Tim Hill and Blake Treinen, come on down - the team still needs their rotation gaps filled. Luis Severino, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka and Jordan Montgomery will fill the first four slots, but there’s real discussion about whether J.A. Happ should be the fifth starter, relegated to the bullpen, or should simply be part of a payroll-cutting move. Even if Happ is in the rotation, you can never have too much pitching depth, and the Yankees will inevitably need extra arms ready to go once a starter hits the injured list.

Enter Michael King. The righty will be in his age-25 season in 2020, and after progressing through an injury of his own, King made his major-league debut in late September. King could have a major role to play in the team’s rotation with a strong spring training and bad injury luck on the depth chart.

What will he look like? King’s game is all about command and contact - he’s run a groundball rate at about 45% at every level of the minors with both Miami and the Yankees, and balanced that with a huge jump in strikeout rate once settling in with Triple-A Scranton. If you figure that K-BB% is itself the single most important factor in a pitcher’s performance (I do) and that contact allowed needs to be on the ground, King’s Scranton numbers hold up pretty well against the whole of MLB:

Our red triangle here is King’s work in Triple-A. Obviously the quality of competition increases when you face a lineup of nine MLB hitters, but the building blocks of sustainable success are there for King. His two-seam fastball gets acclaim from all evaluators, and playing for a team that has made the two-seam/cut a staple of repertoires can only help him.

The key with King just might be how sustainable his jump in strikeout rate is. The 28.6% rate he posted with Scranton is his highest in any notable innings count at any stage of the minors, and he’s a good example of the information asymmetry that now pervades minor leaguers.

So much data is available to teams that it’s harder than ever to say whether a positive trend is the result of a marked change in approach or skill, or if it’s just small sample noise. TINSTAPP still holds, so for now I’m going to remain more conservative, but a good two-seamer with the ability to miss bats raises King’s floor considerably, and perhaps turns him into something more than the fifth-starter prototype that a lot of projection systems peg him for.

We might get an early look at King’s development too - he’ll certainly get ample opportunity to show off in spring training, and James Paxton will likely require an IL trip at some point in 2020. That’s probably King’s best chance to get real MLB experience; until proven otherwise he should be starting every fifth day, rather than shuffled into a relief role, so beginning the year in Scranton while waiting for a chance to slot into the rotation on a needs basis looks like the most likely outcome for 2020.