Stop me if I sound like a broken record, but the Yankees’ biggest question mark heading into the winter is once again the starting rotation. They are losing three veteran pitchers to free agency without any guarantees of how to fill their absences. With it looking more and more likely that Yankees ownership will operate under self-imposed austerity measures, the rational belief is that those holes will be filled with low-cost options off the farm.
With Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and J.A. Happ reaching the end of their contracts, one logical avenue would be to pencil Michael King into the rotation for next year. That path is fraught potholes and roadblocks. Instead, Matt Blake, Sam Briend, and the rest of the Yankees’ pitching braintrust should focus on developing his skills as a reliever.
King is one of a handful of pitching prospects who broke into the big leagues over the last two seasons. He was primarily a starter as he climbed through the minors, but at no point along that journey did he ever blow your socks off. He split time as a starter and a reliever in limited MLB action and struggled in both roles. Granted, we are working with a minuscule sample size - only 14 innings pitched as a starter - but the early returns do not inspire confidence moving forward.
His struggles boil down to familiarity. His first time through the order, King has actually been quite effective, posting a 2.16 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 1.320 WHIP, while striking out almost 12 per nine. It’s the second time through the order that things really start to unravel. His ERA, FIP, and WHIP all skyrocket to 18.56, 6.57, and 2.630 respectively while he strikes out significantly fewer batters.
How is it that hitters are able to figure him out after only seeing him once? To put it bluntly, King just doesn’t possess top-flight major league starter stuff. His fastball spin rate sits in the 45th percentile while the curveball spin is at an even worse 29th percentile. With such mediocre raw stuff, it is no surprise King sat in the 16th percentile in whiff rate and well below MLB average in swinging strike rate. He cannot get outs in volume, which in my mind should disqualify him from being a starter.
That is not to stay he does not still offer value to the Yankees. King has displayed some positive signs as a reliever, with his walk rate falling from 13.2% to 3.2%, WHIP from 1.790 to 1.230, and xFIP from 5.39 to 4.95 relative to his numbers as a starter. And given the amount of money already committed to the bullpen, the Yankees need to make the most of their cost-controlled internal options.
A permanent move to the bullpen will allow King to focus on his areas of strength. Perhaps he ditches one of his subpar offspeed pitches and works on honing the other. Both Zack Britton and Chad Green have worked with Matt Blake to redesign their breaking pitches - King stands to benefit from doing the same. His curveball is the least-hard-hit of his three main offerings, maybe Blake can help turn it into a legitimate, bat-missing weapon.
The Yankees are facing a real conundrum heading into this offseason. The pitching situation, and in particular the starting rotation, is at its most dire state in recent memory. Though they may be tempted to slide Michael King into one of those five slots, I have to discourage the Yankees from choosing that route. He will be much more valuable to the organization - both next year and further down the line - if they utilize him out of the bullpen.