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Michael King, the Yankees’ most improbable 2021 breakout candidate

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A sinkerballer with an underwhelming swinging strike rate so far in his career, King has made strides with his secondaries and could take off next season

American League Division Series Game 3: New York Yankees v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

After the 2018 season, all signs pointed to Michael King being an important part of the Yankees’ future pitching plans. Acquired in a deal with the Marlins during the 2017-18 offseason, King pitched at three levels (Class-A Advanced, Double-A, and Triple-A) during his first year in the organization, and the highest ERA he had was 2.09 at Trenton. His marks in Tampa and Scranton were lower than 2.00. Overall, he delivered a 1.79 ERA and 152/29 K/BB ratio over 161 1/3 frames in 2018.

Then, 2019 came, and King started experiencing elbow issues in February. The Yankees played it cautiously, and he pitched only 46 minor league innings that year with shaky results, though he did earn a cup of coffee in the majors that September (tossing a couple scoreless frames).

COVID-19 and the MLB-MLBPA dispute affected lots of players, including King, who spent the 2020 campaign between the Yankees’ alternate training site and the big league club, where he was on the mound for 26 23 disappointing innings, pitching to a a 7.76 ERA, 5.14 FIP, and 4.59 SIERA.

It wasn’t all bad, though. While King’s 3.71 BB/9 and 1.69 HR/9 were both quite high, he had a good 8.78 K/9 mark and his 55.6 LOB percentage suggests that he had some bad luck stranding baserunners. Some positive regression is to be expected in a larger sample size.

We know King is mostly a sinkerballer. After all, 59.4 percent of his pitches were sinkers. But fans would be intrigued to learn that his time at the alternate training site was fruitful, as he revamped some aspects of his repertoire.

In fact, MLB.com ran an article this week spotting one candidate in each team slated to have a huge season in 2021. Yankees’ beat writer Bryan Hoch listed Michael King:

“King benefited from his time at the Yankees’ alternate training site this past summer, where he huddled with pitching coordinator Sam Briend to refine the axis of his changeup, giving it a different profile than his fastball. The right-hander saw results in the AL Division Series, retiring all six Rays he faced in a Game 3 relief appearance.”

Hoch also noted that King “changed his slider into a curveball” by “tinkering with improvements that he believes will help him secure a rotation spot in 2021.” Could King be among the most improbable breakout candidates in recent memory?

It should not be forgotten that prior to King’s injury-plagued 2019 and inconsistent 2020, he was actually a very good prospect who had already dominated Triple-A, albeit in a small sample. He may not miss too many bats (only an 8.9 percent swinging strike rate in 2020) but he has the tools to be an effective back-end starter, and that is, believe it or not, extremely valuable.

In his limited 2020 sample, King’s changeup only produced a 13.2 whiff rate, but it has potential, as batters had a .301 xwOBA against the offering. It had 16.2 inches of horizontal movement, 2.5 inches (19 percent) more than the average. The cambio now has the same horizontal movement as the sinker, but at eight miles per hour slower. It is possible that, with work and reps, the speed differential increases.

King also threw 91 curveballs in 2020, with a very good 32.7 whiff rate and a .262 xwOBA. It’s plain to see that he made strides with his secondaries — it’s just a matter of holding the gains over a full season.

With Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and J.A. Happ all hitting free agency with the Yankees not looking too eager to spend, it’s possible that King makes more than a few starts this season. In many ways, 2021 is a make-or-break year for him. If he breaks out, it might be surprising to some, but perhaps there’s a reason to see it coming after all.