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How Michael King is succeeding for the Yankees

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We might be seeing more of the Yankees’ fill-in starter.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Michael King said before the season that his goal was to pitch 100 innings for the Yankees this year. He’s already a quarter of the way there, and if the team keeps needing him in the rotation, he could very well hit that mark.

We’ve seen King before – he’s been talked up in spring training as a back-end rotation option, but he only pitched 26 mostly unimpressive and low-leverage innings last year. In 2021 though, King has become a valuable member of the Yankees’ pitching staff, and with Corey Kluber on the shelf for months, he’s the team’s de facto fifth starter.

King’s trademark pitch is his sinker. Last year, he pretty much lived and died with it – he threw it 60 percent of the time, generating most of his strikeouts with it, but also allowing a .322 opponent’s average on the pitch. This season, his sinker usage is down slightly, but more importantly, his command has improved.

The chart below shows the pitch locations of King’s sinkers in the 2020 season:

No pitcher ever wants his sinker to be located that high in the zone. It’s just asking for trouble, starting as a high strike and sinking into the heart of the zone. In comparison, this is King’s 2021 sinker heatmap:

Now that’s more like it. King is pounding the lower part of the zone with his sinker, generating plenty of ground balls. If it was destined to be his primary pitch, he had to locate it better than he did last year, and so far this year, King has succeeded.

King is also throwing a new pitch this year – a cutter. After never throwing one at the Major League level before this season, King is now throwing it a quarter of the time. It’s become his primary strikeout pitch, and opposing batters are hitting a hapless .172 against it. At 87.8 mph, it’s a happy medium between his fastball and his changeup.

One of King’s specialties is the side-to-side break he gets on his pitches. All of his pitches have above-average horizontal movement per Statcast. Just look at how this 95-mph sinker moves in towards the hitter while also dropping in the zone:

A cursory look at King’s analytic profile doesn’t reveal anything special – he doesn’t generate much spin or throw exceptionally hard, and he isn’t a master at generating soft contact. Instead, he gets by in an old-school way. King mixes his pitches, relies on movement and isn’t afraid to pitch to contact. His 9.6 degree launch angle has resulted in plenty of ground balls, and it’s all added up to a 3.62 ERA and 1.28 WHIP – not too shabby for a fill-in starter.

Michael King isn’t going to become the Yankees’ next ace, but he has secured his spot on the roster. He’s a far better option than some others on the Scranton Shuttle, and he’s earned enough trust from Aaron Boone to be used as a traditional starter, not just an opener in a bullpen game. After an impressive start against the Red Sox last week, King has become an option for the Yankees as they try to piece together a stretch of success.