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Michael King could be a solid relief arm for years to come

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The Yankee reliever has subtly remade himself, and it’s paying off.

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

I want to preface this article by saying that for a while, I was confused what the Yankees saw in Michael King for a while. He was a major league pitcher, for certain, but their confidence in him seemed high despite lackluster results in the minor leagues in 2019, plus getting shelled with the big-league club in 2020. However, his body of work in 2021 has completely changed the picture.

He hasn’t completely remade himself. That said, the few adjustments he has made have caused a huge difference. He’s still a sinkerballer, and a good one at that. He has top-of-the-league horizontal movement on his sinker. The 17.5 inches of horizontal movement on the pitch puts him next to pitchers like Diego Castillo and Blake Treinen. That’s a crucial characteristic.

Anytime a pitcher has any outlier characteristic, it’s a great thing. It makes them unique relative to the rest of the league. Most importantly, they’re a different, uncomfortable at-bat. If that characteristic comes in the form of a frisbee-like pitch, like it does for King, that pitcher needs to do mold their arsenal to play that pitch up. That’s exactly what King has done this year.

Despite improvements for the sinker in terms of velocity and movement, he decreased his usage in the pitch by about eight percent. Its velocity has ticked up by a single mph. The movement profile is different too. The vertical movement on the offering has completely changed. Last year, it had 23.5 inches of drop, which was five percent better than the average sinker. By doing this, it’s become a complete side-sweeping sinker, as the horizontal movement has gone from 10 percent above average to 61 percent above average.

The pitch is now an outlier. Getting the velocity up to 94 on average is great, too. Some research has suggested that’s the threshold for a fastball being above average or not. If we zoom into King’s dominant return from the IL since September, his velocity has been even higher. The sinker comes in at 94.5 mph, and the four-seam is up to 95.6 mph. He’s actually throwing the four-seam more often too, at a 24-percent clip since coming off the IL.

That’s interesting. My hunch is that the velocity on the pitch is a key reason for his decision to amp up the four-seamer, but it could also be because the pitch pairs well with his curveball and changeup. In the beginning of the year, he was throwing more sliders. Since his return, he has completely nixed the pitch. I’m assuming he wanted to throw this pitch to pair with the sinker, but the current mix now is working. The curveball has lots of depth and also has frisbee-like movement.

Obviously, the pitches aren’t perfectly tunneling here, but that doesn’t really matter for King. His delivery is deceptive on its own, and the fact that he’s added a riding four-seam to get swings and misses up in the zone makes his repertoire super intriguing.

Usually, this is where I would go into a bit of a deep dive on a pitcher’s mechanics to try and gain some insight on a velo increase. Here, King’s mechanics certainly may have improved, but I also think health is a big reason for why King is where he is at right now. His time on the IL seems to have helped in more ways than one. He used the time to tweak his pitch mix again, and all his pitches are working together. Plus, he’s now healthy, and able to air out his pitches at a higher velocity than before.

In his current form, it appears King’s future is bright. He seems to have hit upon a winning formula, and given he’s just 26 and years away from free agency, it might not be the worst thing to get used to seeing King coming out of the Yankees bullpen. The Yankees will need him this week as they look to clinch a playoff berth, but there’s now added hope that King is set up for long-term success as a Yankee.