At the end of the 2021 campaign, I wrote the report card for Michael King’s season, in which we gave him a solid B+. We argued that the reinvention of his mechanics and repertoire on the mound — something that Esteban dove into in great detail last year — not only saved his season, but might have also helped turn him into a solid reliever who the Yankees can count on for years to come.
Coming into 2022, pitching is a bit of a question mark for the Yankees. They should be mostly fine, but the rotation in particular poses a lot of questions. How will they ensure that Luis Severino stays healthy? What if Nestor Cortes reverts back to his career norms? What if, god forbid, there’s a lengthy injury? This is where Michael King comes in.
2021 Stats: 22 games, 63.1 IP, 3.55 ERA, 3.86 FIP, 4.19 xFIP, 1.28 WHIP, 22.5% K%, 8.7% BB%, 0.85 HR/9, 0.7 fWAR
2022 ZiPS Projections: 22 games, 76.3 IP, 4.13 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 1.24 WHIP, 8.96 K/9, 2.71 BB/9, 1.30 HR/9, 1 fWAR
Michael King’s 2021 season was really a story of two halves. In the first half, he pitched to a 3.72 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, and 4.12 FIP with a 22 percent strikeout rate and a 9.8 percent walk rate. Opponents were slashing .247/335/.382 against him. After suffering an ugly finger contusion while lifting weights in July, King was placed on the IL, but he was activated in time for the September stretch run.
During his time on the IL, King reportedly worked out with Corey Kluber to perfect his breaking stuff. Needless to say, the practice paid off. In the final 15 innings of the season, King increased his strikeout percentage to 24.6 percent, dropped his walk rate to 4.9 percent, decreased his ERA to 3.00, and posted a 3.04 FIP. Yes, 15 innings is a small sample size, but the stuff he came back with after his IL stint was noticeably filthier.
King’s success in the second half ultimately came down to the absurd horizontal movement that he is able to generate on his pitches. All told, he throws five pitches: a curveball, a 4-seamer, a sinker, a slider, and a changeup. Aside from his slider, Statcast rates the horizontal movement on his other four pitches as in the elite category. Leading the way is King’s curveball, which ranks in the upper echelon of the league. I’m going to take this opportunity to show a clip of his curveball, which made MVP finalist Marcus Semien look like a fool in the box:
Michael King, Ridiculous 79mph Curveball.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 29, 2021
When you think you're gonna wear it in the knee...and it ends up on the outer half. pic.twitter.com/AtZ3m2drZt
King isn’t without his thorns, though. Despite featuring pitches that have a ton of movement, he doesn’t generate many whiffs (40th percentile), he gives up his fair share of hard hits (15th percentile), and doesn’t induce a whole lot of chases (34th percentile). His saving grace, however, is his groundball rate. Sitting at 46.2 percent in 2021, his groundball rate hovered just slightly above league average, and the only qualified Yankees pitchers who posted a better rate than him were Clay Holmes (68.5 percent), Joely Rodríguez (60 percent), Jonathan Loáisiga (61.5 percent), and Wandy Peralta (57.8 percent).
Going forward, I’m looking for King to leverage the elite movement he generates on his sinker and curveball to take advantage of an improved infield defense behind him this season by generating an even higher groundball rate. I’m also excited to see how he can develop further with another year under pitching coach Matt Blake.
This season, King will likely fill the same swingman role he did in 2021: long reliever out of the bullpen and occasional spot-starter. With Luis Severino likely being under an innings limit — if he makes it to the mound at all — and a shortened spring training affecting pitchers’ ramp up times, manager Aaron Boone will likely look for opportunities to piggyback starters for the first month or so of the season. Although King is likely most effective coming in and pitching a couple innings in relief, as we are sadly all too aware, injuries happen with particular regularity to this team, so it’s likely only a matter of time before King finds himself starting the occasional game as well.
The projections may not be particularly kind to Michael King, but given that 2020 was an absolute disaster for him (and a small sample size, of course) and he was injured for a big chunk of 2021, they are fair. As a converted fan of King, though, here’s to hoping he outperforms them in 2022. After all, with all the question marks surrounding this team’s pitching staff, a healthy and effective Michael King could prove to be a X-factor.