In terms of blowing away expectations, no Yankees player came close to the achievements of Michael King. Heading into the season, King’s future was murky. He had undergone significant elbow surgery, but recovered extremely well. As the team’s most valuable reliever in 2022 (when healthy), the Yankees took a phased approach to ramping King back up. His velocity was down for a couple of months, he never pitched without at least two days of rest, and his approach wasn’t changed until the pitching staff was in dire need.
Hoping for around 60-70 innings out of the bullpen was probably close to a 90th percentile outcome. But as we know, King blew away any projection he had while firmly cementing his chance for a spot in the rotation for 2024. He easily earned the second best starting pitcher on the team role after his dominance. Before jumping into the details, here is the grade and review for King’s season:
2023 Statistics: 48 games, 9 starts, 104.2 IP, 2.75 ERA, 3.13, 2.2 fWAR, 29.5 K%
2024 Contract Status: Arbitration year two, $2.1 million estimated
I’ll start by providing King’s ZiPS projections heading into 2023 to put some perspective onto what would have been a fair outcome for him. His 50th percentile outcome came in at 48.7 innings, 33.3 K%, 9.0 BB%, 3.88 ERA, 3.83 FIP, and 0.4 WAR. In the beginning of the season, I was confident he would beat this projection from a qualitative perspective, but it would have been bullish to think he could beat the volume by a significant margin. King’s 80th percentile WAR (1.0) estimate was driven by quality, not volume. So if we’re using that as the baseline expectation, then I’ll have a bone to pick with my colleagues about King not getting the highest grade of an A+. King not only blew away the volume, but he made his projection look like it was for a completely different pitcher. I personally would have expected A+ grades across the board but looks like I’ll have to take that up in the Slack channel.
Pivoting back to King’s season, his performance had a different shape in terms of pitch quality than I think most would have expected. From a pure run value perspective, his sweeper was surprisingly his worst pitch: four-seamer (+7), sinker (+4), changeup (+8), sweeper (-4). I think there was a little bit of bad luck and worse command happening with the pitch, but regardless, his 2022 results would have suggested the sweeper to be one of his best two pitches, not the clear worst from a results perspective. However, if we focus in on the Stuff+ grade of 145 (fourth in baseball), it’s likely this pitch bounces back strong and looks more like it did when he was a starter in the latter portion of the season.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of King’s season other than his move to the rotation was how he used his fastballs together when he was a starter. Out of the bullpen, he averaged 94.0 mph on his sinker, and 94.5 on the four-seamer. Upon his ramp up as a starter, his sinker stayed where it was at 94.1 mph, but the four-seamer gained half a tick and moved up to 95.1 mph on average. King knows how to pitch. He understands how his repertoire works together, and how to manipulate pitches depending on the situation. As he progressed into games and faced his opponent’s top of the lineup multiple times, he separated the velocity between the two pitches to assure they had distinct separation and function as a completely different look. One of my favorite traits about Justin Verlander is his ability to do exactly this — he knows when to dial up or down. While King might not have the top end velocity of somebody in Verlander’s class, it is still a fantastic tool to use as needed. This is especially true if your body tires as you get into deeper pitch counts – it adds a layer of unpredictability.
As far as expectations for next year, the hope is King can maintain his health with an increased workload. With just over 100 total innings this year, I don’t think we can expect King to get to the 180 mark in 2024. However, I do think he will make a more significant jump than his projections will estimate. I’ll set my personal line at 150.5, but we’ll see. It might be too irresistible to not let him go if his health indicators stay consistent. After all, King is only two seasons away from free agency. Now is the time to be free. If he is one of the best 20 starters in 2024 next season, I wouldn’t be surprised. He is that good. His performance down the stretch of the season proved that.