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Diagnosing Michael King’s early hiccups

New York’s ace reliever has stumbled out of the gate in his first season back from injury.

San Francisco Giants v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

I am not worried about Michael King.

With all of the heightened emotions surrounding the return of baseball, sometimes it is easy to feel concern when the stars on the team don’t immediately perform or hit a bump right out of the gate. That could certainly be said for King, who has faced 19 batters giving up eight hits and two runs in three innings. However, as my colleague Josh taught me, it is not instructive to look at counting or even rate stats in the first month of the season — you’re much better off evaluating process.

To that end, I’d like to look at King’s process through his first two outings to see if we can tease out any culprits for his slow start.

The most obvious culprit is velocity. One of the factors that vaulted King into the elite tier of reliever was a surge in velocity on the four-seamer, jumping almost three mph since 2020 to an average 96.4 mph last season. This year, that velo is averaging 94.1 mph.

A fastball at 96 versus a fastball at 94 makes a world of difference. A pitch thrown to that location facing a lefty with last season’s velo would’ve been by him in a flash. Instead, the pitch came in at 92.6 mph, giving Stott an opportunity to cut it off for a single.

Then we have King’s vaunted breaking ball. It’s a pitch he learned from Corey Kluber after it played a sizable role in the latter’s two Cy Young awards — one that he’s since honed in the lab that brought us the term “sweeper.” The pitch showed a tremendous amount of sweep last season, averaging almost 19 inches of horizontal movement. In both outings so far, that sweep has been cut down to 15 inches.

Last year, this pitch would’ve kept diving away from Turner’s bat, likely giving him no chance to muster any contact. So far this year it doesn’t quite have that same late diving movement. By no means was it a bad offering to Turner — he basically has to throw the bat at it to poke it to right — it just shows how valuable whiffs are and how movement is vital to inducing that swing and miss.

Take for instance this sweeper to strikeout Matt Reynolds last season. The pitch is still moving away from Reynolds as his bat travels harmlessly through the hitting zone:

Returning to the four-seamer, it appears King is struggling with the shape of that pitch as well. In addition to the added velocity, King altered his mechanics with the pitch to change its movement profile, straightening it out while also giving it almost three inches more rise from when he started throwing it in 2020. I wrote last year how this change in shape allowed it to generate whiffs at the top of the zone but also created separation off the sinker. It’s important for King that the four-seamer and sinker remain disparate pitches, and right now the four-seamer is bleeding a little to much into sinker territory with the loss of rise and a little too much tailing action.

Take this single by Jake Cave in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s loss to the Phillies:

The four seamer is lacking the backspin-driven late hump that carries it above the hitter’s swing plane. Instead, it dips back slightly toward the heart of the zone allowing Cave to make solid contact rather that swing under it.

The absence of that ride at the top of the zone becomes especially apparent when you compare it with this four-seamer he threw to strike out Nathaniel Lowe last season.

The pitch stays on plane all the way to the plate, causing Lowe to foul tip it into Trevino’s glove for the strikeout.

Finally, we have King’s execution (or lack thereof) in two-strike counts. It is vital for relievers to put away hitters once they’ve done the heavy lifting in the count — something King mastered last season en route to striking out a third of the batters he faced. He has already surrendered five hits in two-strike counts.

With the exception of the flare single by Turner, this all comes down to failed execution in situations where the count leverage heavily favors the pitcher. He just isn’t quite as sharp with his command and he’s getting punished for it. This is totally normal for a pitcher through just two outings on the year, and even more understandable in King’s case as he works off some of the added rust that may have accumulated while recovering from the broken elbow that ended his 2022 campaign prematurely.

So, four areas for King to improve on: four-seam velocity, four-seam shape, sweeper break, and execution in two-strike counts. Both he and Aaron Boone seemed to confirm these suspicions in their comments following the loss to the Phillies. Boone noted the lack of velocity and called the sweeper flat on that outing while King went a little deeper, explaining how his timing is off with the fastball causing him to bleed velocity while a slight mechanical tweak on the sweeper is needed to recover the late life it normally exhibits. He also reflected that he left too many two-strike pitches over the middle of the plate against the Giants. It’s encouraging that he and Matt Blake have already identified the mechanical adjustments needed to get him firing on all cylinders, and I look forward to the dominant Michael King being back in short order.