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The Yankees are facing a Josh Hader Problem with Michael King

In need of a closer, should the club take away their most valuable relief tool?

Los Angeles Angels v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

I think it’s pretty clear that Clay Holmes cannot pitch the ninth inning for the foreseeable future. Jeff basically said the same thing yesterday, and acknowledges that the Yankees like the idea of having a closer. The Baseball Internet has batted around the idea of getting rid of the closer for a while now, but teams and especially the Yankees have proven that they see value in designating one guy to work the ninth with a lead. So, if it can’t be Clay Holmes, who should it be?

The popular choice might be Michael King, who along with Holmes is the only other pitcher on the team with a save. On Tuesday, King recorded his second of the year, a 1.2 inning outing that slammed the door on the Guardians. If the Yankees follow the call of the crowd and designate King as the Closer, capital C intentional, they inevitably run into the same issue that the Milwaukee Brewers had with All-Star reliever Josh Hader.

Hader came into the league and immediately developed a reputation for working multiple innings. In fact, more than 60 percent of his outings were at least four outs during his breakout 2018 season — one that led the Brewers a mere win away from their first World Series appearance since 1982. But if you don’t closely follow the careers of standout relief pitchers, you might not know that Hader hasn’t recorded more than three outs in a regular-season game since 2020, and even then he only did it once. Despite that reputation, Hader’s become exclusively a one-inning closer.

Despite that change, Hader’s been just as valuable as he was in a multi-inning role, swapping being great over more innings for being truly elite in fewer. On total value, this works out, but we can see that fWAR doesn’t tell the entire story especially when it comes to relief pitchers.

Right now, Hader pitches alongside a very deep starting rotation in San Diego. With the Brewers, he had an equally deep set of starters. The stronger and deeper your rotation is, the more relatively valuable a single inning of elite relief it. The difference for now is that the Yankees don’t have that kind of pitching staff.

I think it’s reasonable that if King shifted into a one-inning closer, he would probably see some of this Hader effect — being better in less work. However, when Clarke Schmidt is struggling to find a single pitch that works and 40 percent of the expected rotation is still on the shelf, the relative value of King’s multi-inning work grows.

The Yankees could do what they’ve done in both of King’s saves; letting him pitch more than an inning with the intent of closing it out. This was incredibly handy on April 27th in Texas, when he entered in a one-run ballgame in the seventh to face Marcus Semien and simply kept going until the final out was recorded.

The downside to this is a mix of the regular closer problem with the need for rest. King was unavailable the day after the save on both occasions, and if he’s able to work multiple innings effectively that’s most valuable when deployed “on the fly”. The ninth inning with a three-run lead is a relatively low-leverage inning, if the Yankees are only going to be able to use King two or three times a week, then they better ensure he gets the highest leverage spots possible.

And then you have the other arms in the bullpen, the ones more suited to one-inning work. Ron Marinaccio is coming into his own as a strong reliever and Wandy Peralta is perhaps the most reliable relief pitcher not named Michael King, and both don’t see the question of trading off the bulk outing for elite single-inning work. Veteran Jimmy Cordero has been quite good in his efforts early this year as well. The Yankees are better off deferring the Josh Hader Problem entirely, putting one of their ready-made one-inning relievers into the closer’s spot and letting King keep doing what he’s done so well.