Michael King sustained an incredibly significant elbow injury last summer and was somehow ready for the 2023 season. That itself is a fantastic accomplishment. In his return this season, he looks like a very similar pitcher and the results are still compelling. He has already notched 37 innings and has managed to prevent runs while doing it with a 2.19 ERA. In my opinion, he is the most valuable and important reliever in the Yankees’ bullpen.
His sinker is still one of the best in the world and his command is still pinpoint on it. His vaunted sweeper isn’t performing nearly as well this season, but it hasn’t held him back too much to the point where he can’t consistently get outs. The K% has dropped 5.9 percentage points (33.2 to 27.3), but he has made up for that with a 4.1 percentage points increase in GB%. Basically, the process is a little different, but he is still performing like a top notch reliever. I state all this as an important preface — I’m not concerned about Michael King. Rather, I’m interested in exploring how he has been able to be so successful without his breaking ball in elite form, and more importantly, with a two-tick decline in fastball velocity.
You wouldn’t be crazy to be concerned by King losing velocity. Like I said, he had a significant elbow injury. I’m not sure if there are many other pitchers in this league capable of seeing their velocity decrease so much year over year and still be just as successful — that speaks to the kind of pitcher that King is. He is who he is because of movement, deception, and command. He can control his sinker on both sides of the plate, at different heights, and to both handed hitters. The velocity bump he saw last year was the cherry on top that brought him from a very good reliever to an elite one. If he was to regain it while retaining his command, then I’d be more confident that he could sustain elite performance. His wicked movement plays very well at 94-95, but at 96-97 it’s downright unhittable.
So as a fun little exercise, I want to explore the difference between his mechanics last year and this year to get a better idea of whether this is a compensation post-rehab, or a conscious decision to throw with less effort. The following videos will focus on fastballs only. The first two videos are from 2022, and the next two are from 2023:
I know this is a pretty simple thing to say, but he was obviously moving faster last season — a crucial part of throwing in the upper 90s! But there are more subtle aspects that I’m paying attention to that explain the change in release point and overall direction down the mound. King is a cross body thrower with impressive spinal mobility. To throw 97-98 with his angled stride, your arm has to move quick enough and in the right direction to have the level of command he does, especially inside to lefties.
While I don’t have the data to confirm this, it looks like King has decreased the amount at which is he throwing cross body by slightly shifting his stride direction. You can see that clearly if you pay attention to how he finishes down the mound each year. This season he is almost square to the plate in Mike Mussina fashion, but last year you saw his right leg whip around across his body. As a result, his release point has shifted upwards by over an inch on both his sinker and sweeper. This change is good explanation for why King’s sweeper is getting hit around more this year too. With a raised release point and not as horizontally sharp arm angle, the sweeper may look different out of the hand! This is the beauty of pitching, every little change is interrelated.
But to get back to the velocity, this change in release point and stride has created a bit less of connection between his upper and lower body. King’s shoulder plane stays near neutral for most of his delivery. By raising his release point, his arm angle is no longer on the same angle as his shoulder plane. If you get up and try to spin around, you’ll be able to do it faster with your arms parallel to the ground opposed to perpendicular.
Whether this change is conscious or not isn’t something we can know for sure (unless somebody asks!), but if it’s something that King needed to do to take some stress of his arm, then it is what it is. He is still only two and a half months into the season and less than 12 months from his elbow surgery. If he needs more time to get pack to peak velocity, then that is completely okay. However, I will be curious to see if King makes any subtle changes as we progress. It’s not out of the ordinary for a pitcher to clean up their mechanics mid-season and see a velocity bump. Given King already knows how that looks for him, I don’t think it can be ruled out.