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Michael King’s primary offerings aren’t getting it done

It started with decreased velocity, and now with decreased deception, King’s sinker is becoming very hittable.

MLB: New York Yankees at New York Mets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Michael King was one of the most consistently great Yankees relievers in 2022 and the first couple months of the 2023 season. Aaron Boone could feel comfortable giving him the ball in any situation, and he could also reasonably hope for the right-hander to cover multiple innings as part of the road map to a win. However, King’s results have been a little more mixed lately. He’s given up runs in three of his last four outings and he hasn’t been hit this hard since his rookie season.

King set an excellent standard for himself as a reliever, and for the first time, we’re seeing some regression. It’s not just the results, though: King’s pitches themselves aren’t sharp. My colleague Esteban discussed a concerning trend with his velocity and mechanical hiccups to partially explain his deviation from his usual shutdown appearances. Command, as always, is partially to blame too. Here, we’ll zoom in on his rough outing against the Red Sox on Sunday and see how the red flags in his metrics translate to his recent rocky results.

During the doubleheader opener on June 18th, King faced nine Red Sox batters and five of them reached base, amounting to four hits, a walk, and three earned runs. This outing in particular was concerning to me especially in light of Esteban’s observations — someone with nasty stuff like King should not be giving up that much contact, and if he is, something is fundamentally off. King needs swing-and-miss to be effective, especially because his primary offering, the sinker, is a contact pitch.

Sunday’s outing against the Red Sox started well, as King stuck with the sweeper/changeup combo to retire the first three hitters he faced on soft contact. But trouble came when he went to the heater.

On the season, King is in the 95th percentile for average exit velo. During this outing in Boston, the hardest-hit ball was Alex Verdugo’s double off the Green Monster on a four-seamer at 96.9 mph off Verdugo’s bat. This benign max exit velo tells us he’s not far off as Esteban said, but for a sinker guy without the strikeout pitch reliably available, contact can turn into hits quickly, especially at a quirky park like Fenway.

King didn’t get shelled against the Sox, but solid veteran hitters saw a weakness and were able to tailor a successful approach in light of his velocity issues. They laid off the sweeper and waited for the compromised fastball.

The fastball Verdugo clubbed came in at 93.9 mph, manifesting King’s persistent struggles with the radar gun this season. He sprayed a number of noncompetitive fastballs, especially against the lefties in the middle of Boston’s order.

King missed badly in his crucial at-bat against Rafael Devers. He tried to entice a groundball with a sweeper, but the lefty saw it all the way and let it go. At this point, with the lefty tracking his spinners, he had no choice but to throw the ineffective fastball. Ball four to Devers was 91.9 mph (!!!), well below King’s standard. King seemed to be aiming his primary offerings as David Cone would say, looking a lot more like the rookie we saw in 2020 than the shutdown swingman he was in ‘22.

The sinker and the four-seamer have both flattened out of late. King has thrown his four-seamer about the same amount as last year, 23 percent, but as we saw against the Sox, the results on the pitch haven’t been there. Soft contact with the four-seamer has been elusive all year, though there exists a sizable gap between his fastball batting average against, an even .300, and his xBA with the pitch at .197. At Fenway on Sunday, King allowed two hits on the four-seamer and one on the sinker.

Making things even worse for King, the lack of velo also belies a lack of the usually excellent movement profile on the sinker. On average this season, his primary pitch comes in at 94.9 mph with 17 inches of sharp horizontal movement. Yankee fans have become accustomed to seeing the power sinker, and on Sunday it was flatter than ever.

King followed up the Verdugo double with an even slower 91.4-mph sinker to Justin Turner.

That’s simply not enough sizzle to beat even the ancient Turner from pulling in his hands, even with the pitch well-located on the inner third. This sinker had only 13.2 inches of horizontal movement. This is a significant step down for his best primary pitch and goes a long way to explain his sudden ineffectiveness.

Whether King is possibly suffering from fatigue due to the second-heaviest workload of any American League reliever thus far or still dealing with lingering affects from elbow surgery is uncertain. The troubling trend started with his velocity and has now seeped into his command and execution of his other pitches. King’s diminishing stuff is a problem more than the velocity — he can probably make it work with two ticks lower on the fastball, but he needs horizontal planes to be successful. His mechanics and approach are both centered around that above-average sinker movement. His primary pitches against the Red Sox were alarmingly hittable and his velocity only continues to drop.