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Which reliever will be the Yankees’ next Michael King?

A pair of one-time 2023 starters are vying for the fireman role.

Jhony Brito against the Pirates.
Jhony Brito against the Pirates.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A couple of weeks ago, Malachi broke down a pitch sequence that embodied Jhony Brito’s transition to a multi-inning relief role. Since that piece, the right-hander has added on another few solid outings, maintaining his low ERA as a longman, which is now at a 1.19 clip in 22.2 innings across eight appearances (including last night). At first glance, he looks to be the logical successor to Michael King, who has been dominating so much in the rotation that returning to the ‘pen for 2024 seems like it would be a waste.

Under the hood, however, there are some warning signs. First off, Brito’s swinging-strike rate through the beginning of play yesterday still stands at a paltry 9.3 percent — the league average for starters is at 10.8 percent. This is a slight improvement from his time as a starter, when he notched whiffs on 8.8 percent of his offerings, but it still leaves a lot to be desired.

Secondly, Brito’s curveball has still been a net negative per run value. If he wants to continue making multi-inning appearances, it would behoove him to have another weapon beyond his fastballs and changeup, especially one that he could deploy more traditionally against same-handed hitters.

The other complicating factor in Brito’s quest to be the next Michael King is that he has some competition in fellow rookie Randy Vásquez.

Vásquez has a few advantages over Brito: He’s younger, was a more highly-ranked prospect, and can spin a pair of breaking balls to go along with four other pitches. With his breaking-ball prowess and deeper repertoire, Vásquez comes with more of a strikeout pedigree than Brito, and he’s been nearly a full strikeout up on Brito in terms of K/9 since he started throwing in shorter stints himself.

The two pitchers have different strengths. Brito is more of a groundballer who could theoretically come in with runners on to turn a double play in a pinch, while Vásquez could keep a runner on third with a strikeout. So, the Yankees could keep both in the majors, and the two of them together could add up to one Michael King.

Yet, despite his flaws, Brito is the more polished option at the moment. Remember how I said Vásquez is striking out more hitters per nine? That’s probably because his walk rate has been more than twice Brito’s since each became full-time relievers, affording Vásquez more opportunities to inflate his K’s on a per-inning basis. But on a per-batter basis, Brito has actually fanned more hitters.

And that deeper repertoire? Well, it’s probably in need of some narrowing. It was good for Vásquez to tinker with a bunch of different offerings in his first taste of the majors, but now that we have some data on each pitch, it’s time to hone in on the most effective ones. By Stuff+, the real standout is the sweeper, which Vásquez is only throwing 12.4 percent of the time — one of six offerings with double-digit usage.

There’s little reason that Vásquez’s three most-used pitches need to be his three fastballs — each is around average per Stuff+. A good tweak to start with would be upping the sweeper’s usage at the expense of the heaters’.

Although he’s no Michael King, Brito is probably the better option as a longman right now. Vásquez still carries more upside, but given the Yankees’ desire to be competitive now, he’d probably be better off winnowing down his arsenal in the minors.