As Josh discussed in detail earlier today, the Yankees took a particular approach to last offseason. They eschewed top free agents, and focused on upgrading their defense while relying on their internal pitching. That last point is somewhere Brian Cashman has excelled. It’s one thing to go out and deplete your entire farm for a rotation like, say, the Padres of did, but it’s another to build a staff more out of raw clay.
One specific player and everything surrounding him exemplify this approach to pitching development: Michael King.
The 6-foot-3 right-hander, a former 12th-round pick of the Miami Marlins, King came over to the Yankees in one of those deals that nobody gave a lot of attention to at the time. The Yankees have had a lot of success with those kinds of trades, plucking obscure names off other rosters and turning them into studs (Clay Holmes and Chad Green come to mind, among others).
King had a solid 2021 season, but with plenty of names ahead of him in the pecking order, there wasn’t a ton of clarity about how he would be used in the 2022 season. Esteban talked a little bit about him after his first appearance, and something worth noting was that the Yankees have been rather strict about defined roles in their ‘pen. There was a fear that King would get buried as a swingman-type arm when his stuff and performance asked for a more impactful role.
Whether it was due to the inconsistency of Aroldis Chapman, a not as dominant Jonathan Loáisiga, or simply King forcing the Yankees’ hand with shutdown performance after shutdown performance, it looks like he is set for a role in high-leverage spots, with the added caveat that he can go multiple innings without breaking a sweat. A sort of throwback to the old fireman, an homage to the great Sparky Lyle. Although it’s a little early to put King in that kind of conversation, his stuff and makeup allow for similar usage.
There’s the argument to be made that King has been so dominant, that he could have success even if you stretched him out as a starter. There are a few different aspects to cover on that front.
King has a four-pitch repertoire, and the graphic below shows he’s been mixing it up in 2022. Last year, he threw sinkers at a 53% clip, but that’s down to 39.3% in the young 2022 season.
Even leaving his (effective) changeup aside for a second, we’ve seen pitchers be successful in 2022 throwing sinkers in on righties, four-seamers up in the zone, and a breaking ball for whiffs. One that comes to mind on that front is Kyle Wright, whose improved command has elevated him to the next level.
If all this is true, and the Yankees have such a solid bullpen, then why is King still in relief? The Yankees had the second-best bullpen in ERA in the AL in 2021, behind only the Tampa Bay Rays. That said, while the team’s rotation wasn’t viewed with a tremendous amount of confidence entering 2022, the results tell a different story, and explain why Aaron Boone and the Yankees must be satisfied letting King crush it in the bullpen for now.
Gerrit Cole is Gerrit Cole. Jordan Montgomery may not be an exciting arm, but he’d be an important contributor in any rotation. Luis Severino has shown his stuff is still there. Nestor Cortes has been a revelation. Jameson Taillon is not gonna wow anybody, but he’s one of the best fifth starters in all of baseball as of right now.
The Yankees’ rotation is set, and the best spot for King right now is in the ‘pen as a high-leverage reliever, capable of going for multiple innings when called upon. He gives Boone a versatile weapon to deploy in all kinds of situations.
What can expect for King long term? The talented right-hander is still a developing pitcher, and he has no more than 20+ innings with this new approach, but the sky is the limit for him.
King’s current optimal role as a high-leverage reliever should not interfere with what could be a career with tremendous potential as a starter down the line. Right now, because of shrewd roster construction, the Yankees have a reliable starting five and can afford to be patient with King, and not push the envelope.
The days of mop-up duty for King certainly appear to be over though. He’s among the first names the Yankees will call late in games. And if all goes well, we should get a chance to see him do even more in the future.