The Curious Case of Michael King [2021 Season in Review]

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Coming into 2021, Michael King was not necessarily envisioned to be a big part of the Yankees’ bullpen. A 2016 Miami Marlins draftee, King came into spring training with just 28.2 major league innings under his belt, all with the Yankees and mostly in the shortened 2020 season.  While his 2021 season, like much of the Yankees’ season, was up and down, King nonetheless showed growth and promise that the Yankees should hope to build on in 2022.

King made the major league roster out of spring training and immediately caught eyes – in his first appearance of the season on April 4, he tossed six scoreless innings in relief of Domingo German in a 3-1 loss to Toronto.  Efficient and effective in that outing, he used only 68 pitches to get through the fourth through ninth innings, giving up one hit and striking out three.  

He was optioned to the Alternate Site (RIP Alternate Site) after that outing, and after each of the two additional appearances he made for the major league club in April in more typical middle-relief roles.  Despite logging frequent flyer miles throughout the early part of the season, King continued to impress, throwing 11 scoreless innings before giving up his first run of the season on May 13.  

Throughout the season as the bullpen suffered a variety of slumps and injuries, King came to be relied on as a versatile swing-man, becoming a peripheral member of Aaron Boone’s circle of trust.  Between the end of May and the end of June, he was thrust into a spot-starter role, where he made six consecutive starts that could be best described as “mostly serviceable.” His overall 5.47 ERA as a starter was impacted by an oddity; he pitched to a bloated 15.00 ERA in the first inning, but would typically settle down thereafter, sporting a 2.63 ERA in innings two through six.  

As with many baseball statistical outliers, it’s unclear why King struggled so much in the first inning while putting up good numbers afterwards, but after he missed over a month with a finger injury (he allegedly jammed his finger between plates during a weightlifting session, go figure), he returned to action on September 10 in a strictly relief role.  He thrived over the last month of the season, putting up a 1.23 ERA over 14.2 innings in the month of September, striking out 14 and walking just 3.  While his innings were limited, his success in September indicated that, had the Yankees progressed further into the playoffs, he was going to be a central figure in their bullpen.

King has always been a sinker-heavy pitcher, and he continued that trend in 2021, but one of the major reasons for his growth during the year appeared to be significant change in the horizontal break of his slider (as documented by Lucas Apostoleris and Eno Sarris), which became a strong secondary pitch for him throughout the season.  He reportedly came into the season with a goal of making his slider “more sweepy”, and enlisted the help of veteran Corey Kluber in pursuit of more side-to-side movement on his breaking pitch.

King’s slider became a great weapon for him in 2021 as he managed to fool hitters in much of the strike zone.

His slider became a great weapon for him in 2021, as he put up a 28.8% whiff rate on that pitch. Combined with a and maintained solid strikeout numbers (8.8 K/9 rate through 63.1 innings).  He also added velocity to his four-seam fastball and sinker, increasing his average speed from 2020 by a full 1.5 mph on the four-seamer, and by nearly a full mile-per-hour on his sinker, which he threw over 50% of the time this past season.

What is clear from his 2021 performance is that King is still figuring out what pitch mix works best for him, but his tools are good enough for optimism going forward.  The Yankees have reason to hope that King will continue to be a strong figure in the bullpen moving into 2022, as he looks to repeat the success he had late in this season.  He could also have proven himself valuable enough to be trade bait in the offseason if the Yankees decide that their needs are greater in areas other than the bullpen.  Either way, King’s progression in 2021 adds value to the team that fans should be excited about.

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5 Comments

  1. MikeD

    Thanks, Ana. King was an intriguing starting candidate back in 2018, but even then his most likely destination was considered the bullpen. His overall stuff was fringy for a righty starter. Good control, but not equal command, and not enough fastball to turn over a line up multiple times. Add in an injury, and his MLB future, even as a reliever, was looking murky. The Yankees are good at adding velocity to their pitchers in the minors, so maybe they helped King here, or perhaps he got far enough a way from some of his injuries. Regardless, the increased velo coupled with the improvements he made to his slider makes him an intriguing pitcher again, although likely back as his projected position as a reliever.

  2. Anthony Rizzeddardo

    There was nothing curious about it, Ana. The kid has talent and should have been up here contributing a long time ago. And kids like him and Loisaga are the reason you don’t go out and waste tens of millions of dollars on broken Britton and crazy Chapman. Those moneys are better spent on every day players or starters because you can always get Loisaga to close, King to set up with others like Green, Holmes, Peralta, Leutge and Joeley filling in the gaps. And what ever happened Little Red Ridings hood? He was lights out when he came up and was rewarded by sending him back down to the minors just like Allen, Velazquez and Esteban. Knowing this FO, Stephen Ridings will be a Red Sock next year setting up for Whitlock. But Michael King is going to be a star in the pen for the next decade if we can keep him. It’s like that old woman who asked Ben Franklin after the Constitutional Convention, what have you given us sir? Franklin replied, a republic ma’am, if you can keep it. These kids can be great for us if we can keep them.

    • Wire Fan

      King might be a key part of the bullpen next year. Assuming the Yankees stick to their rigid 7-8-9 formula, it means Loaisiga Green and Chapman only pitch in games where they are tied or have a lead after 6 innngs (or are maybe down 1 run).

      That leaves the 3 lefties (Peralta, Luetge, Rodriguez), King, and Holmes in the pen for a lot of key innings. Hopefully Holmes carries his improved control forward and King emerges as maybe a bit lesser version of Loaisiga 2021, but those lefties are probably going to be in a lot of medium or even high leverage outings.

      I still don’t understand having three lefties for middle relief.

      • MikeD

        You’re assuming the current structure of the pen will remain consistent, while I don’t believe that to be the case at all. There could be changes to it as soon as a week from Friday, highly likely by December 1, and most definitely by Opening Day.

    • dwnflfan

      Should’ve been contributing long ago? When? 2020 when he put up a 7.76 ERA for the Yanks in 26.2 innings and a 4.76 at AAA? 2019 when he had a 5.48 ERA over 3 levels in the minors? He developed his slider into an out pitch hopefully he can keep it up and be a cheap, valuable bullpen arm for the next several years.
      Whitlock missed all of 2020 with an injury. He changed his delivery in the offseason and a Sox scout was lucky enough to see the change so they nabbed him.
      Ridings hurt his elbow; he wasn’t sent down he was put on the 60 Day DL.
      I’m still scratching my head as to why they didn’t keep Allen up. He sparked the Yankees, was sent down and tore up AAA.
      Velazquez was fun but he’s also a AAAA, emergency fill-in type of player. His OPS+ was 61 last year and it’s 43 for his MLB career. He’s hit 47 HR’s in 9 minor league seasons and his K-W ratio is about 3:1. He can’t hit at all.
      Florial didn’t hit at AAA and probably will never will hit in the MLB. He’s a 4 tool CF’er but lacks one of the most important tools; he can’t make contact.

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