The hints were there at times last year, sprinkled in over the course of 22 outings, that perhaps Michael King could turn into something big for the Yankees.
The right-hander bounced between the bullpen and rotation, filling various needs the Yankees had throughout the season, while posting a solid 3.55 ERA.
But did anyone think he would become arguably the best reliever in Major League Baseball over the first month of this season? The extent to which King is dominating opponents so far might be a surprise, but the success is not totally out of left field.
“I feel like it was brewing last year, where he showed flashes,” pitching coach Matt Blake said Friday in a phone interview as the Yankees’ game against the Rangers was washed out by the rain. “It was always, you’ve seen the potential and it’s just a matter of putting it together on the field in big moments. He’s really been able to capture that so far.”
King has given up just one earned run over 17 2/3 innings this season while striking out 25 and walking only three. He has been the Yankees’ most valuable weapon as a multi-inning shutdown threat out of the bullpen, with his importance going beyond that of a typical reliever.
Entering Friday, King was rated as the third-most valuable pitcher in all of baseball by FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (fWAR). His 1.2 of him trailed only a pair of starters: the Blue Jays’ Kevin Gausman (1.9) and the Giants’ Carlos Rodon (1.3)
The 26-year-old former starter, who posted a 0.7 fWAR last season, has a four-pitch arsenal (four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, slider and changeup) with which to fool opposing hitters. But his ability to refine those pitches and throw them all consistently for strikes — especially the breaking ball, a slider / curveball hybrid he learned last season from Corey Kluber — has allowed him to become a force regardless of whether he is facing a right -handed or left-handed hitter.
“It’s been huge,” Blake said. “Before, he had the really good two-seamer that he could get in on righties. He was always looking for that change-of-pace pitch or something that he could throw to the other side of the plate. … Then all of a sudden, this pitch really clicks for him and it takes off and now it’s a well above-average breaking ball that he can lean on for strikes and chase and it really opens up the other side of the plate. Now he can really crisscross the plate with his two-seams/four-seams/slider mix. It really keeps guys on edge.”
In his first three seasons in the big leagues, left-handed hitters were a combined 34-for-133 (.256) with an .838 OPS against King. This season, he has held them to 0-for-19 with one walk and 11 strikeouts.
But his sweeping slider has worked against more than just left-handers. All hitters are batting just .143 (2-for-14) against the pitch this season, according to Baseball Savant.
With an improved slider, a four-seam fastball that has seen a tick up in velocity, a two-seam fastball that has wild movement and a changeup that has produced a whiff percentage of 75 percent, King has an array of weapons at his disposal on any given night. And instead of trying to feel a game out as a starter, he has taken on an attacking mindset as a full-time reliever.
“He’s taken it to another level this year where all those things that were kind of coming together have really started to solidify so he has a lot of different options for his game plans to use,” said Blake, who has watched King pitch since he was a high schooler in Rhode Island pitching for the Yankees’ summer league scout teams.
Now, King has become so valuable that the biggest difficulty the Yankees have is determining the best spots in which to use him. He has recorded more than three outs in seven of his eight appearances, with the lone one-inning outing coming on April 14, when he bailed Aroldis Chapman out of a bases-loaded, no-outs situation for his first career save from him.
Most of the time, the Yankees have leaned on King for some length, allowing other high-leverage relievers to get a rest when they are holding a close lead — a weapon like the one the Red Sox have found in former Yankees prospect Garrett Whitlock.
“It’s been really helpful, and sometimes challenging, because you’re like, ‘Well, when’s the right time to shoot him?’ Blake said. “You don’t want to give away his length if we have it, but he’s obviously really good in short bursts too. … The mentality to come in and pound the strike zone and have the ability to get swing-and-miss and weak contact in those spots is huge.”