Can Michael King be the best reliever on the Yankees in 2023?

michael king, yankees

In a bullpen as stacked as the Yankees, claiming any individual arm as the “best” is quite difficult to do. Jonathan Loaisiga shook off a horrid start to the season to become the Yankees’ most reliable playoff arm, Wandy Peralta remained consistent all season, and Clay Holmes was the best reliever in the American League for most of the season.

Lost in the fold was Michael King, who suffered an elbow fracture against the Orioles in July that ended his season. He had a 2.29 ERA and struck out over 33% of batters he faced in 51 IP, somehow remaining the leader in fWAR for relievers on the Yankees (1.7).

With his incredible repertoire of pitches and ability to throw so many innings, Michael King can be the Yankees’ top reliever in 2023.

One of Baseball’s Best Sliders:

It’s no secret that Michael King has an absolutely filthy slider that he’s used to dominate hitters across the league. King’s slider generates a ridiculous 18.7″ of horizontal movement, the only slider thrown at or above 82 MPH with 16″ or more of horizontal movement. He added 2.5 MPH of velocity between 2021 and 2022, and his slider went from a pretty good to arguably the best in baseball.

Velocity on breaking pitches is extremely important since higher velocity tends to detract from movement since there’s less flight time for the ball to generate movement. King didn’t just maintain his horizontal sweep, he added nearly an inch in the process of adding velocity. Having more movement with less time to react causes a lot of the ugly swings we see from hitters on the slider. Run-Value (run impact of a pitch with ball-strike count, runners on base, and outs accounted for) loves Michael King’s slider, with it registering a -2.6 RV/100 in 2022.

This is a huge step up from 2021, where King’s slider registered a poor 1.0 RV/100, meaning he went from a poor slider to a top 15 slider on a per-rate basis production-wise. Stuff+ and Pitching+ adores the pitch as well, posting a 152.7 Stuff+ and 122.6 Pitching+, some of the best marks in the league. His breaking ball is truly a one-of-a-kind pitch despite the popularity of the sweeper, as based on it’s velocity, it generates 9 more inches than the average slider thrown at that velocity (82.3 MPH). With it’s unique nature, it’s no surprise hitters have had such a hard time hitting the pitch:

  • Slider
    • .130 BA
    • .197 wOBA
    • 42.3% Whiff%
    • 36.2% K%
    • 9.1% Hard Hit%

It’s virtually impossible to barrel up a pitch with that level of movement, as King threw the pitch 234 times and gave up 0 HRs in the process. It’s a pitch that can limit damaging contact, but most importantly, it’s a pitch that limits contact entirely. It’s his best pitch, but King’s fastballs have arguably been the biggest step forward for the righty in 2022.

Improved Fastballs and Improved Usage:

King has always relied heavily on his sinking fastball, and it’s a pitch that’s remained largely unchanged in terms of it’s movement profile because it’s always generated a lot of movement. With over 16″ of horizontal run, his sinker has been a premier option in his arsenal for generating groundballs and jamming batters. The big change between 2021 and 2022 has been the increased velocity, averaging 95.5 MPH versus 93.9 MPH in 2021, a massive change for a fastball. His sinker has generated better whiff qualities, with a 25.2% Whiff%.

Michael King’s sinker held batters to just a .301 wOBA in 2022, and it generated a -2.7 RV/100, the 11th-best mark among sinkers (min. 50 PAs). It’s one of just 12 sinkers to develop a Whiff% over 25% in 2022 under those same specifications, and its terrorized RHBs and LHBs. The issue stems from the fact that left-handed batters in 2021 were able to tee off of King (.349 wOBA) since his K-BB% was mediocre against them, with a near 10% BB%. The fix? Perfecting a four-seam fastball that would serve as a go-to strikeout pitch against lefties.

michael king, yankees

Michael King developed a rising fastball that had little horizontal movement and plenty of backspin to tackle lefties, and it worked. Lefties hit just .179 against King in 2022, striking out 37.9% of the time against his FF. The pitch averages over 96 MPH and generates a whopping 33.7% Whiff Rate and 39.2% K%. With 16.7″ of Induced Vertical Break, it plays well up in the zone to create swings and misses and get hitters to expand the strike zone, further evidenced by a 125.4 Stuff+.

Run-Value doesn’t like King’s four-seam fastball very much (1.1 RV/100), but the pitch serves a purpose for helping King generate whiffs against LHBs, and in tandem with his sinker makes for a great fastball profile that bode well for his arsenal. One pitch that particularly benefits from his FF is his changeup, a pitch that plays off of the vertical separation he generates. While he doesn’t hit the ~10″ benchmark for vertical separation of his FF and CH (8.8″), it does get 8.1 MPH of velocity separation.

His changeup generated tons of success, with batters befuddled by his offspeed wizardry at the dish:

  • Changeup
    • .095 BA
    • .090 wOBA
    • 57.9% Whiff%
    • 47.6 K%
    • 10.0% Hard Hit%

It should be noted that King only threw his changeup 9.6% of the time, though to LHBs, it was used 25.6% of the time. I believe the success of this pitch is based nearly entirely on improved command and the way it changes eye levels off of his FF. His FF and CH make up 69.2% of his pitch usage against lefties, so it’s no surprise that the two work well of each other, with a .170 AVG and K% above 40% against the adversaries he designed those pitches specifically for.

While on a per-rate basis King is elite, it’s his volume that can separate him from the pack.

The Yankees Can Bank on Volume for Value:

Michael King threw 51 innings in 2022, and he didn’t throw a single pitch after July 22nd. Just three relievers tossed more innings out of the bullpen for the Yankees, three. Michael King was on pace to toss nearly 87 innings, which would have led all of baseball in innings pitched. The ability King possesses as a former starter to give so many innings means he can pitch not just the 7th, not just the 8th, but perhaps even the 9th in a must-win playoff situation is unbelievably valuable.

Despite being on the IL for 41.4% of the 2022 season, King was 12th in fWAR and 21st in Win Probability Added, volume metrics that heavily favor those who pitch more. There just isn’t a reliever who can produce such elite per-rate metrics while also leading the league in innings pitched out of the bullpen, and that’s what makes King so unique. He’s built to handle both right-handed and left-handed batters adequately, and there’s really not a situation you don’t want King to pitch in. While he most likely won’t the close with Loaisiga and Holmes sharing that responsibility, I don’t think closing is the right role for him anyways.

michael king, yankees

King is best suited for a role that allows him to throw multiple innings and do so in a versatile manner. Need someone to cover the 7th and 8th before handing the game off to your close? Have a tied game heading into the 9th and potentially extras? Potentially need a 2 inning save? Michael King is prepared to handle it all and more. His stuff is elite, his command is improving, he can throw tons of innings, and his ability to pitch in high-pressure and bail the Yankees out of trouble all point to King being the Yankees’ top reliever in 2023.

Coming off of an elbow fracture, it’ll be an uphill battle for the 27-year-old RHP to continue to take leaps out of the bullpen for the Yankees. He’s come so far, and only a freak injury has held him back from truly establishing himself with the elite. Since making the full-time transition to the bullpen in 2021, he’s tossed 70 innings to the tune of a 2.31 ERA and 25.3% K-BB% with a 2.1 fWAR. The strikeouts are there, the walks are down, and he’s even generating groundballs at a high rate again (47.0%). 2023 is a huge year for Michael King, but he’s up to the task of becoming the top dog in the Bronx Bullpen.

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