On top of a subpar offense, the New York Yankees have struggled to keep up with starting pitching issues in 2023. But as the season comes to a close, the Yankees have seemingly identified a secret weapon to incorporate into their starting rotation in 2024.
The Yankees’ starting pitching has been depleted
Before the season even started, both Carlos Rodon and Frankie Montas were ruled out for an extended period due to injuries, which made the 2023 starting pitching corps comprised of Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes Jr., Luis Severino, Clarke Schmidt, and Domingo German. The injury bug continued to strike the Yankees when Cortes went down early in the season with an injury.
Late into 2023, the Yankees lost both Luis Severino to injury and Domingo German due to alcohol-related issues, leaving several spots open in the Yankees’ starting rotation. Yankees manager Aaron Boone mediated this by utilizing Jhony Brito as well as Randy Vasquez. With all of this turmoil, the Yankees turned to long-inning relief pitcher Michael King to get a bulk role as a starting pitcher.
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Michael King is ascending into a new role
King has been solid all year as a reliever, with a 3.18 xERA, 31.2% Hard Hit, and eight run-value on offspeed pitches, all ranking in the 90th percentile or above in the MLB.
In his new role as a starter, King has excelled with a 1.05 ERA along with a 13-strikeout performance against the Toronto Blue Jays on September 20th. With the likely departure of Montas, Severino, and German, the Yankees enter 2024 with a potential secret weapon in their rotation.
Former failed experiment?
King has a history with the Yankees pitching across a span of multiple innings. Since 2020, King has pitched three or more innings 12 times, including two appearances in 2021 where he saw more than five innings of work. The Yankees have shown their willingness to start King in the past three years, as King got the start for the Yankees four times in 2020, six times in 2021, and now six starts in 2023. In all of these starts, King has at least gone two innings, and for 12 of them, he’s gone over three innings as a starting pitcher.
Despite this, King as a starter was more or less of a failed experiment. Before 2023, King’s 10 games as a starter he threw 38 innings with a 6.52 ERA and walked 21 while striking out 36. This is why after the 2021 season, King pitched primarily as a long-inning reliever or a setup guy, leading to his best season as a reliever in 2022.
King’s 2022 was excellent, with a 2.29 ERA along with Yankees closer Clay Holmes leading the best bullpen in the MLB in the first half of 2022 with a 2.71 ERA as a staff. As the Yankees started to regress from their 52-18 record in 2022, King was injured in July, further putting a damper on the Yankee’s season.
King’s Transition into a starting role
With Severino, Cortes, and German out, King’s transition started as a bullpen opener and his pitch count was brought up with each start he made. Yankees manager Aaron Boone ramped up his pitch count from 50 on August 24th up to 101 on September 20th, with results for King not being impacted much at all in his starts.
On top of his 1.05 ERA, King has a 1.31 FIP, 35.1% strikeout percentage and no home runs given up in over a month in the starting rotation. Since his first 2023 start on August 24th, he ranks first in FIP along with second in strikeout percentage and ERA, which shows that the Yankees have unlocked a gem in Michael King in the rotation in his eight games and 34.1 innings as a starter in 2023. His average velocity has stuck at 94.7 on his fastballs, which is consistent with his 2023 year numbers, and his pitches grade out to a 114 Stuff+ in his time in the rotation.
These starts haven’t been against all bad teams either, the two best starts in his time in the rotation have been against the Toronto Blue Jays, which is a Top 10 team in wRC+ this season. King also has a start on the road in Houston in September while the Astros are competing for a playoff spot and a start against the NL Central champions in the Milwaukee Brewers.
The thing that has struck out for King is his pitch arsenal, which has seen some changes across his career, especially in his transition from reliever to starter.
King’s dominant pitch in his career has been his sinker, a pitch he threw over 65% in 2019, gradually falling each year, eventually sitting at 37% in 2022.
But another story can be seen when you look at King’s sinker usage as a reliever compared to what he’s done as a starter. As a reliever in 2023, King ditched his sinker as his main pitch, moving to a sweeper that King used 33.3% of the time while using his sinker only 30% of the time. But since moving to the starting rotation, the adjustment for King has been an increased use of his sinker, because using the sweeper more than one time through the order isn’t as effective. King’s sinker usage has jumped to 40.2% in his eight starts in 2023, peaking in his first start at 52.2% on September 3, and gradually leveling out over time.
This sinker is a solid pitch, and as time has gone it has improved in production, in 2020 the pitch was graded as a negative five-run value pitch with a .423 wOBA and 21.7% strikeout percentage. In 2023, his sinker had a Statcast run value of four, along with a .339 wOBA and a 27.1% strikeout percentage. Even between 2022 to 2023 there has been a jump in the effectiveness of the sinker, moving from 22.7% to 27.1% after recovering from injury in 2022, and limiting usage in his sinker.
As King continues to develop, his sinker development could be integral as he continues to transition to the starting role.
King’s elite arsenal
King’s arsenal is much more diverse since he was throwing his sinker 65% of the time in 2019.
King has a four-seam fastball that he can use that can touch 97.5 MPH, and has the highest strikeout percentage of his arsenal with 33.7% in 2023. His pitch touched 98 in 2022 and was one of his best pitches before his injury in July.
The teams Chase% peaked on 5/13 at 46%. Michael King’s 4-seam Fastball led the way, forcing 6 chases on 8 FBs outside of the K-zone, including back-to-back whiffs from Yoan Moncada to get the strikeout. King’s FB Velo continues to trend upward, but his VB is a couple ticks down.PitchStats on X
But in 2023, it still is impressive, with a 25% whiff percentage, and both a batting average and an expected batting average under .200.
Both of his fastballs pair very well with his offspeed pitches, which are also phenomenal.
His sweeper has a 41.1% whiff percentage, 18.1 inches of horizontal break is graded as a 145 Stuff+ pitch, and as mentioned before was his bread and butter pitch. One of the biggest reasons it’s graded so high is it’s paired with King’s sinker because the pitch is delayed in its dramatic horizontal break.
King also has a wicked changeup that is graded out as a 3.3 Run-Value/100 pitch by Statcast, along with 17 inches of horizontal break that moves to the complete opposite side of the plate than his sweeper. In 2023, King has allowed a .131 wOBA, a 43% whiff percentage a slugging percentage of .127 allowed, and a .95 batting average allowed.
2024 fifth starter role
With Cole, Cortes, Rodon, and Schmidt likely returning, it is up in the air what the fifth starter will be for the 2024 Yankees.
The farm system has three top 10 prospects that are knocking at the door of the big leagues. No. 4 prospect Chase Hampton and the No. 96 overall prospect has an ETA of 2025 and is currently in Double-A ball. No. 5 prospect Drew Thorpe also has an ETA of 2025 but has dominated in high-a and his short stint in Double-A this year with a 1.48 ERA and a 2.15 FIP. No. 10 prospect Will Warren serves as an option to be in the rotation in 2024, but has had a struggle since coming up to Triple-A this year.
In the current roster, potentially losing Montas and Severino in free agency leaves current pitchers Randy Vasquez and Jhony Brito as options, but both might not be the best choices going forward. Brito has shown promise as a reliever, with a 1.30 ERA in 34.2 innings pitched in relief compared to his 6.33 ERA as a starter, with 13 home runs given up and -0.5 fWAR. Vasquez has been solid as a starter but hasn’t had a large sample to justify him being the fifth starter.
With King’s transition, arsenal, and resume, he is a great option for a fifth starter, and potentially higher if Cortes or Schmidt regresses in 2024.