Early in spring training, Mike King evaluated his performance in 2020, his first extended time in the majors.
It did not go particularly well as King posted a 7.76 ERA in nine appearances (four starts).
What did he learn? "That you need a third pitch to pitch in the big leagues, especially if you're trying to get through the order two times," King said Feb. 21, offering a blunt assessment. "For me, I kind of was just sinkers the whole time. My changeup was iffy and my slider was still pretty bad. So that was a big emphasis this offseason, [getting] a really good feel for a breaking ball. And then [having] my change to be a little bit better than it was last year."
King, 25, won a roster spot despite an uneven spring training, and the improvements he spoke of were on full display Sunday in the Yankees' 3-1 loss to the Blue Jays.
After Domingo German lasted just three innings, King came in and dominated. He shrugged off a tough start — the first two batters reached on a walk and a hit, and he had to pitch out of a bases-loaded jam because of Gary Sanchez's catcher's interference — and threw six scoreless innings in which he allowed that one hit and walk with three strikeouts. The righthander retired the final 16 batters.
"Saw a lot more than three pitches," one rival American League talent evaluator said Monday. "I thought he had four or five — fastball, two- and four-seam, saw the curveball and changeup. Also saw a cutter/slider. It was a pleasure to watch a pitcher willing to pitch to contact, willing to throw the ball over the plate, whose main intention isn’t to try to strike everyone out. He was really fun to watch."
And efficient. King, whose fastball generally sits in the mid-90s and who does not overpower batters, threw 68 pitches in his six innings, the same number of pitches thrown by German in three innings. King needed only 44 pitches to get through the final five innings.
It wasn’t only scouts who came away impressed.
"I thought he was one step ahead of the guys," Gerrit Cole said of a Toronto lineup expected to be one of the best in the AL this season. "And I thought that he was just really composed delivery-wise and all of his pitches were looking very much the same. I think it contributed both to execution and deception as well."
A National League scout referenced the changeup that King talked about throughout spring training.
"Repeated his arm speed," the scout said. "You want to look to see if they’re doing anything different [throwing a changeup] — if they’re dropping their arm slot or slowing the arm down or tipping the pitch in any way. He gave no indication he was doing that."
King has a bullpen role as of now — one he’s thrilled to have, as any role in the majors beats the alternative in the minors — but said after Sunday's outing that his preference is to be an every-five-days starter someday.
"I always picture myself as a starter," he said. "But we’ve got six, seven studs on this team, so I also pride myself on being versatile."
King is likely to get a number of starts at various points in 2021 because of the innings restrictions every starter but Cole faces.
Cole was asked if he thinks King has a starter's repertoire. "Yeah," he said. "I think fastball command is first and foremost. It's pretty much every starter’s bread and butter. And I think he’s also unique in that his fastball can create weak contact, which is really helpful early in counts and trying to keep the pitch count down in general. That was something that was stressed upon us early in our careers, way back like eight or nine years ago. And it still holds true today. And I like the guts. Everybody should want to be a starter and, you know, go for it."