Michael King has mostly dazzled in his audition to be a part of the Yankees’ 2024 rotation.
And his latest start, Wednesday night against the Blue Jays, was his best yet.
The righthander allowed one run and five hits over a season-high seven innings in which he didn’t walk a batter and struck out a career-high 13 in a 6-1 loss.
So, what exactly do the Yankees have with the 28-year-old who, even while becoming a bullpen weapon the last few seasons, never gave up on his goal of being a big-league starter?
And, more specifically, how much stock should be put in his electric performance since August when the Yankees began stretching him out?
“It’s not a mirage,” said one longtime National League talent evaluator who generally would be considered a hard grader when it comes to pitchers. “He can be really good [as a starter]. He’s got life, he’s got command, he’s got two other pitches [the sweeper and changeup] that work against both lefthanders and righthanders. The changeup is really good, the life on the fastball’s really good, the command is really good.”
King, though just 1-2 since Aug. 24 – which is when the Yankees began the process of stretching him out – has posted a 1.27 ERA in that stretch. Not surprisingly, after Wednesday’s loss, Aaron Boone said of the pitcher and a spot in next season’s rotation: “I think he’s staking a pretty good claim for [it].”
King had been given sporadic chances in his Yankees’ career to start, and they didn’t go well.
He went 0-2 with an 8.36 ERA in four starts in 2020 and went 0-3 with a 5.47 ERA in six starts a year later (after being shifted to the bullpen in 2021 King had a 2.33 ERA in 16 relief appearances).
“I know I had opportunities in 2020 and 2021, but felt like I didn’t capitalize on them,” King said. “I feel like I’ve continued to evolve and I’m hoping that [this] audition is successful.”
King, however, is a far different pitcher now than he was then. In 2020 King, by his own admission, more or less had all of two pitches in his arsenal – a sinker and slider.
“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 early in spring training 2021 of what he learned from his starting experience in 2020.
What followed, and it’s taken some trial and error, is the development, as the NL scout mentioned, of King’s four-seam fastball and changeup to go along with an improved sinker and slider. Rather than three pitches, King may have four, in scouts’ parlance, “plus” pitches.
“He certainly feels like he can do this from a starting standpoint,” Boone said. “I think he’s showing everyone he’s certainly capable of it. The next step is can he do it full-time [for] 150 or 180 innings as a starter?”
A rival American League scout who has covered King since his days in the minors referenced the same, zeroing in on the two major elbow issues the pitcher has had.
King’s development was halted early in 2019 when he suffered a stress reaction in his right elbow, an injury that limited him to just 11 games in the minors that season (he made his big-league debut Sept. 27, 2019).
In 2022, in the midst of an All-Star caliber season, King’s year suddenly ended July 22 in Baltimore when he suffered a right elbow fracture. The 94 2/3 innings King has pitched this season are a career-high by far (next are the 63 1/3 innings he threw in 2021).
“King’s good,” the AL scout said. “But can he stay healthy? He hasn’t shown it yet [long term]. If you can have him as one of your five and you keep him healthy, he’s got a chance to be a playoff starter, an upper tier playoff starter. Maybe not a No. 1, but [in the mix]. He’s not afraid out there. He’s a really interesting guy.”