TORONTO – No less than Gerrit Cole gave Michael King the endorsement of endorsements.
“Michael’s got every trait you want out of a starter,” Cole said Tuesday.
Cole, the presumed AL Cy Young Award winner who took the mound Wednesday against the Blue Jays in his final start of the season, spoke in the visitor’s clubhouse at Rogers Centre a few hours before King’s start.
The Yankees began stretching out King, a standout reliever the last couple of seasons who came up through the system, as a starter on Aug. 24 to see if he might be a rotation option for 2024.
It would not be a stretch to say King has nailed the audition. The righthander threw six scoreless innings and lowered his ERA to 1.05 in seven starts (he’s slated to start the season finale Sunday in Kansas City).
Tuesday’s outing might have been his most impressive yet.
King, coming off a start against the in-contention Blue Jays Sept. 20 at the Stadium when he allowed one run over seven innings and struck out a career-high 13 (he did not walk a batter), had nowhere near that kind of stuff Tuesday against a Toronto team still in need of every victory it can get.
As King said afterward: “I didn’t have command of any of my pitches.”
The righthander walked a season-high five and struck out five, but allowed only one hit.
Big-league pitchers often say what separates the top starters from everyone else is the ability to churn out quality outings when they don’t have their best stuff.
In talking about King before Tuesday’s game, Cole, somewhat prophetically, hit on that element of the pitcher’s development.
“Not every day is going to be good,” Cole said. “There’s going to be some really, really bad days and really, really good days.”
King, for the most part in command of his fastball-changeup-sinker-slider arsenal his previous six starts, had none of that Tuesday.
“It’s obviously a confidence booster,” King said. “Like they say, you’re not going to have your best stuff every time. Good starters are the ones that are able to still get outs and put up zeroes and put the team in a good spot to win, even without everything.”
King, while far from guaranteed a spot in next season’s rotation, has convinced the Yankees, for now, that his bullpen days are behind him. Aaron Boone said last week he views King “as a starter” going into the offseason. His performance has also turned King into a potential trade chip. The Yankees, who have several roster holes going into next year that likely won’t all be filled by free agency, almost certainly will be asked about him this winter. If he’s still with the organization, King will be given every opportunity to win a rotation spot next spring.
“I think what stands out to me is just how good he is,” Boone said. “It was a grind for him (Tuesday). He didn’t have great command, stuff was probably a little less as the night went on. But he’s still able to make pitches and he’s got so many weapons he can go to. It’s the weapons he has that he can navigate, even when he doesn’t have his best stuff or he doesn’t have as sharp command. Six innings of shutout ball, that’s pretty impressive.”
The lone question remaining would seem to be durability.
King has had two major elbow injuries – a stress reaction in 2019 that limited him to 11 games in the minors that year (he did make his big-league debut Sept. 27, 2019), and an elbow fracture he suffered July 22, 2022 in Baltimore that ended his season.
The 100 2/3 innings King has thrown this year is big-league career-high, though as a starter in 2018 in the minors he did throw 161 1/3 innings.
“He’s got (everything),” Cole said. “Four pitches. The preparation, command, off-speed, the fastball. We have to get him now to 170 innings, that’s our goal. It’s not like he hasn’t done it before, he’s thrown 160 in the minor leagues for us, just not at this level. That’s the only thing he’s left to prove. Obviously, he can do it, obviously he can dominate. You have to do it every week. You have to do it 1 ½ times a week for six months.”