BALTIMORE — Michael King is in a tough spot. He has developed into one of the best multi-inning relievers in the game this season. The Yankees have already leaned on him in big places this season. On Tuesday night he was simply dominant again holding off Orioles hitters in the Yankees’ 5-4 victory at Camden Yards.
In his heart, however, King still considers himself a starter and wants to be one in the future. The Yankees know that, and when he emerged into a starting job last week due to consecutive rainouts, they thought they’d give him a chance to start against the White Sox for a minute. Yankees manager Aaron Boone acknowledged that he’s too valuable in his current role to mess with him right now.
Considering he wasn’t sure he’d make the major league team during spring training, King took the news in stride.
“I think first things first are wins. So if Boonie thinks I’m more valuable doing this, I’m happy to do it,” King said. “If the time comes when he wants me to start, I will gladly do so. I just want to help the team win in as many ways as possible.”
This season, King has been one of the main contributors to the early success of the Yankees’ bullpen. Bombers relievers lead the majors with a 2.50 ERA despite a worrying trend of struggling closer Aroldis Chapman giving up one earned run in each of his last four appearances. On Tuesday night, Chapman allowed the Orioles to cut the Yankees’ lead to one run and put the winning run at second base.
But the Orioles had been completely shut down by King for the previous three innings, giving the Yankees a chance to build a safe offense and weather Chapman’s shaky finish.
On Tuesday night, King was ridiculous. He pitched three perfect innings, facing nine batters and striking out six.
It is no longer surprising.
King leads the majors in strikeouts as a reliever with 37 in 25.2 innings pitched in 12 appearances. His strikeout percentage (39.4%) and Whiff% (41.2) are up nearly 17 points this season and his walk rate is down more than 4% to 4.3.
All of that is to say that the 26-year-old right-hander the Yankees got from the Marlins has an impeccable 1.40 ERA and is a major weapon in the Yankees’ bullpen for now.
“It’s hard to describe, because he could be closer to 29 other teams, he could be a starter for 29 other teams. It could be that kind of leverage in the last inning,” Yankees slugger Aaron Judge said. “It’s been fun to watch it develop over the years. … I was a little up and down, up and down. And now he’s established himself with this repertoire and can handle any big situation.”
That repertoire still has the four pitches (fastball, slurve, changeup, curveball) of a starter, which he uses to neutralize hitters on both sides of the plate. It includes a nasty “slurve,” which he learned from Corey Kluber last year. Kluber’s ball has a sweeping horizontal motion that provokes into the zone and then ends up down and away from right-handed hitters. He mirrors and complements his sinker, which has always been his strong base tone. Against left-handed hitters, King primarily uses his four-seam fastball in the zone and the changeup from him.
“I mean, it’s like a video game,” Yankees right-hander Jameson Taillon said of King. “He makes his strikes look like balls and his balls look like strikes. It’s like a crossfire can go and you can back up a plumb line and throw a curveball into the batter’s box and make yourself look like a fool.”
And while King still harbors hopes of becoming a starter eventually, he found he likes the adrenaline rush of being a reliever. Tuesday night he came in with no outs and a runner on second base.
“The adrenaline is definitely huge. And I love to pick up my teammates, I love to have [Taillon] trust me and say you have my career, but I know you’re going to get the starts,” King said. “So I love that. I love helping my team.”