Yankees Michael King Emerges as Relief Ace

It was June in the Bronx and the New York Yankees were playing the Boston Red Sox. The New York Yankees trailed their historic rival by three games in the standings and were about to start a three-game set. The Red Sox sent Nathan Eovaldi to the mound to face off against 26-year-old righty, Michael KingThe Sox jumped ahead out of the gate via Rafael Devers’ three-run homer in the first inning. Eovaldi would shut down the Yankees lineup—only allowing them to plate two runs in his six innings of work. King bounced back from the first and kept the Yankees within striking distance for most of the game. One by one, the Red Sox hitters stepped to the plate, looking for a way to bounce King from the game and force the Yankees to dip into their pen.

Then Came the Fourth Inning. 

The Red Sox’s six, seven, and eight hitters were due to bat. Hunter Renfroe, Marwin Gonzalez, and Christian Vazquez each lugged their lumber to the plate and were made to look like fools. Each one went up, and each one came down. King sliced through the three Red Sox hitters, striking them out swinging to retire the side on only nine pitches—an Immaculate Inning.  

Michael King had recorded the 94th immaculate inning in MLB history and became just the seventh Yankee ever to do so. Dellin Betances was the last Yankee pitcher to do it in 2017. Boston would score another run off of King and would win the game 5-2, en route to a Sox series sweep. To distract from the fact that they had just been swept by their hated rival, the Yankees could find solace in the thought that Michael King showed everyone what he was capable of. He was far from perfect for the entirety of the game. In fact, he gave up four earned runs and was charged with the loss. But for a handful of minutes in the fourth inning, he was immaculate. 

Yankees Traded for King in 2017

History can be made by anyone. But given that King was an average reliever heading into the game against the Red Sox, it seemed particularly unlikely that he, of all people, would make history. 

A 12th-round draft pick of the Miami Marlins out of Boston College in 2016, King was traded to the Yankees in a deal that included left-handed pitcher Caleb Smith and infielder Garrett Cooper the next year. In 2019, King would receive a non-roster invite to spring training and would make his debut on Sept. 27—pitching two innings of relief against the Texas RangersKing’s first full season came in the 2020 season, in which he posted an abysmal 7.76 ERA in just 26 2/3 innings. He would bounce back in 2021, pitching to a 3.55 ERA in 63 1/3 innings, and in June, would toss the aforementioned immaculate inning.  King has the making of a starting pitcher. His pitch repertoire proves as much. Unlike a typical reliever, King utilizes a five-pitch mix to get outs. A sinker and changeup complement his 95 mph fastball while a curveball and slider function as effective out pitches.

King Credits Former Teammate Corey Kluber for His Improved Slider

Coming into 2021, King was looking to improve. His slider was not breaking the way that he liked and was finishing pretty flat as it approached the plate. In his bullpen sessions, King would tinker with the pitch, looking for ways to improve it.  Luckily for King, the Yankees had signed two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber in the offseason, and in Kluber, King would find the help he needed.  Kluber showed King his slider grip and taught him how to throw it. Within a matter of a few bullpen sessions, King found the pitch he was looking for. His slider spun tightly, slashing hard through the zone and diving down and away from right-handed hitters. The pitch gained over eight inches of horizontal movement and helped King add to history. 

Fast forward to June, and King had struck out the side on the Red Sox in the fourth inning, on nine pitches, two of which were sliders down and away to retire Gonzalez and Vazquez. No single pitch is responsible for Michael King’s success in the big leagues. King pitches, not like a reliever, but like a starter—hurling a full arsenal of pitches. He’ll use three or four different pitches to record outs instead of relying on two, or even one. This has set him apart from other relievers in the Yankees bullpen. His versatility has made him an option for a spot-start or a multi-inning relief appearance. His strikeout stuff makes him an option in high-leverage spots, when a grounder just won’t cut it. 

Yankees Bullpen Bolstered with the Addition of King

For the last few seasons, one of the strengths of the New York Yankees has been their stellar bullpen. Closer Aroldis Chapman has consistently shut down batters for most of his career. Farm-grown pitchers like Chad Green and Jonathan Loaisiga have been revelations for the Yankees pen, and former Pittsburgh Pirate Clay Holmes has been a great find for them. So far in 2022, Green and Loaisiga have yet to hit their stride2—both with ERAs above three. Holmes has been excellent, recording a strikeout per inning to compliment his 0.69 ERA. The Yankees needed another bullpen arm to step up and become elite and King has done just that. 

King Stranded the Bases Loaded Against the Blue Jays

King’s first major test of the 2022 season came on April 14th against the Toronto Blue JaysIt was the ninth inning and the Yankees needed three outs to secure the win. Aroldis Chapman came into the game to, hopefully, produce a clean inning. Chapman has, at times throughout his career, blown the occasional save. Some small and inconsequential, and others not so much. Usually a reliable strike-thrower, Chapman walked three Blue Jays in a row to load the bases. Still, with no outs in the inning, the top of the Jays order came up to bat.

Out came Aaron Boone from the dugout to yank his closer from the game. King emerged out of the bullpen and took over for Chapman. He struck George Springer out on a fastball away and then got Bo Bichette to line a curveball straight into the glove of a ranging DJ LeMahieu, who fired the ball back to Anthony Rizzo at first—doubling off Matt Chapman and ending the game. It was King’s first signature moment in pinstripes and was also his first save at the big-league level. It’s early in the season, but King has been a standout performer on a Yankee team that leads the AL East. King closed out the month with a very impressive 0.61 ERA in 14.2 innings of work, while allowing only one earned run and striking out 24.

Yankees Pen Reigns Atop AL East

Standing atop the division, the Yankees look just as good as many predicted that they would be. The ascendance of King into the backend of the Yankees bullpen, which already features a handful of names that would make any manager groan in despair, has made the Yankees pitching staff one of the best in MLB. 

Main Photo:
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Players Mentioned:

Rafael Devers, Nathan Eovaldi, Michael King, Hunter Renfroe, Marwin GonzalezChristian Vazquez, Dellin Betances, Caleb Smith, Garrett Cooper, Corey Kluber, Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga, George Springer, Bo Bichette, DJ LeMahieu, Anthony Rizzo, Matt Chapman, Clay Holmes