The Yankees can’t have a closer controversy, because Aaron Boone has never named a closer. But the manager will soon have Michael King available to him more frequently.
As a reliever often assigned to multiple innings, King is able to make significant contributions -- but then has to sit on the shelf for several days afterward. Given his recent effectiveness, it must be tempting for Boone to use him more frequently in high-leverage or save situations.
Word around the Yankees is that King will soon be able to do that. Though the team has not said it publicly, it has followed a careful plan in rolling out King’s return from the elbow fracture that ended his 2022 season.
The Yankees haven’t just been avoiding using King on back-to-back days, but have steered clear of using him with a day off between outings. All the while, though, they’ve operated with the intention of progressing toward more frequent usage.
King’s velocity is trending upward, his stuff is looking strong and his arm feeling healthy, so the team is getting closer to taking the reins off. Soon, he will be available to pitch shorter bursts, like an inning at a time, without needing long breaks between outings.
King confirmed the progression.
“We talked about it in spring training,” he told SNY. “What was great was, every time I pitched I felt great -- but it took me a good, like, three or four days to get back. The recovery was tough. And after -- it was honestly probably like a month ago, I feel like my recovery has really progressed. Now I can rip it in catch play the day after or two days after. Knowing that, and seeing that progress, has probably allowed them to be like, ‘Okay, we can evolve your role if we need to.'
“The original [role] in April, it was going to be if I pitched three innings, I was going to get three days off. If I was needed for one inning, I was going to get one day off. And then [Boone] said, we would kind of ease you into it instead of just throwing you on back-to-back outings,’ because we wouldn’t know how my bullets would respond.”
So does King feel like he’s getting close to being able to pitch on back-to-back days?
“Yeah,” he said. “I have been very happy with it. Even on days when I’m [not available], he’ll ask me, ‘Hey, how do you feel?’ And I was able to rip it in catch play. That, to me, is the gold standard.”
This will give Boone another option on nights when Clay Holmes is down, or when he doesn’t feel that Holmes is the best option to face the heart of an opposing order in the eighth or ninth inning. As per his habit, Boone continues to express deep faith in Holmes despite the inconsistency.
This was no different on Monday, when Holmes blew a save that led to a full news cycle of outrage over Boone’s decision to replace a cruising Domingo German with Holmes in the ninth inning (that was hands-down the right decision, by the way; opposing batters have an OPS of 1.067 against German this season from pitches 76-100; in this game, German was at 88 pitches).
It is fair, however, to ask if Boone should have felt better about King in that spot than Holmes.
King, by the way, is not among the Holmes doubters.
"If I’m pitching and starting to tire and getting people on base, and I turn around to see he’s warming up, it warms my heart,” King said. “We all have a ton of confidence in him. His sinker is probably the best pitch in baseball.”
Holmes does indeed feature an elite pitch, and he often yields it effectively. He has not, however, been as consistent as in the first half of last season, when he became one of the top relievers in the game and made the American League All-Star team.
Holmes struggled at times after that, then recovered his form -- mostly, at least -- in the postseason. In spring training, I asked Boone if Holmes was his closer, and he made a point to note that several relievers would get save chances this year.
That rhetorical approach will come in handy soon, when Boone doesn’t have to worry about demoting Holmes or naming King. And if King’s progression continues according to what we now know was the plan all along, Boone will have an additional righty with a big arm to choose from with a narrow lead in the ninth.