Michael King emerges to lead dominant Yankees bullpen to MLB's best ERA

Sarah Stier/GettyImages

With the Yankees up 3-2 over the Guardians in the top of the eighth inning, Aaron Boone called upon Michael King to get the final two outs of the inning. King inherited a runner on first base, Andrés Giménez, who'd reached on a fielder’s choice. That didn’t faze him. The first batter King faced was Mike Zunino, who received three straight nasty sweepers, which generated three whiffs and a strikeout. 

Against Will Brennan, the ensuing batter, King attacked in a different way: pounding the strike zone with fastballs. King’s first delivery was a perfectly placed low and away 95 mph sinker for a called strike. King’s next two pitches were four-seamers up in the strike zone, the first of which Brennan swung and missed at, while the next was fouled off. On the final pitch of the at bat, King dotted a fastball on the lower part of the strike zone, freezing Brennan for strike three.

Unlike most relievers, though, King’s night wasn’t finished. After getting an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth inning, King had a two-run cushion to work with in the ninth inning. Despite Myles Straw and Steven Kwan making King work for a combined 11 pitches, he struck out Straw and forced Kwan to ground out. However, with two outs, King walked Amed Rosario on four pitches, bringing José Ramírez, the tying run, to the plate. After getting ahead in the count 0-1, King initiated a routine ground ball on the next pitch, earning the Yankees a much-needed win.

The Yankees bullpen’s performance has been a bright spot in an otherwise bleak start to the season. Led by Michael King’s 1.56 ERA in 17.1 innings pitched, the Yankees bullpen’s 2.83 team ERA is the best among all bullpens in Major League Baseball. Of the Yankees’ six relievers who have pitched 10 or more innings, five of them have ERAs of 2.70 or lower.

At the start of spring training, it was anticipated that the Yankees would have one of (if not the) best rotations in Major League Baseball. However, after injuries to Carlos Rodón, Luis Severino and Frankie Montas, the Yankees rotation hasn’t been nearly as successful as it was anticipated to be.

Outside of Gerrit Cole, who has been pitching like a Cy Young, Yankees starters are pitching to a 5.32 ERA. As a result, the Yankees have needed their bullpen to step up, and despite a few shaky outings from Clay Holmes, the unit has.

A key reason why the Yankees bullpen has been so successful is because of great contributions from two unexpected pitchers: Ian Hamilton and Jimmy Cordero.

Yankees' bullpen has been far from a problem, outside of Clay Holmes

In 2022, Hamilton primarily pitched for the Minnesota Twins’ Triple-A affiliate, while Cordero pitched exclusively with the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate. Cordero earned his way onto the Yankees Opening Day roster, while Hamilton’s contract was selected a week into the season. 

Hamilton’s 1.72 ERA and 15.2 innings pitched are both the second-best among Yankee relievers – both behind King – while Cordero has pitched to a 2.61 ERA in 10.1 innings. Although both pitchers were expected to mostly be used in mop-up and low-leverage situations, they have become trusted relievers for manager Aaron Boone to use in high-leverage scenarios.

In addition to a strong start to the season from King, Ron Marinaccio and Wandy Peralta, two of New York’s best relievers from 2022, have picked up where they left off from last season. 

However, three key relievers haven’t started 2023 the way they wanted to: Jonathan Loaisiga, Tommy Kahnle and Holmes. After only pitching 3.1 innings, Loaisiga was placed on the Injured List, and he isn’t expected to be back until August. On the flip side, Kahnle, who the Yankees signed to a two-year, $11.5 million contract over the offseason, never even reached the mound in the Bronx, and he was placed on the Injured List to start the season.

After a dominant first half in which he pitched to a 1.31 ERA and was named an American League All Star in 2022, Holmes faltered down the stretch in 2022, pitching to a 4.84 ERA in the second half of the season.

In 9.1 innings pitched in 2023, Holmes has a 3.74 ERA and two blown saves. However, if he can turn it around, Holmes will be a much-needed piece to anchor the back end of a loaded Yankees bullpen, and should maybe be deemphasized from the closer's role until he can approximate his peak.

The Yankees bullpen has gotten off to a great start, but it has the potential to be even better. If Holmes can turn it around and Loaisiga and Kahnle can be contributors, it will give Aaron Boone many more options to rely on in high-leverage situations down the stretch, allowing him to manage his relievers’ workloads more effectively.

Expect more high-leverage King appearances soon, and expect Cordero and Hamilton to slot into the late innings when King is unavailable.