If the Yankees wanted to challenge Michael King on his claim that he deserves to be a starter moving forward, they couldn't have devised a more daunting slate for their experiment than his September opponents.
Five starts does not a career make, but so far, as King has conquered the learning curve and the middle-innings hump at the same time while trying to get back into his minor-league rhythms, he's shown an outstanding ability to dominate some of MLB's hardest-hitting teams with truly advanced stuff. That stuff, most importantly, hasn't lost much steam in longer appearances.
Extending King's workload midseason sounded like a remarkably bold proposition a month ago, especially considering the elbow-related risks involved. 2022 ended mid-year with a remarkably painful blowout that compromised the righty's availability for 2023 (presumably). Somehow, Tommy John surgery was not the outcome; King recovered fully, and was ready for Opening Day. But didn't the structural integrity of his elbow make him uniquely ill-suited to a sudden fluctuation in pitch counts?
That remains unwritten. Even though the Yankees worked hard to build King up slowly before reaching the seven-inning threshold (!) against Toronto last week, you can occasionally do everything right and still wind up with injury devastation. The elbow is finnicky. Pitchers are in more danger than ever in the modern game, but ramifications remain random. Workhorses could survive entire careers without an issue. Stephen Strasburg can be babied down the stretch in 2012 and still wind up injury-plagued. The fear of King repercussions will persist all offseason.
We don't know what we don't know, and we never will. All we can judge at the moment, through gritted teeth, is the output. And King's, so far, has been remarkably impressive. He's stared down the gauntlet of the Astros (in Houston), Brewers, Red Sox (in Boston), and the Blue Jays (at home and on the road) and gone fresh out of the frying pan and into the fire with 27.2 innings, 21 hits, four earned runs, seven walks, 39 strikeouts, and a 1.30 ERA. He's looked like the best bullpen version of himself, except he's been able to erase six innings at a time instead of three. Outside of the worst-case scenario possibility that could dog any pitcher at any time (knock on all your wood, people), there's almost nothing to worry about here, performance-wise.
Yankees' Michael King isn't just holding his own as a starter. He's dominating great teams.
And, even when his control betrayed him in Toronto on Tuesday and he walked five (finally, it was bound to happen eventually), he balanced out the issue by only allowing a single hit and wriggling out of every jam. He's been dominant four times and lucky once. Not bad (and shoutout to the home plate umpire's zone in his past two outings, to be fair).
Perhaps most impressive of all, King's expanded workload began in time to stretch him past 100 innings for the season, which would leave him eligible for a meaningful increase next season (140? 150?) before any talk of a premature shutdown.
Will he be competing for a Yankees rotation spot in 2024, or will he be an integral piece of a Juan Soto trade or similar big swing? That's for the Winter Meetings. No matter his ultimate purpose in pinstripes, his talent and malleability have turned him into a major cog in whatever the Yankees' plans turn out to be. Thesis proven. Powerfully.