The 2023 MLB season is a month old and in a highly unprecedented turn of events, the Yankees do not have a closer.
No, seriously. It’s true. It was a good run of Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman and then Clay Holmes last season. Holmes even earned an All-Star selection thanks to his sudden ninth-inning heroics.
Since then, however, Holmes has struggled save for a fairly flawless postseason. He has a 5.29 ERA since July 12 of last year and looks like anything except a reliable closer.
His teammate Michael King, on the other hand has. In fact, King might have been the best candidate to close games in New York all this time and we’re only just realizing it. He finished Tuesday’s 4-2 win over the Cleveland Guardians with 1.2 clean innings for the save. In fact, he’s probably always had a closer’s makeup, but more about that later.
For now, let’s start with the basics about closers. They’re pitchers who usually have only two pitches and rarely have both working at their best on any given night. This means there’s just as much potential for devastating walks as their are key strikeouts.
This is what made Holmes a special closer for the Yankees last year. He’s different in that thanks to his deceptive two-planed “demon” sinker, walks weren’t much of an issue. Because his high-90s sinker moves like a slider, batters swing and make soft enough contact for an easy groundout. Holmes also racked up strikeouts thanks to also having a strong traditional slider.
The numbers back it up. In 2022, Holmes notched 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) to just 2.8 walks per nine innings (BB/9).
Except we all saw it last year. Holmes regressed in the second half due to both fatigue and injuries, and the walks went up while the strikeouts dropped. Even now, Holmes looks more like a traditional, strikeout-oriented closer with 11.2 K/9 and 4.7 BB/9. By comparison, Chapman has posted 14.7 K/9 and 4.4 BB/9 for his career. Fans also still remember how dicey New York’s bullpen looked down the stretch in 2022, even into the playoffs, and Chapman wasn’t even playing.
Want to know why that was? Because Michael King wasn’t available after breaking his elbow on July 22. Imagine how much better the Yankees would have fared had he been healthy. That doesn’t mean Holmes’ blown saves in July and August would have been reversed. But maybe knowing that extra bullpen support is there takes just enough pressure off of the lineup and New York steals a couple more wins in a brutal August.
Just how good is King? Well, it’s hard to say. He certainly has the stuff from a pure pitching standpoint. The converted starter throws both a four and two-seam fastball, a changeup, and a sweeper (or off-speed slider).
Digging deeper, King has a 4.22 career ERA in the ninth inning, but only over 11 games. That’s a small sample size compared to his 0.89 ERA over 34 career eighth inning appearances.
Yet, we’ve seen firsthand that Michael King is closer material. Let’s start with Tuesday. He got two quick outs in the ninth inning before issuing a walk to Amed Rosario, allowing Guardians slugger Jose Ramirez a chance to tie the game. Two pitches later, Ramirez ended the game with an easy groundout to Gleyber Torres.
But let’s go back a little further, specifically to the ninth inning on April 14 last season. The Yankees led the Blue Jays 3-0 in the ninth inning and Chapman walked three straight hitters. King was brought in and immediately struck out George Springer on three pitches. Two pitches later, noted Yankee killer Bo Bichette lined into a double play to end the game with the menacing Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on deck.
Was there a lot of luck in that above situation? Of course, but that’s not the point. With Michael King, there are no mind games like you might see with a traditional closer. No deception, not even with that devastating sweeper.
He just goes out, takes the ball, and pitches. There will be no psyching anybody out. Michael King is going to throw his best pitches to the best hitters and dare them to do their worst damage, and with absolute ice water in his veins.
That sure sounds like a closer.
Plus, it’s clear Boone is fully aware there’s no set closer. He even had Holmes pitch the eighth inning against Minnesota on April 14 because King wasn’t available. Holmes blew the game, and King’s real value was suddenly appreciated.
Well, guess what? Holmes’ four saves might lead the team, but it’s not worth the cost if he’s suddenly a traditional closer that’s all strikeouts or walks. The Yankees need someone in the ninth inning to take the ball and just pitch. Nothing more, nothing less.
Michael King has proven himself to be that man, and several times. We already know he’s a reliable setup man. If Clay Holmes’ struggles continue, Michael King needs to assume the closer’s throne and stay there.