TAMPA, Fla. — Michael King dodged a bullet.
Still, it’s a bullet that he wished never had to maneuver in the first place.
The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders starting pitcher felt some elbow discomfort during a bullpen session in the week leading up to pitchers and catchers report day, essentially costing him his first non-roster invite to big league spring training.
While he’s expected to miss the first month of the season, King’s just glad the injury wasn’t worse — a UCL injury and ultimately Tommy John surgery.
“I feel good. I want to get going quicker,” King told the Times Leader. “I was more disappointed that I even had anything than that kind of feeling (of relief), but it’s definitely nice to know that, ‘All right, whatever, I’ll miss a month and then I’ll start the season a month later.’ I’m full-go from there.
“It definitely stunk originally, but now that I’m not feeling anything, it’s definitely relieving.”
The 23-year-old right-hander first started throwing again a week ago. King threw on flat ground from 90 feet out on Friday, which marked his sixth day throwing since the setback.
He’ll throw his first bullpen session on March 23 and will face live batters in the middle of April. If all goes well, the plan is for King to join the RailRiders around May 1.
“As much as I love watching baseball, it gets a little trying when you’re not actually able to pitch,” King said. “It’s really nice to finally get outdoors and it was finally nice to throw. It’s good little checkpoints that you have to reach to keep you moving forward. I’m excited for everything to come out.”
When King does make his Triple-A return in May, he’ll bring an improved repertoire with him to Moosic.
King has been working on a four-seam fastball up in the zone “for strikes” to help battle launch angles. He also continued to retool his cutter, which was a pitch he introduced late last season.
“I just think with all the launch-angle stuff and all of that kind of analytics that are coming out is getting hitters on plane with a two-seamer,” King said. “As much as I feel I have a good groundball rate, I never want to lose that, and I feel like throwing a good four-seamer up in the zone can kind of flatten out the barrel just enough to get my sinker underneath their’s to keep getting those ground balls.
“Just kind of being able to access the plate with that cutter and two-seamer more consistently than it was. I know I let up a bomb in the playoffs on the hanging cutter. Just make sure I limit those mistakes.”
But that doesn’t mean King has forgotten about the pitch that helped him rise through the New York Yankees farm system last year. He put some more work into his glove-side fastball — a fastball in on a right-handed batter and away on a left-handed hitter.
It’s a battle King know’s he’ll always fight, but one day he hopes to throw nine out of every 10 glove-side fastballs well, which isn’t the case right now.
He slider drew some attention as well.
For King, the pitch was a confidence thing. He improved on it in 2018, when two or three out of every five sliders was good compared to 2017 when only one out of every five was a quality pitch.
“The biggest thing that I’ll always want to improve on, and I think I’ll struggle with it my entire career, is a glove-side fastball consistently,” King said. “There are days that I don’t feel as comfortable in my mechanics and I get really rotational and my sinker starts moving more laterally than vertically and I start leaving the glove side or I start yanking it. That’s when I get in trouble because I start working with half the plate.
“With a glove-side fastball and a slider that I have confidence in, I feel like I can get anybody out, any hitter out. Once I get those two things down, my feeling rises a little bit.”
When King does make his return to the RailRiders’ rotation, it’ll be an exciting time for the Yankees prospect.
The right-hander will round out a rotation that could have the likes of Chance Adams, Nestor Cortes, David Hale and Drew Hutchinson already in place.
If King can pick up where he left off last year, when he finished the season with a 1.15 ERA in six Triple-A starts and a 1.79 ERA overall, he could force his way up to New York sooner rather than later.
“The main goal is to continue doing what I was doing well and improve on the stuff I know I can improve on. It’s kind of looking back at different video, looking back at different sequences, and see what I can do differently,” King said. “Just improving on last year and not taking steps back.”
Reach DJ Eberle at 570-991-6398 or on Twitter @ByDJEberle