With the 2021 season coming to a close, we are going to look back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers. The season isn’t over yet, of course, but there are a number of players who are on the injured list or otherwise won’t be playing the rest of the way, so we can start by looking at those guys whose seasons are done, and once the season is over we can include guys who are still in action.
We shall kick things off by taking a look at lefthanded relief pitcher John King.
King is a lefty pitcher who turned 27 last week. A Texas native who was born in Laredo, graduated from Clements High School in Sugar Land, and went to the University of Houston, King was a 10th round pick in the 2017 draft by the Rangers, signing for a paltry $10,000 signing bonus after a senior season that saw his velocity drop precipitously due to an injured elbow.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery, King impressed in Instructionals in 2018, and was one of a number of pitchers who emerged in A ball in 2019 to turn heads and get on radars. King spent the bulk of the 2020 season at the Alternate Training Site before joining the big league team in 2020, where he primarily piggybacked with Kyle Cody, loggin 10.1 innings over six appearances.
King came to camp in the mix for a bullpen role and won a job on the Opening Day roster. He was terrific as a lefty bullpen arm for much of the season, and through June 4, he had a 1.82 ERA and a 2.72 FIP.
Things got rockier for King after that — over seven games from June 6 until July 6, he allowed 14 runs in 16.1 IP, putting up a 6.61 ERA and a 4.38 FIP. Weirdly, he was still doing a very good job of getting guys out — he allowed opponents a .150/.250/.300 slash line in 68 plate appearances in that stretch, which is exceptional.
King was being stretched out with an eye towards looking at him in a starting role in the second half of the season when he was placed on the injured list just before the All Star Break with what was described as shoulder fatigue. Indications at the time were that King would be on the i.l. for just a short stint.
After the Break, we waited expectantly for King’s return, but there was nothing. Indications continued to be he would be back in the near future, but he continued to not be activated as we approached the end of July.
Then King was back in the news...for something completely unexpected. King was reported to be going to the New York Yankees in the Joey Gallo deal. The Rangers were looking for a lefty reliever to solidify their bullpen, and King, who had shown himself to be effective, and who is cheap and under team control for a while, was someone who apparently had appeal for the Yanks.
As we all know, King didn’t end up going to the Yankees. New York had concerns (justifiable, as it turned out) about King’s medicals, and the deal was changed, with Randy Vasquez and Everson Pereira, who were originally in the trade, no longer going to Texas, and Joely Rodriguez replacing King.
With King still with the Rangers once the deadline passed, reports indicated he would be going on a rehab assignment, and possibly would need just one outing. King made a one inning appearance for Round Rock on August 10, and then another on August 13. He was pulled off his rehab assignment not long after that, and it was ultimately announced he would need Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery, which ended his season.
Although the early end to his year is disappointing, King had a very nice rookie season. He allowed a 3.52 ERA, 3.31 FIP and 3.33 xERA in 46 innings pitched over 27 games, with a .276 wOBA and .280 xwOBA allowed. Those are all numbers you’re going to be happy with from a lefty middle reliever or setup guy.
King was a four pitch pitcher this year, throwing his sinker 57.6% of the time, with his changeup as his preferred secondary, using it 18.8% of the time, and his slider and cutter being mixed in 13.8% and 9.8% of the time, respectively. His four pitch repertoire is part of the reason he has been seen as a potential starting pitcher, though he did have pretty significant platoon splits this year, allowing lefties a 404 OPS in 65 plate appearances while righties had a 735 OPS in 128 plate appearances.
In looking at his Statcast data, he generated a ton of sink on both his sinker and his slider — his slider has 4.9 inches more drop and 3 inches less vertical movement than average. His changeup had average movement, though it generated a good number of whiffs, and his cutter had 3.8 inches less horizontal movement than average, which would seem to help explain why it was his least used pitched.
The Statcast metrics are pretty impressive — he was at the 80th percentile in xwOBA and xERA, 79th percentile in walks, and 82nd percentile in slugging percentage. That’s consistent with the eye test on King — he’s a guy who throws strikes and gets groundballs.
Something that jumped out to me about King is that, while he has a chase rate in the 95th percentile and a barrel percentage in the 96th percentile — meaning he’s one of the best pitchers in getting hitters to swing at pitchers out of the zone and in avoiding hitters barreling him up — he’s also in the middle of the pack in whiff rate (45th %) and in the bottom third in K rate (28th %). He gets guys to chase, and when they do, they generate weak contact, rather than swinging and missing a ton.
Both in results and in the underlying metrics, King had a very solid 2021 season and profiles as a quality relief pitcher — something that would seem to be borne out by the Yankees apparently being willing to give up Pereira and Vasquez for King, had he been healthy. The big bugaboo, of course, is health, and how King will return from TOS surgery.
King is supposed to be ready for spring training, and while the prognosis for a return from TOS is generally good, we won’t know for sure about him until we see King on the mound this spring. If King makes it back successfully, then the Rangers would seem to have a choice to make — do they want to leave him in the bullpen, where he profiles as a nice reliever, or do they want to look at him as a starter? King has been a starter his whole career before reaching the majors, but he also has an injury history that has to give one some concern, and it may be that he has a better shot of staying healthy if he’s in a relief role.
For 2022, if King is healthy, he would seem likely to be on the Opening Day roster, unless the Rangers are serious about looking at him as a starter and want him to begin the year in Round Rock rotation.