Notes: King mastering 'Kluberball'; Taillon progressing

March 31st, 2022

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The conversation that changed the course of Michael King’s career took place last May 18, when veteran Corey Kluber placed his fingers across raised seams and demonstrated his breaking ball grip.

King happily signed up for a master class on the two-time Cy Young Award winner’s hybrid curveball/slider, which most call a "Kluberball." The next night, Kluber used that pitch to mystify the Rangers, tossing the Yanks’ first no-hitter since David Cone’s 1999 perfect game.

“Having a guy like Kluber say that he has confidence in me and thought we were similar pitchers, that gave me the confidence to say, 'This could be an easy pitch to learn,'” King said on Thursday, having tossed 2 1/3 innings in the Yanks’ 5-3 Grapefruit League loss to the Phillies. “I’ve gone through six different slider grips and thrown it since I was in college. It’s never been a good pitch for me until Kluber.”

During Mariano Rivera’s time in the Yankees’ bullpen, many often wondered why the game’s greatest closer didn’t give his incredible cutter to everyone -- the truth is, it’s not quite that simple. Not every pitcher can throw every pitch (though Rivera did teach the cutter to Roy Halladay, to his teammates’ chagrin).

King said that he and Kluber share similar arm slots, mentalities and approaches, which may have helped their alchemy.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone said that he is already counting upon King to be part of the club’s Opening Day roster, with coaches debating whether to carry 15 or 16 pitchers north. King offers multi-inning versatility and could be pressed into duty in starting, piggyback or middle-relief roles, depending on needs.

“He’s going to be really valuable, especially after you get through Opening Day and you’ve got nine [games] in a row, 15 out of 16,” Boone said. “You’re going to have to get five, six, seven innings out of your pitching staff. Michael will be one of those guys.”

King said that he and Kluber remain in contact; they attended a recent Eric Church concert and were throwing partners during the lockout, working together at the University of Tampa campus. Now that Kluber is with the Rays, King said he hopes the gift of the "Kluberball" remains more closely guarded in that clubhouse.

“You ask any starter here; we were very sad to see him go,” King said. “He was such a good dude that I’m sure anybody from the Rays is going to learn from him. I guarantee you he will teach that to somebody, but hopefully not. It wouldn’t be good for our hitters.”

Another step forward
Jameson Taillon continues to progress, testing his surgically repaired right ankle and remaining on schedule for his Opening Week assignment by tossing 48 pitches over 3 2/3 innings on Thursday. The right-hander said that he threw 14 more pitches in the bullpen after his start, in which the Phillies touched him for three runs on four hits, including a homer.

“It was good; I got stretched out a little more,” Taillon said. “I got to back up some bases unfortunately, but it’s probably a good test to knock off. You can do that in [pitchers’ fielding practice] all day, but once you actually have to react in a game situation, it’s probably just good to get those kinds of things out of the way now.”

With one more exhibition start before the Yanks’ April 7 opener, Taillon said he is pleased by where his velocity sits; he averaged 93 mph with his heaters on Thursday, touching 95.1 mph with a two-seamer. Taillon is also happy that he navigated the abbreviated spring slate without interruption.

“Last year, I felt like I was really trying to find my identity as a pitcher again, and try to be healthy and take the ball,” Taillon said. “I’m still rehabbing this [ankle], but I feel really healthy and really strong. My velocity is better this year, and I feel like I have a better idea of what I want to do out there.”

On the mend
Single-A Tampa Tarpons manager Rachel Balkovec is recovering after being struck in the face by a batted ball during a recent drill.

She is expected to be in the dugout for her managerial debut on April 8 at Lakeland, said Yankees vice president of player development Kevin Reese, who added that Balkovec did not sustain a concussion.

“The doctors have to sign off on some things, but I think she’s eager to get back out there,” Reese said.