Tommy Kahnle has been one of the biggest and best surprises for the Yankees in the 2019 season, but where did this resurgence come from?
In a bullpen loaded with talented names and no shortage of devastating pitches bound to give hitters fits, Tommy Kahnle was a huge question mark coming into the season. In the first seven weeks of the season, he has flourished into not only one of the best relievers on the Yankees but into one of the best relievers in baseball as a whole.
The Latham, New York native was drafted by the Yankees in the 5th round of the 2010 MLB draft. After four years pitching across multiple levels of the team’s minor league system, the Colorado Rockies snagged Kahnle from the Yankees in the 2013 rule 5 draft. He spent two years in the Rockies organization, making his MLB debut with the team in 2014 before being traded to the White Sox in November of 2015. He blossomed into a much better reliever with Chicago, posting a 2.63 ERA in 2015 after having an ERA above 4.00 in each of his years with Colorado. He was traded back to the Yankees in July 2017 along with David Robertson and Todd Frazier in an effort to upgrade the team’s bullpen during their playoff push. He appeared in 32 games after the Yankees acquired him, posting a 2.70 ERA and an even more impressive 2.30 FIP while striking out 36 batters across his 26.2 innings of work.
After his successful few months with the team in 2017, Kahnle came into 2018 looking to solidify himself as one of the team’s go-to relievers that could be trusted in high-leverage situations. Instead, he suffered the worst season of his career. He posted an abysmal 6.56 ERA in 24 games, as his pitch velocity dropped significantly and he was even demoted to the minor leagues for two months.
Kahnle, who the team trusted enough to pitch 2.1 innings in the Wild Card game just the year before, was left off the team’s 2018 postseason roster. His downgrade was one that very few people saw coming.
Following his disappointing 2018 season, there were many questions surrounding Kahnle coming into 2019. Fans had seen two Kahnles- the 99 MPH fastball hurling monster that they saw down the stretch in 2017, and the unreliable pitcher with diminished velocity who often couldn’t find the strike zone in 2018.
Kahnle came into Spring Training looking to silence his critics and reestablish himself as one of the most dominant relievers in baseball’s best bullpen. He was incredible in Spring Training, striking out 10 batters and allowing just three earned runs across eight appearances. His velocity was creeping back up to where it had been in 2017, and he earned himself a spot on the Opening Day roster (though this was to be expected, as he didn’t have any minor league options left so the team would have had to DFA him if he didn’t start the season on the 25 man roster).
Kahnle’s 2019 stats thus far have been nothing short of remarkable. Through May 16th, he has struck out 23 batters in his 16.2 innings pitched, and his 1.08 ERA is the fifth-best among qualified AL relief pitchers. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Kahnle so far has been his consistency, not only has he just allowed seven hits across his 19 appearances, all seven hits that he has allowed came in two of his appearances (4/10 against the Astros and 5/7 against the Mariners). In 17 of Kahnle’s appearances, he has not allowed a single hit or run, and the 4/10 outing against the Astros was the only game this season in which Kahnle has allowed an earned run.
His 11 straight appearances without allowing a single hit or run is the longest such streak in Yankees history, certainly, a noteworthy accomplishment given the plethora of legendary relievers that have pitched for the Yankees over the years, most notably Mariano Rivera.
One reason why Kahnle has seen such success this season has been his dominance against left-handed hitters. Across his career, Kahnle’s numbers against right-handers and against left-handers have been roughly the same. This season, however, Kahnle has absolutely owned lefties. He has struck out 17 of the 26 lefties he has faced while allowing just one hit, holding them to a meager .038 batting average.
The right-hander has also experimented with using his changeup more this season, and it has definitely benefited him. His four-seam fastball has always been his most frequently thrown pitch (64.4% of the time), but this season he has been using his changeup more. He has used his changeup 36.6% of the time this season as opposed to 26.5% of the time in his whole career, and 12 of his strikeouts vs. lefties this season have been on that changeup.
His changeup has been his best “whiff” pitch too, of the 114 changeups he’s thrown this year, 30 have induced swings and misses, giving him a 26.32% whiff rate on his changeup, by far his highest of any pitch. Furthermore, he has only allowed one hit on a changeup all season, and just 12 of his 114 changeups have been put in play, his lowest BIP (ball in play) ratio (10.53%) of any of his pitches.
Although his fastball is still his primary pitch and he has mixed in a slider, the fact that Kahnle’s highest whiff percentage and lowest BIP ratio of any of his pitches come from his changeup definitely speak to how much it has contributed to his return to form this season.
With Dellin Betances sidelined for at least a few more months and the once dominant Chad Green having had a terrible start to the season, the rest of the bullpen needs to remain stellar in order to keep the Yankees right in the thick of the AL East race. If Kahnle can continue pitching the way he has thus far, there is no doubt that he will finish the season as one of baseball’s best relief pitchers and that he will play a pivotal role in what he and the Yankees certainly hope is a successful season.