When the Yankees sent a package of prospects headlined by 2016 first-round pick Blake Rutherford to the White Sox last season, perhaps the biggest piece coming back was Tommy Kahnle. Sure, Todd Frazier filled a need in the infield, and David Robertson was the biggest name, but Kahnle was having the best season of the three and came with the most team control.
Kahnle was what truly gave that trade upside for the Yankees. He represented a chance to add a premier relief arm for up to four playoff runs. Kahnle was excellent down the stretch last year, running a 171 ERA+ and striking out 36 in 32 appearances with the Yankees. That’s not to mention the seven appearances he made in the playoffs, including a crucial seven-out performance in the AL Wild Card Game.
When 2018 began, however, Kahnle didn’t have it. More accurately, he had nothing. His fastball lost 2.5 mph in velocity from 2017, and his results suffered accordingly. Kahnle only pitched nine innings through the first two months and gave up an unsightly 11 runs.
He quickly went on the disabled list early in the year and spent a chunk of time with Triple-A Scranton. The Yankees finally called him back up in August, and while he hasn’t exactly received regular playing time, the Yankees have given him opportunities to reestablish himself in the big-league bullpen. Unfortunately, it’s becoming clear that Kahnle still hasn’t returned to his former self.
The biggest concern earlier in the year was Kahnle’s aforementioned velocity drop. It’s not rare for pitchers, especially older ones, to show up in the spring with diminished velocity. It is uncommon, though, for pitchers in supposedly the prime of their careers to suddenly lose multiple ticks on their fastball.
Kahnle still hasn’t recovered that lost velocity. Per Brooks Baseball, Kahnle started 2018 popping the mitt at 95.5 mph, down from over 98 mph in 2017. Since August, his four-seam velocity has hardly budged, up to only 95.6 mph. He’s flashed a little bit more strength on rare occasions, averaging nearly 97 mph on his heater against the Rays on August 16th, yet fell all the way back down to 94 mph against the Tigers in early September.
Whatever caused Kahnle to lose speed early in the year appears to still be inhibiting him at season’s end. Now, Kahnle does seem to have straightened out some issues. Control problems were a major reason he hemorrhaged runs at the beginning of the year. Kahnle walked 10 batters in eight appearances early on, but has seemingly regained his control since coming back up. He’s struck out 14 and walked just two in 9.1 innings since August.
Yet Kahnle has still gotten knocked around for 11 hits and six runs in that span. Perhaps Kahnle’s .429 BABIP in this small sample is due just to bad luck, or due to the fact that he’s given up a greater incidence of both air balls and hard contact since returning. Kahnle has found the strike zone upon being called back up to the majors, but he hasn’t found his previous velocity, and it’s leading up to loud contact and bad outings.
There was at least a chance Kahnle would prove himself upon returning to the majors, and cement his status as a late-inning reliever once again. That appears to be nothing more than a pipe dream at this point. It’s unclear what Kahnle’s role could be on a potential playoff roster, and it’s hard to imagine Aaron Boone turning to Kahnle in a high leverage moment from here on out.
This just seems to be a lost season for Kahnle. His travails serve as a not-so-subtle reminder of the volatility of non-elite relievers. I wrote when the Yankees traded for Kahnle that the deal was risky, precisely because it’s dicey to count on relievers outside (and sometimes even inside) the Aroldis Chapman/Dellin Betances/Kenley Jansen tier. Every year, some middling relievers put forth surprisingly great seasons, while others regress at a moment’s notice.
Kahnle was dominant for one year, but he hasn’t been up for a second go-around. Maybe he can bounce back next season, or even the year after that, as he can’t become a free agent until after 2020. Regardless, the Yankees probably won’t count on excellence from Kahnle, whether this season or in the future.