Tommy Kahnle was one of the Yankees’ bright spots in 2017. Acquired at the trade deadline, Kahnle took over a large role in the bullpen. He pitched 11.1 innings over seven postseason games, even notching a postseason save. He looked like a major contributor for the Yankees in the future.
In 2018 though, everything went wrong for Kahnle. He struggled out of the gate, went on the disabled list with tendinitis in his pitching shoulder, and was never the same as the year went along, even spending most of the season in Triple-A Scranton. Simply put, 2018 was a lost year for him.
A year like that for a 29-year-old reliever with a history of control problems could cause many teams to simply cut ties. However, the Yankees tendered Kahnle a contract and have hung onto him so far this offseason, despite the presence of some trade rumors. It seems that the Yankees expect Kahnle to bounce back in a big way in 2019.
First off, Kahnle’s role will likely be much smaller than it was the last two years. There are six relievers ahead of him on the depth chart, and in an eight-man bullpen, there honestly won’t be too many innings for Kahnle. Still, he could be quite valuable for the Yankees if he can harness his command and get back on track.
Kahnle still had some desirable traits in his disastrous 2018. He averaged 11.57 K/9 and a solid 14.4 percent whiff rate, which are both better than his career averages. Despite Kahnle’s overall struggles, he was still able to miss bats at a high clip, which is likely why the Yankees still see value in him.
The issues with Kahnle centered around command in two big ways. For one, his walk rate doubled, and his hard-hit contact percentage rose. These two problems are related. He is a pretty simple pitcher when it comes to pitch mix, as he mainly throws fastballs and changeups, with an occasional slider mixed in. Kahnle threw his slider less than ever before this year though, because he completely lost control of it. Take a look at this heat map of just Kahnle’s slider last year:
It’s mainly concentrated in two problem areas: right down the middle, and well out of the zone. For whatever reason, Kahnle lost the ability to effectively throw his slider. While it was always the pitch he threw the least, not throwing it at all made Kahnle a very predictable pitcher. With no breaking ball in his arsenal, Kahnle just had fastballs and changeups in his repertoire. This creates a problem because fastballs and changeups are not breaking pitches; they are straight pitches that remain on the same plane for the hitter to square up the whole time.
Without a breaking ball, the only way to fool a hitter is to mix pitch speeds. Kahnle tried that, but unfortunately, that shoulder injury I mentioned earlier sapped 2.5 mph off of Kahnle’s previously 98-mph heater. He also lost speed on his changeup, which made the two pitches much more hittable. Combine that with some truly horrible pitch location (as seen below), and you’ve got a pitcher who is basically throwing batting practice.
It’s hard to know what caused Kahnle to lose his slider, but I’m sure that the shoulder injury had something to do with it. Still, he needs to have some element of breaking ball to be successful moving forward. Just look at Adam Ottavino. He misses bats by having some sort of break on almost all of his pitches. Even a guy like Zach Britton, who throws almost 90 percent fastballs, throws mostly sinkers. Pitchers these days can’t get by without a proven breaking ball. Just ask Tyler Clippard, another ex-Yankee reliever who ran into trouble when he lost velocity and relied strictly on fastballs and changeups.
So, can the Yankees fix Kahnle? There are some reasons for hope. For one, he’s still missing bats. Two, his role has been reduced. Three, it’s been almost a year since his shoulder injury first cropped up, and he has said that he has taken time to rest and rehab the shoulder this offseason to come back at full strength in 2019.
When Tommy Kahnle is right, he is a useful commodity. His skillset could translate well as a high-velocity, strikeout-specialist opener or as a middle-innings fireman. A healthy offseason should help him gain back his velocity. Re-harnessing his slider will take more work, but it’s not out of the question. It’s been an effective pitch for Kahnle before, and it would give him a true third offering to help confuse hitters and avoid hard contact, or “barrels,” a stat Kahnle didn’t fare too well in last year.
As for the trade market, Kahnle probably wouldn’t fetch much anyway, maybe a minor leaguer or two. At that price, the Yankees are better off keeping him and trying to fix him themselves. The value they would receive from that would far outweigh such a minimal return. The road back to relevancy for Kahnle isn’t impossible to achieve. He’s got the tools, he just needs to put it all back together again.