Earlier this week, news emerged confirming something that was suspected last season: Tommy Kahnle was injured. In a profile by The Athletic’s Lindsay Adler (subscription required), Kahnle said that he was suffering from bicep inflammation early in the year, hid it from the team, and subsequently spiraled through the worst season of his career.
I encourage you to read through all of Adler’s reporting if you can, as it is thorough as always. Kahnle’s injury led to a sudden drop in velocity, an eventual trip to the disabled list, a demotion to Triple-A, and essentially a trip to rock-bottom for Kahnle. This year, he’s resolved to attack 2019 with a better approach. He is entering healthy and has improved his lifestyle, focusing on eating well and not drinking five (five!) energy drinks a day.
From the Yankees’ perspective, the upshot here is clear; Kahnle’s health could mean a chance at yet another relief ace. Prior to injury, Kahnle broke out as one of the game’s best relievers. If a hidden ailment explains all or most of his 2018 struggles, and if he enters 2019 closer physically to where he was two years ago, then Kahnle stands to improve rapidly.
Kahnle’s decline really was precipitous in 2018. He gave up 22 runs in just 23 innings at the major-league level, not to mention another 15 runs in 26.2 innings in the minors. His velocity was the main culprit. After sitting an easy 98 mph on his four-seam fastball in 2017, per Brooks Baseball, Kahnle’s fastball speed plummeted over three mph:
His struggles stemmed almost exclusively from that dreadful dip in fastball velocity. In 2017, according to Statcast, opposing hitters batted .225 with a .333 slugging against Kahnle’s heater, good for a .271 wOBA. In 2018, they hit .381 with a .660 slugging and a .495 wOBA.
Despite his awful fastball, Kahnle’s secondaries remained effective. After holding hitters to a .234 wOBA with his changeup in 2017, he held them to a .135 wOBA in 2018, albeit in a small sample. He only threw his slider 23 times in 2018, but he didn’t allow a hit in four at-bats ending with the slider. Essentially, Kahnle’s disastrous campaign can be entirely consigned to his huge drop in velocity, which can be almost entirely attributed to his biceps injury.
Reports out of spring training indicate that Kahnle has recovered a great chunk of that lost velocity:
Having dropped pounds and reclaimed velocity, Tommy Kahnle is impressing the Yankees this spring. Aaron Boone said last night was probably the best that Kahnle has looked in the last year.— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) March 2, 2019
Tommy Kahnle sat at 96 today with his fastball. Hit 97 once. Last season his four-seamer averaged 95.— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) March 5, 2019
With another couple weeks until Opening Day, it stands to reason that Kahnle has even more time to continue to recover his lost strength. Should he enter the season sitting at, say, about 97 mph instead of 95, he will profile as one of the team’s best bounce-back candidates. Perhaps he shouldn’t be expected to strike out nearly 14 batters per nine and run a 2.59 ERA, as he did in 2017. However, a healthy Kahnle that averages 97 mph on his heater should perform much closer to how he did in his breakout season than he did last year.
Obviously, the Yankees aren’t short on relief aces, and should Kahnle regain his status as one, the Yankees might have a stud reliever for every inning past the second. Kahnle may have been the third-best reliever on the Yankees during his first season on the team, and anything resembling that kind of form would be a boon.
On a separate note, however, Kahnle’s situation reminded me of a very different injury problem the Yankees encountered last year. In August, the team shut down CC Sabathia for just a couple weeks as something of a preventative measure. Sabathia felt a little extra soreness and swelling in his knee, and rather than hide it or fight through it, the team and veteran both decided to take a proactive stance.
Sabathia skipped a couple of turns in the rotation, and despite a poor final start in the playoffs, actually played well down the stretch. In seven starts after his abbreviated DL stint, Sabathia struck out more than a batter per inning and held opponents to a .734 OPS. I lauded Sabathia and the Yankees at the time for making a forward-thinking, preventive move in a sports culture that glorifies playing through pain.
Now, imagine if instead of feeling compelled to fight through injury and play the macho-man, Kahnle felt comfortable coming forward about his injury. Instead of seeing his velocity dwindle, his mechanics crumble, and his psyche damaged, Kahnle would have been able to receive treatment and possibly salvage his season.
More Yankees should heed the warning of Kahnle’s lost 2018 and take an approach similar to Sabathia’s. Kahnle admits now that “I probably shouldn’t try to pitch through pain!” With the way they handled Sabathia’s situation, and in their reaction to Kahnle’s admission, the Yankees have made it clear they want players to be open with their injuries and their health.
A Yankees clubhouse in which players don’t feel the need to do what Kahnle did last year, and instead feel comfortable being proactive when it comes to injury as Sabathia did, is a healthy clubhouse that will have an easier time building a winning culture. The team has already shown they have the aptitude to make positive choices in terms of injury management. Let’s hope that Kahnle’s tale spurs more players to take initiative and make smart decisions regarding their health.