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Tommy Kahnle is working a high-wire act

Can Kahnle overcome the red flags in his profile and serve as an effective reliever for the Yankees?

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

As a writer, the early days of the baseball season present a mixed blessing. On the one hand, baseball is back and I can write about actual events on the field. The small sample sizes, however, make it difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions about a player’s performance.

Conversely, the small sample sizes allow for amusing happenings that one wouldn’t find in the middle of the summer. Take Trevor Rosenthal for example. He recorded his first out of the season last night. He has appeared in five games and sports an ERA of 72. Chris Davis, meanwhile, still doesn’t have a hit to his name.

The Yankees have their own fun fact, as Tommy Kahnle currently owns a 90.9% strand rate out of the bullpen. That’s exactly what one wants from a reliever! He also holds a .314 xwOBA against and a 36.4% hard hit rate. Those stats don’t scream lights-out relief arm.

The results aren’t the only confusing aspect of Kahnle’s game so far. The elements that make up his pitching are just as puzzling. On the one hand, he is doing two things quite well. He also has areas for serious concern. It makes sense to start with what’s working.

Velocity proves a useful talking point when it comes to Kahnle. A high-octane fastball always stood out as his calling card. During the 2017 season, his most successful to date, the right-hander averaged 97.8 mph on his four-seam fastball. That mark precipitously fell to 95.1 mph in 2018, and as went his velocity, so too did his effectiveness.

Kahnle’s velocity has rebounded in 2019, although not to his 2017 levels. He’s averaging 96.1 mph on his heater in the early goings, and that bodes well moving forward. This uptick suggests that last year’s problems were likely injury related; he isn’t permanently broken.

He also has a sharper delivery working for him this season, at least compared to last year. The release point on his fastball tightened up and he isn’t flying open as the ball leaves his hand. Consider these two examples, both featuring a four-seamer to Trey Mancini.

In 2018, this 95 mph heater got turned into a rocket off the wall.

This season, however, he overpowered Mancini.

It sure looks like he stands taller in his delivery now, doesn’t it? He also has fewer moving pieces. That’s encouraging! If he can find a repeatable, streamlined delivery, then one could envision him returning to form. Poor mechanics could lead to lower velocity, where a smoother form would allow the ball to jump out of his hand more naturally.

Kahnle better hope his velocity continues to climb, however, because he needs to make up for his fastball’s spin rate. It currently sits at an average of 2309 rpm, which decidedly isn’t special. In fact, it ranks in just the 47th percentile. The general rule for fastballs and spin rate is that a pitcher wants an extreme number. A high spin rate increases the likelihood of generating whiffs. A low spin rate, however, does well to induce groundballs. Kahnle’s just sits in the middle, making his heater eminently hittable if it doesn’t have top velocity.

A related problem, Kahnle is having trouble throwing strikes this season. A whopping 42.9% of his pitches so far have gone for balls. That’s noticeably worse than the marks posted in his previous two years, albeit in a small sample size. This could explain some of his hard hit tendencies. Eight of the 20 batters Kahnle faced ran up a three-ball count. Those counts force Kahnle into the zone, and without a good swing-and-miss pitch, he’s liable to get squared up.

Credit: FanGraphs

Kahnle right now presents as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reliever. His results suggest he can escape tight jams, but the underlying peripherals scream the opposite. It’s unlikely that these two areas will coexist all season. One will have to give. The question is — which one? Last night’s poor outing against the Astros raised the concern level by a degree or two, suggesting the bottom may be less sturdy than expected.

For now, though, the Yankees have no choice but to stick with Kahnle. The bullpen needs all the help it can get until Dellin Betances returns. The team will just have to hope Kahnle can successful navigate his high-wire act until the reinforcements arrive.