2018 was a lost season for Tommy Kahnle. After establishing himself as a key cog in the 2017 bullpen, Kahnle battled shoulder injuries all season and wasn’t himself in 23.1 rocky innings. Kahnle entered spring training as a major question mark for this year’s club and it was unclear if there would even be a role for him in New York moving forward. However, Kahnle reshaped his body and nursed his shoulder back to health, and the results have been encouraging through the first month of the 2019 season. Here’s how Kahnle has found success during his April bounce back.
When Kahnle came to the Yankees in 2017 he blew batters away with an elite fastball. His average fastball velocity clocked in at 97.7 mph, and his slider averaged 86 mph. That fastball velocity dipped to 95.1 mph last season when he suffered through shoulder tendinitis, and the damage was reflected in his abysmal 6.56 ERA.
Kahnle also completely lost command, and it looked like he was overthrowing at times to compensate for his lack of velocity. In order to start fresh in 2019, Kahnle kicked his bad habit of consuming red bulls at an alarming rate, and gave his shoulder more rest than a typical offseason. The early returns are encouraging. The big right-hander’s fastball velocity has ticked back up to average over 96 mph, and has touched 98 mph.
In addition to some rediscovered life on his fastball, Kahnle has basically given up on his slider and replaced it with a very effective changeup. This trend actually began last season, but with all of Kahnle’s shoulder tendinitis troubles, it wasn’t put to the test for an extended trial. During his post-deadline stretch with the Yankees in 2017, Kahnle threw 15.9% sliders and 25.2% changeups. He’s now using his changeup on 33.2% of pitches and his slider on only 4.4%.
The result? Batters are having a lot of trouble lifting the ball against Kahnle’s new pitch mix. According to Statcast, the average launch angle against Kahnle is 2.3 degrees, compared to the 14.2 last season, and 14.9 the year prior. The six-year MLB veteran has never posted a groundball rate above 54.8%, but opponents are hitting the ball on the ground at a 65.4% rate so far this season, a 30% increase from last season (per FanGraphs). He’s also missing bats at a high rate, as his 34.7% strikeout rate ranks in the 93rd percentile (per Statcast).
It’s still early in the season, but Kahnle has only had one truly bad outing, when he gave up 2 runs on 4 hits against the Astros on April 10th. Thus far, his numbers don’t look like a fluke. According to Statcast, his xwOBA, xBA, and xSLG, all rank in the top 2% of baseball. If you told the Yankees during spring training that Kahnle would be 1-0 with a 1.86 ERA in 11 April games, they’d sign up for that every time. For now, Kahnle’s bounce back is in full effect, and he profiles as one of the Yankees’ more impactful bullpen arms.