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Yankees add bullpen upside by reuniting with Tommy Kahnle

Tommy Tightpants brings one of the best changeups in baseball back to the Bronx.

Division Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v San Diego Padres - Game Four Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Tommy Kahnle quickly became a fan favorite during his previous stint with the Yankees, and a full year recovered from Tommy John surgery finds himself back in the Bronx, signing a two-year, $11.5 million deal with New York today. The 33-year-old posted a 2.84 ERA, 2.39 xERA and 4.38 FIP, the latter number dragged by some bad home run luck in just 12 innings in 2022.

Since 2019, Kahnle has really turned into a two-pitch pitcher, offering a fastball and a changeup, the latter thrown about three-fourths of the time. In 2022, that changeup was one of the 20 best in all of baseball, and since 2019 he’s leveraged it as an effective tool against hitters on both sides of the plate. Over the past three seasons he’s appeared in, lefties have managed just a .151 wOBA against the change, and righties a .162.

You can see why this is such a devastating pitch, and the run away from lefties is why it works so well to either batter. Manny Machado is one of the best players in baseball, and he actually crushes changeups — he was the third-best hitter in baseball this season against changes. And when TK needs a strike to retire the MVP candidate, he goes slow:

This is our decision point. The ball’s about 40 feet to home plate, and Machado has to decide whether or not he’ll swing. At that point, he’s likely picked up on the changeup’s spin — right along the 2 o’clock axis, slower than a fastball will be spinning. He’s a great hitter when it comes to offspeed pitches, he knows what to look for, and he thinks that this pitch is going to hang up over the plate.

And then, he swings.

Machado is actually fairly on time with his swing, which again indicates that he picked up the pitch. He just had no idea how much the pitch was going to drop and cut in towards the inner third — his barrel is in the zone, right where it should be to drive a pitch, and there’s daylight between his bat and the ball. One of the absolute best offspeed hitters in the game, and he’s completely fooled by the plane of the pitch.

I imagine hitting against Kahnle must be one of the more frustrating assignments in baseball. Guys like Shohei Ohtani, with a wipeout slider, or Nestor Cortes’ fastball, you don’t really have a chance at, especially late in the count. You protect, swing as hard as you can, and often walk back to the dugout. You don’t have much of a shot against Kahnle’s changeup either, but it looks so much more promising than something like a slider, because it’s going to be in the zone a lot, and the spin profile of changeups makes it look oh so appealing.

Instead, it dives under your swing path and the result is the same as it would be against any of the other game’s elite pitches. If Kahnle’s healthy, expect to see a lot of guys fooled by that offspeed offering.

The other thing I like about this deal is, sometimes you do need to sign relievers. We know how volatile relief pitching can be year to year, and frankly that’s why when you have a pitcher with a track record of consistent, strong performance in relief, it might be worth a contract. As Kevin noted earlier, where the Yankees have fallen into trouble is the multi-year deals they’ve given to Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton, which both meant giving them innings to justify their roster spot and complicating the overall payroll flexibility the team desires so much.

Kahnle doesn’t come with that problem. I think he’ll be quite strong for the Yankees — I’d take the under on his projected 3.56 ERA. But he also doesn’t represent an overallocation of resources at a position the Yankees can develop strongly on their own. He’s a great weapon to have, but he also doesn’t prevent other moves from being made, the way that other bullpen acquisitions might have.