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Tommy Kahnle is back, and throwing his changeup more than ever

Taking a look at Tommy Kahnle’s season debut with the Yankees.

New York Yankees v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

On an otherwise forgetful night for the Yankee faithful, as its ball club dropped the opener of this West Coast series 8-24to the Dodgers, there was little to spin on a positive note. There were a couple silver linings, though, among the proceedings, most notably Josh Donaldson’s huge return game, and also, the season debut of right-handed reliever Tommy Kahnle.

Pitching against the team he departed in favor of the Yankees over the winter, Kahnle produced a scoreless outing in the fifth, as Aaron Boone eased the veteran back in there, in a low-leverage situation, with the team trailing 7-2.

Kahnle struggled to stay healthy last season, tossing only 12.2 innings for the Dodgers, and that’s obviously carried over into this 2023 campaign. However, the veteran excelled in that short sample, enough to earn crucial postseason innings for the Dodgers in the NLDS last season. Those 12.2 regular seasons came with only five hits allowed, convincing LA to give him three appearances in their four-game NLDS loss to the Padres.

The Yankees bullpen has done just fine without Kahnle, entering Friday with the lowest ERA in the bigs at 2.86. But with his proven track record, and with the nearly $6 MM sum committed to the righty, there is little doubt that Boone will naturally rely on him for high-leverage spots moving forward, as long as he shows that he is now healthy.

There are obvious caveats to be made about one-inning sample sizes. Nevertheless, when that small sample confirms specific ideas we have regarding the player, and follows a noticeable trend, we can glean some insight from them.

In his first appearance in his second stint with the Yankees, Kahnle has continued a pivot he’s made in recent years, relying very heavily on his changeup as his primary pitch.

Here’s a chart with Kahnle’s pitch usage throughout each season of his career

Kahnle has pivoted towards the changeup more and more with each passing season, culminating at a 76.4 percent usage in that small sample last season with the Dodgers, which saw him earn a 20.3 percent swing strike rate on the offering (MLB average for a relief pitcher was 13.9).

Friday night, Kahnle tossed a scoreless inning, navigating a couple of baserunners, across 29 pitches, punching out James Outman (on a changeup) to end the frame. He did so throwing 24 changeups, and only five fastballs.

One game does not a bankable sample size make, but 83 percent usage would set a new career high, upping the already high mark of last season.

The only hit he allowed came on a mistake, middle-middle, against Jason Heyward

Through those 24 changeups, Kahnle got the Dodgers to swing at 11 of them, with five whiffs, for an outstanding 42 outstanding whiff rate. Interestingly enough, the velocity on both his off-speed and fastball was down compared to what we saw last season. He averaged 87.1 mph on the changeup, and 94.5 on the heater, whereas last season, he tossed the off-speed at 89.8 mph, and the heater at 95.5 mph. That velo drop might represent a need for Kahnle to simply continue to work back to full strength, and shouldn’t be a major concern at the moment.

What matters most is that the two pitches still played well, with the changeup showing the same movement profile that stifled hitters in the past. Indeed, the only obstacle in Tommy Kahnle’s way toward success is his ability to remain healthy for the rest of the season, as the veteran hasn’t pitched a full year since 2019. In his first outing back, everything checked out, and now it’s just a matter of getting into a rhythm moving forward.