Yankees’ Tommy Kahnle adding new pitch to his repertoire

New York Yankees, Tommy Kahnle
Mar 19, 2018; Tampa, FL, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Tommy Kahnle (48) throws a pitch during the fifth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When the Yankees signed Tommy Kahnle early in the offseason, the expectation was that he would give the Yankees a strong veteran reliever who already had comfort in New York.

The energetic RHP was coming off of a 2021 season lost to Tommy John Surgery and a 2022 season where he battled injuries all season. It’s apparent that the Yankees have faith in him, as they guaranteed nearly $12 million to a reliever over the next two seasons despite his injury concerns. It would turn out to be quite the bargain as players across every position were getting large contracts, with teams spending aggressively all season.

Now we’re finding out Tommy Kahnle might be evolving his game further, as he’s got a new toy to play around with in 2023.

Yankees Could See Tommy Kahnle Add a Sinker

In a recent interview with Chris Kirschner of The Athletic, Tommy Kahnle was asked about what he had been working on over the offseason, and he gave a very interesting response.

“I’m working on a two-seam, sinker-hybrid pitch. I don’t know why I decided to do it. I felt like maybe it’s time to get that pitch. “

– Tommy Kahnle

Tommy Kahnle working on a sinker is interesting, considering he’s been a four-seam fastball guy for basically his whole career. This may come as a shock to many due to his high-octane velocity, which in theory, should play well up in the zone, but this is a change that could be greatly beneficial. Kahnle hasn’t had the success he had with his FF since 2017, with opposing hitters having a .322 AVG and .441 wOBA against the pitch from 2018-2022, and for context in that timespan, the league-leader in wOBA was Mike Trout (.432), meaning batters were performing like Mike Trout against the pitch.

New York Yankees, Tommy Kahnle
May 1, 2019; Phoenix, AZ, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Tommy Kahnle against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A change in his fastball usage in 2022 might’ve hinted at the nail in the coffin for his four-seam fastball as his primary heater, with his usage of it plummeting to just 23.6%. This isn’t to say his FF isn’t going to be featured at all in 2023, but Kahnle wants to shift away from being a nearly 80% changeup guy. In his words, “I [Kahnle] really don’t want to throw it that much, so hitters are just sitting on a changeup the entire time.” It’s about added deception and keeping hitters guessing, and the Yankees are the perfect organization to develop a sinker with.

Pitching+ would suggest that Kahnle’s four-seam fastball was no longer the dominant pitch it was in years past as well, with a mere 93 Pitching+. His Location+ was poor, but fastball command tends to stabilize much later than velocity after surgery, though a 101.4 Stuff+ isn’t much better than average. Kahnle’s changeup gave the groundball profile Kahnle’s had for years, but the sinker should help him generate even more of those. With a stout defensive infield, the Yankees could help convert plenty of those groundballs into outs, and Kahnle’s profile should help him perform better next season.

Previous Yankees Who Developed Sinkers

Jonathan Loaisiga was a primary four-seam fastball guy when he first came up, and the Yankees helped him develop a sinker as his four-seam fastball kept getting torched by opposing batters. If we look at his four-seam fastball usage through the years, it’s when he finally leaned heavily on his bowling ball sinker that we saw him become the dominant reliever he is today.

  • Sinker Usage Through the Years
    • 2018: 0.0%
    • 2019: 8.6%
    • 2020: 24.6%
    • 2021: 54.9%
    • 2022: 63.3%

He went from an afterthought in the Yankees’ vaunted bullpen in 2019 to arguably their best reliever, and the development of his sinker was a huge part of that.

In my recent write-up about Albert Abreu, I detailed how his numbers across the board improved after the Yankees had him heavily rely upon his nasty triple-digits sinker, but what many don’t know is that his sinker wasn’t his primary fastball when he came up either. He didn’t throw a single sinker in his debut season in 2020, and while in 2021 he used it more than his four-seam fastball, he still featured a sub-40% usage of his sinker. It wasn’t until his second stint with the Yankees in 2022 that we saw the sinker used as his primary pitch (~60%), and his sub-3 FIP and 3.01 SIERA would indicate he was significantly better than he was before.

This isn’t to say Tommy Kahnle is going to see the quantum leap these young fireballers did when they heavily relied upon their sinker, Kahnle isn’t a mid-20s reliever getting his first crack at MLB action. This is to say that the Yankees know how to identify when a pitcher with a four-seam fastball should ditch it for a sinker. Kahnle hasn’t had in-depth discussions with Matt Blake yet regarding pitching, so they’ll evaluate the pitch as he uses it in Spring Training and determine its viability and make tweaks where they’re needed. Kahnle’s four-seamer was losing the IVBs it previously had when he was younger, and this was entering “dead-zone” territory.

What’s dead-zone? It’s a concept regarding fastballs that looks at a pitch that doesn’t generate distinct vertical movement that allows it to play up in the zone or truly become a strong sinking fastball. Hitters describe it as a “flat” fastball, and even when thrown hard, they get absolutely hammered at the Major League level. Sitting at 16.2″ of Induced Vertical Break, Kahnle’s four-seamer was becoming that flat dead-zone fastball that, as mentioned earlier, was getting routinely crushed. A shift to a sinker should help him have a strong fastball that can be used to keep the ball in the ground and limit HR damage alongside his gross changeup.

tommy kahnle, yankees
Oct 15, 2022; San Diego, California, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Tommy Kahnle (44) pitches in the seventh inns against the San Diego Padres during game four of the NLDS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

If sustainable, we could see Tommy Kahnle take huge strides in 2023 and return to his pre-TJS form. Kahnle is embracing change, and this next evolution for him could get him more high-leverage looks and keep him in the Big Leagues for the foreseeable future.