Yankees: Why Tommy Kahnle should be Dellin Betances’ replacement

New York Yankees, Tommy Kahnle

The New York Yankees’ “Bullpen of Doom” is seen by most as one of the most dominant bullpens in the game today. With all the electrifying arms that the Yankees utilize, like Ottavino — who throws a slider that swoops across the plate like a David Beckham free-kick outside the eighteen — Zack Britton, who throws a 95 MPH sinker and only a few years ago was one of the most dominant bullpen arms in all of baseball, and of course both flamethrowers — Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances.

Mix that in with Chad Green, who has one of the liveliest fastballs in all of the league, and has seen a steady improvement in his average fastball velocity, across the last four seasons. Yet, one of the names that seems to get continuously lost is Tommy Kahnle. Yankee fans are not the only eyes that have looked beyond his skill-set; the entire league has overlooked his talents.

As the 2019-2020 Free Agency market has begun to churn its gears and with Winter Meetings just around the corner, the Relief Pitcher market is starting to grow thinner and thinner by the day. With players like Will Smith, Drew Pomeranz, and even Carl Edwards Jr. getting signed over the last couple of weeks. Dellin Betances still sits on the market, which leads me to believe that perhaps the Yankees aren’t as positive about his injury-riddled past two seasons and that he may not be coming back to New York. With that being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if no one bites on Betances. Cashman and co would like to bring him back on a one or two year deal for a discount price. A question that is on the minds of all Yankees fans, and covered in a previous article by John Zarnowski, is: Who could fill the role that Betances held? 

There have been rumors and chatter of the Yankees possibly pursuing Josh Hader, however seeing as to how the Brewers have torn apart their team over the last month, I imagine they would want a king’s ransom and then some. I think the best option lies within the organization, and it’s Tommy Kahnle. 

Kahnle’s time with the New York Yankees up to this season

Acquired as an add-on in the deal that brought Houdini, David Robertson, back to New York in the summer of 2017 in exchange for — at the time — prized prospect, Blake Rutherford, Kahnle never really saw himself in conversations as one of the better arms out of the pen in the AL, let alone the entire league, so there were question marks around his name. However, there was some argument that in the 2017 season, Kahnle was as good as, if not better than Robertson. 

Tommy ended the 2017 season between the White Sox & Yankees with a K/BB ratio of 96/17 across 62.2 IP. That’s nearly a 6/1 ratio, coming off a season where his K/BB ratio in 2016 was 25/20 across a much smaller sample size in 26.1 IP. Robertson posted a 98/23 K/BB ratio that year, good for roughly a 4/1 ratio. Their 2017 seasons as a whole, across the board, were some of the most comparably dominant seasons that a reliever saw that year. While there were definite worries and question marks with Kahnle, nobody saw his horrendous 2018 season coming. 

In 2018, the Yankees had one more year of Robertson before he hit FA, so he was a lock in the pen, and the general belief around the Yankees clubhouse was that Tommy Kahnle, a cheap and team controlled MLB ready reliever, was going to be featured a lot that season. However, injuries and overall lack of confidence, oomph, and control, all played into what ended up being a horrid season for Kahnle. He saw his previous career year completely disregarded after only pitching 23.1 IP across the entire year, and having to spend a fair majority of the season in the minors as well. Everything that could’ve gone wrong for him did go wrong. Being demoted in May, and only accumulating 9.1 IP across the entire first half of the season led many to believe that Kahnle was just one-and-done, and indeed wasn’t this elite arm that everyone had begun to believe.

For Kahnle, his fastball was his best pitch, similar to Green’s, but Kahnle’s could hurl 97-98 MPH consistently in 2017. It was electrifying, and few hitters could hit it, which is why Kahnle threw it 67% of the time, mixing in his changeup only 22% of the time. In 2018 however, when his velocity was down to 94-95 MPH, his fastball wasn’t nearly as valuable or used as much, as seen by the average velocity game log from 2017-2019 (via Fangraphs):

There were times in 2018 where Tommy Kahnle would toss pitches at 93 MPH, dipping down from his 2017 high of 101. Due to that dip, he threw his changeup a considerably more substantial amount, but having relied so heavily on his fastball showed. His Changeup usage % was 41% in 2018, yet it didn’t have the movement or wasn’t nearly as valuable of a pitch due to his loss in velocity and confidence in his fastball. In 2019 however, Tommy regained some of that velocity and saw himself consistently pitching mid-to-high 90’s. Yet, he also threw his changeup far more often. His FB Usage % was down to 44%, and his changeup usage percentage was up to 52%. With that, Tommy saw the strikeouts return, and the walks limited far more than his previous year. He regained confidence and was a solid man out of the pen for the entirety of that year. 

Kahnle’s new approach was seemingly utilized by another player, needing a change as well

It’s as if Kahnle did what everyone’s applauding Drew Pomeranz for figuring out the last month of the year, but did it for that whole season. While Pomeranz’s change is different in the fact that he transitioned from starting role to relief, and immediately saw results, the overall concept is almost the same in its entirety. For Pomeranz, he upped his FB% from 48% when in the rotation, to an astonishing 72.6% when used out of Milwaukee’s pen. However, what made that pitch so lethal is that Pomeranz, who like Kahnle refound his velocity and restructured his approach, is that he also has — and only uses — one secondary pitch, his knuckle curve. Pomeranz’s time as a reliever, across 28.1 IP, was otherworldly for someone thought to have been washed up, as he racked up 50 strikeouts, and only yielded eight walks. That fantastic stretch earned him a four year deal worth $34,000,000 from the Padres.

Pomeranz’s and Kahnle’s styles may seem vastly different, in that Pomeranz uses his fastball far more. Yet, the secondary pitch that complements the primary pitch is almost just as important. Pomeranz realized he needed to throw only two pitches, as did Kahnle. Kahnle’s changeup is one of the most dominant in the league, and being able to throw it wisely and timely mix it in with his fastball, showed signs of becoming a lethal one-two punch. 

He has the tools necessary to be that set-up man to Aroldis

Kahnle was far from perfect in 2019, and he has things that still need to be put together, as suggested by his Road splits (4.94 ERA / 4.08 FIP). With that being said, there was still a massive improvement and signs shown that he has what it takes to be elite. Tommy Kahnle also wasn’t trusted enough last year, despite the fact that Kahnle was increasingly better when called upon in a more direct and defined role, and given the opportunities:

Low Leverage Situations Medium Leverage Situations High Leverage Situations
IP 25.2  26.1 9.1
K/BB  2.92  6.50 7.00
WHIP 1.36 0.87 0.75
xFIP 3.05 2.48 2.25

While it may not be a large sample size, the point is that as Tommy was given more significant tasks and more challenging appearances, he performed better. As with many players, if the team places their trust in them, then that player will likely return the favor by performing to expectations, if not exceeding them. That was the case with Kahnle, as the more comfortable he got throughout the year, he was used in more intense situations. While he did yield nearly double the HR/9 in High Leverage Situations (1.98 to 1.05 in LLS), that can be attributed to more than not bad luck, and the small sample size. The tools are there, and Tommy looks set to continue on the positive track he set last year, and bring the heat come 2020, and possibly, if needed, take the place of longtime Yankee, Dellin Betances.

The list of BP arms if Betances doesn’t return could look like this (* = potential RP/SP split role):

  • Jordan Montgomery*
  • Deivi Garcia*
  • Michael King*
  • Jonathan Loiasaga*
  • Ben Heller
  • Chad Green
  • Zack Britton
  • Adam Ottavino
  • Tommy Kahnle
  • Aroldis Chapman

With the Yankees’ pitchers and catchers set to report to camp on February 11th, all eyes should be on Tommy Kahnle, and what further improvements he may have made on the heels of a resurrection of a season last year. It’ll be interesting to see what approach the Yankees take regarding their bullpen. Will they decide to bring back Betances on a team-friendly deal if he’s still around, look for other options like Blake Treinen on the market, or perhaps use what they have — and the Yankees have a good one in Tommy Kahnle.