An appreciation of Tommy Kahnle

There’s a good chance that we’ve seen the last of Tommy Kahnle as a member of the Yankees. With Tommy John surgery on the table, the 30 year-old righty will miss the rest of this season and likely most — if not all — of 2021. Had he remained healthy, Kahnle would have hit free agency following the 2021 season. That means the Yankees are all but certain to non-tender him this offseason since (a) he probably won’t pitch next year and (b) the team won’t have his rights after that season anyway.

Losing Kahnle is a big blow to the Yankees bullpen this year and next. Save for a rough 2018, he’s been excellent since he returned to the organization that originally drafted him way back in 2010. The Yanks re-acquired Kahnle, who they lost in the 2013 Rule 5 draft, alongside David Robertson and Todd Frazier in July of 2017. At the time, that deal was more viewed as the D-Rob trade and the return of “Houdini”. But as time has passed, Kahnle has clearly become the headliner of the swap.

At first glance, Kahnle’s career numbers with the Yankees aren’t eye-popping. He has a 4.01 ERA in 112 1/3 innings pitched, after all. However, that’s inflated by 2018’s 6.56 ERA as I hinted at before. That year, Kahnle spent time on the shelf with shoulder tendinitis and was later optioned to the minors due to ineffectiveness. His other two stretches with the team though? Excellent. Take a look:

Statistic2017 (post-trade)2019
ERA-6280
FIP-5171
DRA-4449
K%31.335.5

Were there better relievers on the roster? Sure. But those are some elite numbers, particularly from Baseball Prospectus’s DRA metric which had Kahnle as the third-best reliever in baseball last year.

As great as Kahnle has been, I can’t help but wonder if the best was still yet to come. It was only last year that Kahnle really discovered just how brilliant his changeup is.

Kahnle’s changeup usage finally surpassed his fastball usage last season. And if his one appearance this year was any indication, he was ready to lean into it even more. He can throw it over and over and over again and not worry about hitters catching on to him. Part of that has to be opponents’ respect for his mid-to-high 90s fastball as well, but he also has the ideal arm action to deceive and movement on the pitch to make hitters flail.

It stinks that we won’t be able to find out how dominant Kahnle could have been going forward. Alas, we can always remember the good times. I’ve noted his strong regular season numbers, but Kahnle also deserves a ton of admiration for his postseason excellence. He pitched well in both the 2017 and 2019 postseasons (didn’t appear in 2018). In all, Kahnle recorded a 2.33 ERA in 19 1/3 October innings which included a few remarkable performances that should be highlighted. Let’s dive into them.

We’ll start with none other than Kahnle’s first postseason outing: the 2017 Wild Card game against the Twins. As you recall, this one turned into a bullpen game once Luis Severino clearly did not have it. Kahnle entered with two outs in the sixth inning, after Chad Green and D-Rob tossed 5 1/3 innings of relief. To the highlight reel:

The biggest out was the first out. With two outs in the sixth and two inherited runners aboard, Joe Mauer was the tying run at the plate. Kahnle induced a deep flyout to left that Brett Gardner ran down. Including that at-bat, Kahnle was dominant. He faced seven Twins and retired all of them. I still get pumped seeing Kahnle hop off the mound after completing his outing.

Tommy Tightpants also played a huge role in the ALDS, namely Game 4. Down 2-1 in the series, but ahead 7-3 in the eighth inning, Joe Girardi summoned Dellin Betances to hold down the fort. Unfortunately, Dellin walked the first two batters he faced. In came Kahnle. I’ve embedded his appearance here, but if it doesn’t work for you, fast forward to 14:59:

Kahnle escaped the jam and threw another perfect outing. He struck out five of six batters faced. Just utter brilliance in a big spot once again.

In the ALCS against the cheating Astros, Girardi went to Kahnle four times. His first three relief apperances were very good: in sum, five innings, two hits, two walks, three strikeouts, and no runs allowed. Unfortunately, his outing in Game 7 wasn’t so great (three runs in 1 1/3 frames). I’m not going to lament it though because (a) he was clearly out of gas from frequent usage and (b) Houston cheated.

Let’s move to the 2019 postseason, where Kahnle was stellar again (two runs in eight innings). It didn’t get off to a great start: he gave up a solo shot to Miguel Sano is Game 1 of the ALDS that cut the Yankees’ lead to one run, but that didn’t matter as the Yanks pulled away later in the game. Tommy went on to throw 6 1/3 shutout innings across six appearances thereafter; two against Minnesota and four times against Houston.

Kahnle played a big role in Game 2 of the Houston series — you know, the game JA Happ (!!!) gave up a walkoff in the 11th. Ugh. Anyway, Kahnle came in the fifth inning of this one with the score tied at two to clean up Adam Ottavino’s mess. With two on and two out, Kahnle did this to Yordan Álvarez:

He followed that up with 1-2-3 sixth and seventh innings to preserve the 2-2 tie. Just a great performance. Aaron Boone continued to go to him the rest of the series, though it proved costly toward the end, not unlike Girardi in 2017.

Kahnle pitched well in losses in Games three and four and was called upon again in Game 5. Though Kahnle was credited with a hold in Game 5, he had to be bailed out by Zack Britton after allowed two of three hitters to reach base. It may have been a sign that Kahnle was worn out. Nonetheless, Boone called on Kahnle in Game 6 for his third day of work in a row and fifth appearance of the series. He entered with the Yankees trailing 3-2 in the sixth and gave up a run within the first three batters he faced, though he managed to escape without further damage.

Now, aside from Kahnle’s dominance in the regular season and postseason, he was also simply a fun player to follow. He’s a little out there to say the least:

This, by the way, came AFTER Kahnle stopped drinking five red bulls per day. The guy has energy for days. Look no further than the gif at the top of this post, or this tarp slide from last year:

If it was any other year, we’d probably still see Kahnle’s face here and there during the season while he rehabs from surgery. But unfortunately, given the pandemic, he won’t be able to stick around the clubhouse. His presence will certainly be missed in there, perhaps just as much as he’ll be missed on the mound.

If and when the Yankees non-tender Kahnle this winter, I’m sure it won’t be hard for the righty to find a new home. There’s precedent for TJS guys getting contracts in the offseason, such as Nate Eovaldi a few years back. In any event, if for some reason he couldn’t find a new club, the Yankees still are on the hook for his rehab. Now, I’d love to see the Yanks work out a deal to keep Kahnle around, but I don’t expect it. The organization is a pipeline for relief arms and I suspect they’ll decide to move on. For Kahnle’s sake, I hope he has a successful and smooth recovery so he can continue his excellent work in relief.

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2 Comments

  1. Neal

    I feel bad for him. A solid reliever and a great personality. An upstate NY guy too. I’ll be pulling for him to have a long and successful career. You never know, he could bounce back to us down the road.

  2. Steve

    Too bad, he was one of my favorites. He’s a fun dude to follow on Twitch too.

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