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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.

Tommy Kahnle out with forearm tightness

Bad news, folks. After we wondered why Tommy Kahnle didn’t pitch the eighth inning last night, Aaron Boone delivered an ominous postgame update regarding his unavailability. Now, we know exactly what’s wrong.

Things went south after Kahnle absolutely wrecked the Nationals with his changeup on Sunday. Hopefully, this MRI comes back clean and Kahnle can return relatively soon. For the time being, the Yankees’ super bullpen is now two big arms short, with Kahnle joining Aroldis Chapman on the sidelines. Fortunately, Chapman has been cleared to return, but it will take him some time to get back up to speed.

Even without Kahnle, the Yankees are very deep in the bullpen. Zack Britton, Chad Green, and Adam Ottavino are more than capable of handling high leverage innings. Jonathan Loaisiga has shown flashes, too.

More to come, likely after the game when the team has MRI results in hand.

The fallout from Chapman’s COVID-19 results

Embed from Getty Images

Aroldis Chapman tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend. He’s experiencing “mild” symptoms, though “mild” often is a misnomer when it comes to this illness. In any case, it’s incredibly unlikely that the Yankees’ closer will be ready for Opening Day next Thursday. He’ll need two negative tests within a 24-hour period to return, not to mention getting his arm back to full strength. The Yankees wisely aren’t speculating when Chapman will return, but rather, Aaron Boone has noted that the lefty will be out for the foreseeable future. That means changes are coming to the team’s bullpen.

Earlier this month, I cobbled together a 30-man roster. Obviously, things are going to look different without Chapman (and potentially Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Cessa, and DJ LeMahieu). Whichever way the team decides to go in terms of filling out the roster, it’ll also have to reassign bullpen roles. Boone didn’t waste much time indicating that Zack Britton will take the reign as the team’s closer, which makes sense. The lefty sinkerballer has plenty of closer experience (145 career saves) and is an excellent reliever in his own right. There’s really not much more to it, though I’ll add some rationale to why he makes more sense over other options.

Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, and Adam Ottavino are all arguably better relievers than Britton, but that doesn’t necessarily make them better fits as the team’s interim closer. And it’s not just about Britton’s closer experience, either.

PitcherK%BB%
Britton21.613.1
Green31.35.2
Kahnle35.58.1
Ottavino31.114.1
2019 Season

Britton has the lowest strikeout rate of the group by far, though he did fan 28.7 percent of opponents in the second half of 2019. Still, he hasn’t had a full season punchout rate north of 21.6 percent since 2016 when he was with Baltimore. So, what’s my point? I’d rather have Britton start with a clean ninth inning rather than needing to be a potential escape artist in the mid-to-late innings. He walks too many and strikes out too few for that sort of role to work for him.

Obviously, clean innings will be available in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings at times. It’s just that I’d rather not have one of the team’s elite strikeout relievers pigeon-holed into the closer role. It wouldn’t be ideal to, say, not use Kahnle in a strikeout situation in the seventh because he’s needed for the save in ninth.

What about closer by committee? That’s one of those things that works well in theory, but isn’t necessarily easy to implement. Baseball players, particularly relievers, tend to be creatures of habit. Certain pitchers can handle not knowing exactly when they’ll be needed, but many others like to have a better idea of when to be ready. Plus, with such a deep bullpen, are we really that concerned about deploying the best reliever possible in the highest leverage situations? I don’t think so. Boone really can do no wrong with all the options he has at his disposal, so assigning innings to certain pitchers is fine to do.

Ultimately, it’s no surprise that the Yankees will go with Britton for saves while Chapman is down. Not only does he have the most experience in the closer role, but he’s also better off entering without baserunners. It’s not that he can’t work out of trouble — ground balls for double plays are Britton’s best friend, of course — it’s just that the others seem to be better bets to do so in earlier innings. In any case, this is only temporary. Britton may only get three or four save opportunities before Chapman is healthy again.

How Yankees’ bullpen stands heading into the offseason

Greeny!

After another dominant season from the bullpen, the Yankees now have to see if it’s worth keeping the group together.

While one would have expected a dropoff after Mariano Rivera’s retirement, the Yankees’ bullpen has remained steady. They’ve been either first or second in relief WAR every year since 2013, according to FanGraphs, and finished just 0.1 behind the Rays in 2019.

The bullpen mostly relied upon five arms: Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton (with a K!), Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green. Any stats from this season are thrown off slightly by Green pitching as an opener on 15 occasions. That fivesome was dominant and pitched almost all the important relief innings for the Yankees; They combined for 315 innings and 412 strikeouts with a 2.80 ERA weighed down by Green’s poor April.

The Yankees could easily bring back those five pitchers and call it a day. Heck, every player but Joe Harvey, David Hale and Ryan Dull is still under contract, so reuniting the band is easily possible. All but Chapman are under control for another season.

Chapman’s opt-out looms over everything the Yankees do this offseason, bullpen or otherwise. Even with a qualifying offer attached, the 31-year-old southpaw can exceed the $30 million owed to him over the next two seasons if he hits the open market.

New York could simply let him go. His $17.2 million AAV and $86 million overall was the largest contract for a reliever. If he opts out and isn’t re-signed, the Yankees would carry a $4.2 million competitive balance tax hit because the initial deal was frontloaded by $1.4 million a season.

Without Chapman, the Yankees could slide Britton into a familiar closing role and have Ottavino and Kahnle match up in front of him while Green fills in as the multi-inning fireman. In house, the Bombers have Jonathan Loaisiga as a potential impact reliever if they move him to the bullpen full-time. Beyond him, Luis Cessa figures to return as the long man, while the Scranton shuttle should still be the eighth reliever.

(If you’re worried about Ottavino after October, I’d point you to Dellin Betances in 2017. He was unpitchable in October that year, then came back better than ever in 2018. As rough as Otto had it in the postseason, he should be himself come March.)

Chapman, on the other hand, is still an elite reliever, so keeping him at age-32 and 33 might outweigh the decline he’ll have in an extra year tacked onto his current contract.

The free agent market gives the Yankees an opportunity to upgrade the current squad, or to replace Chapman. Dellin Betances should be the first name in mind. The Bombers could bring him back on a pillow deal and reap the reward of an elite reliever, yet his health and age make him a risk.

Ideally, the team would add a multi-inning reliever, or a rubber-armed Yusmeiro Petit-type. Those pitchers don’t grow on trees, and the Athletics have an option on Petit, so he’s not likely to be on the board. If the Yankees don’t want a high-priced reliever like Will Smith — more on him tomorrow! — they could try for a starter-turned-reliever on the cheap like Drew Pomeranz, who dominated in his short Milwaukee stint.

As the Yankees attempt to build out the bullpen, they’ll also have to factor in their own abilities with development. The franchise churns out solid relievers and may not need to look outside. Ben Heller has shown glimpses, and the team has more arms in the Minors. Whomever their new pitching coach is could be a part of the puzzle of unlocking players already under contract rather than seeking outside supplement.

Even if they bring back the basic group from 2019, New York could experience a mild downgrade in the bullpen next year simply from aging and the inevitable off-year from a reliever. It’s worth noting the remarkable health from the Yankees’ relievers last season, which is unlikely to be replicated despite the Bombers’ careful usage plans.

However, if the Yankees make upgrades to the starting rotation, a slip in performance from the top relievers would become more or less moot. Taking some key innings away from them and giving them to a high-end free-agent starter — or a healthy Luis Severino — would make a world of difference in both the regular season and October.

Whether or not Chapman returns, or if they sign Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, the bullpen should still be a significant asset next season. That doesn’t mean the Yankees shouldn’t ponder changes or reconsider their usage patterns. Any year you come up short of the World Series requires significant reflection, and the bullpen’s status should be near the top of considerations.

The Yankees’ bullpen passed the ALDS test with flying colors. Now what?

The Yankees are onto the League Championship Series in large part thanks to their bullpen.

The bullpen tossed 13 1/3 of the 27 innings the Yankees needed to advance and allowed just three runs, one of which came in the final inning of a blowout in Game 2.

It was a tour de force for Aaron Boone, who had come under fire for his bullpen management in the 2018 ALDS. The second-year manager displayed significant growth and trusted his bullpen when needed.

That meant giving his top five relievers — the vaunted quintet of Chad Green, Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman — all but three of the relief innings. If you were going to draw up a three-game series for this roster, you’d have wanted 24 of 27 innings going to those five plus the three starting pitchers.

Here’s how those top five relievers did in their outings

  • Green: 2 G, 2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 1 K, 37 pitches
  • Ottavino: 3 G, 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 1 K, 29 pitches
  • Kahnle: 3 G, 2 1/3 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 HR, 35 pitches
  • Britton: 2 G, 1 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 HR, 30 pitches
  • Chapman: 2 G, 2 2/3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 4 K, 46 pitches

Since it was a three-game series, no one was overworked. Boone made sure to save some bullets for each guy in Game 1 so they’d be available in Game 2, but Didi Gregorius and co. allowed him to go to mop up relievers at the end.

Funny enough, or actually quite intentionally enough, Chapman tossed just 24 fewer pitches in his two October outings than he did all of September. His five-out save Monday was his longest outing of the year and his first time getting more than four outs for the Bombers since the 2017 ALDS clincher.

Meanwhile, despite a home run, Britton proved himself trustworthy just as he had down the stretch. Relying even more upon his new car-esque slider, Britton drove through the top of Minnesota’s order twice in big spots. With his final two months of the season, he’s turned into the Yankees’ best reliever at just the right time.

His ankle injury scare nearly threw a wrench into that Monday. Luckily, it seems more of a precaution that he was pulled from the game than something more serious which can affect him in future rounds. The Yankees’ success correlates highly to how their top relievers are pitching, and Britton may be the tippy-top of that subset of the bullpen.

Ottavino’s usage was curious as he came into both Games 1 and 3 to face Nelson Cruz and no one else. Though he walked him both times, it was the right matchup, a tough right-hander to neutralize Cruz’s game-changing power. Rocco Baldelli deftly arranged his lineup so his top right-handed power hitter was flanked by two nearly-as-potent lefty hitters, and that forced Boone’s hand.

How Kahnle and Ottavino intersect has been a fun game throughout the season. Boone has been able to throw Kahnle against southpaw-laden portions of opposing lineups while giving Britton the hulking right-handers in the middle of orders. The Twins didn’t have a neat break to give and it led to abbreviated outings for both.

That’ll change next round. If the Rays somehow make it through to the Championship Series, Boone won’t have as fearful a lineup to manage against and should be able to extend those pitchers further. Against the Astros, the likelier of the two opponents, Ottavino will move into focus with the Astros’ cadre of righties.

How will Kahnle adapt? Despite some late-season struggles, he can still get righties out, but he could take a turn in Ottavino’s role and become the Yordan Alvarez Antidote. That’s a worthy role considering the damage the rookie can do at the plate.

Boone, though, won’t be able to go to three relievers for one inning, as he did in Game 3, all that often in the ALCS. There’s less room to get cute, and more need for length out of both the rotation or bullpen with more innings to cover.

Of course, Green’s role looms large in that respect. He handled himself well enough against a good fastball hitting team and the Astros would be yet another one (and the Dodgers yet another).

Houston’s advantage comes in its top two starting pitchers, who can give the Astros both quality innings and length. The Yankees counter that with shorter, quality outings from their starters and fully leveraging their bullpen. Green needs to be maximized there.

These matchups may not be ideal for the fastball-toting Green, but that’s the postseason for you. There aren’t ideal matchups anymore, just less awful ones, ones with which you can live.

And that will also turn the focus on J.A. Happ, the presumed Game 4 starter for future rounds. Though he’d be limited to 1-2 times through an order, those outings will be rough for Happ, who Houston beat up on Old Timers’ Day. He could also be another counter to Alvarez (or Michael Brantley) in earlier or later games. Happ’s role will depend on Green, who could open a Game 4.

The other player that looms here is CC Sabathia. He’s throwing again soon, according to his locker room scrum interview last night, and could make the ALCS roster. He can give the team both a lefty specialist, or can turn over the lineup in lower leverage. His health,however, remains a mystery for now.

With a seven-game series, the Yankees could use another arm or two in the bullpen. Dellin Betances is unavailable after his freak injury in September and Domingo German ruled himself out with his alleged heinous actions. Thus, a heavier burden falls upon the quintessential quintet for the Bombers.

If the team wants to add Sabathia, or another arm, it doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of Tyler Lyons or Luis Cessa. Instead, the team may opt to remove Luke Voit from the roster and go with 13 pitchers. That’s a more reasonable decision without a left-handed closer looming (Boone said Voit was on the ALDS roster in part to potentially face Taylor Rogers), nor a key lefty starter. The extra arm rather than a bat may be a better fit.

Regardless, the Yankees have the ultimate test coming, whether the Rays or Astros, as a seven-game series stretches your pitching staff thin. We saw this in 2017 as New York faltered late in the ALCS after the toll of the Wild Card Game and close ALDS led to their collective knees buckling. This time, the Yankees will come into the ALCS as the fresher team with a bullpen at the ready.

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