Tommy Kahnle Is Returning to the Bronx… Again

Tommy Kahnle
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy Kahnle has once again found himself back with the Yankees. Drafted by the team in 2010, he played four seasons in the minor leagues with the organization but was scooped in the Rule 5 draft by Colorado and pitched there in 2014. His stint in Denver wasn’t long, and he eventually found himself traded to the White Sox for Yency Almonte. Chicago is where Kahnle rose up as a prominent reliever; in 2017, it all clicked for him, and the Yankees thought so too, acquiring him along with David Robertson and Todd Frazier before that year’s trade deadline.

Each of them played a pivotal role in the first ALCS run of the Baby Bomber era. But after more than three seasons with the club, Kahnle was waived due to injury — a torn UCL — and missed all of 2020 and ’21. After a long rehab, he made his comeback with the Dodgers in 2022 and showed he still has his stuff, making him a coveted reliever in this year’s free-agent class. His two-year, $11.5 million deal with the Yankees begins yet another stint in the Bronx for the 33-year-old reliever.

The reason for the Yankees’ interest in Kahnle is the same as it’s always been: he posses an elite changeup that plays perfectly with his four-seamer. When looking at the quality of his changeup, no one aspect sticks out relative to his peers. In 2022, its vertical movement was 11% above average, and its horizontal movement was 12% below average; that vertical movement was higher than it had been in any year of his career, and the horizontal movement was about in line with previous seasons. Basically, the pitch is closer to horizontal neutral and has plenty of vertical depth. The horizontal approach angle (HAA) reinforces the movement with a -0.2 degree entry into the zone, and the vertical approach angle (VAA) is steep at 7.0 degrees.

Changeups are difficult to diagnose and/or develop. Similar to any other pitch, you’re looking for unicorn qualities to see what makes it so lethal. Does it have an extremely sharp or steep entry into the zone? Does it move so much that hitters just cannot get a barrel on it? Is the movement profile unique for the given player’s extension and/or release point? These are just a few questions you ask about any pitch, but with changeups specifically, another crucial component is how the pitch plays with the primary fastball, whether it be a sinker, four-seamer, or both.

The beauty of the changeup is in the deception. If you can get a hitter to see a fastball for as long as possible, then you can get them either to swing over the pitch or hit the ball on the top third and ground out. Kahnle’s ability to do this while commanding his changeup location is why teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, and other advanced thinkers covet his services and want him to spam the pitch.

To get a better understanding of what I mean, I’d like to walk you through some sequences over the years where Kahnle has used the changeup-fastball combination in an at-bat, starting with a four-pitch sequence against Josh Bell in September.

This is a lethal 2–0 pitch; Bell is obviously selling out for the fastball and gets caught because of it. That’s the thing about facing Kahnle: it’s very difficult to cheat on the fastball. Because of it, Bell takes an awful swing in an advantage count.

Kahnle had Bell’s timing off badly after the previous swing. Knowing that, he went to the top of the zone on 2–1 to try to get Bell catching the ball deep. Bell’s issue is his point of contact can get too deep, leading him to drill the ball into the ground. By pounding the top third, Kahnle exposes the hole and gets a 2–2 count.

This is a challenge pitch. Bell took an off-time swing in the 2–1 count, so Kahnle wanted to see if he would make the adjustment, and he didn’t. Same pitch, same location, same swing, same result. Bell was late on two swings and couldn’t recognize the changeup. Kahnle was in a prime position.

This one wasn’t as nasty aa the 2–0 pitch, but because it plays so well with the previous locations of the two fastballs, Bell is way out in front and catches it off the end of the bat, yielding a ground ball. Great execution by Kahnle after falling behind.

One thing that wasn’t showcased in those GIFs that I’ve always loved about Kahnle’s changeup is his ability to get whiffs in the zone. In fact, among pitchers who threw at least 100 changeups in the zone between 2017 and 2019, he ranks fifth overall in in-zone whiff rate. He understands that since he throws his four-seamer mostly up in the zone, it makes the most sense to pepper the bottom half with the offspeed. Here is a perfect example of how he did that against Trent Grisham this year in a two-pitch sequence, with a high four-seamer first:

And the changeup after:

Based on the depth and movement Kahnle creates with these pitches, you could see why his splits don’t favor either direction. When your work on a vertical scale like this, it becomes easier to combat lefties and righties. Bat paths work diagonally or horizontally more often than not, so by creating vertical depth and variation, you become less prone to concrete splits. That’s another reason he is so compelling as a relief pitcher for a contending team: You don’t have to burn another reliever if a lineup has decent handedness diversity.

Kahnle has a good shot at resuming his old role with the Yankees as a high-leverage reliever, especially with the team needing to add some assurance against left-handed hitters. The stuff is there. The confidence is there. And most importantly for Kahnle, the health is there as well. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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1 year ago

With the questions about King’s health and the loss of Effross to TJ, this is a solid move to fill out the pen.

A lot has been made out of the Yanks losing 4 relatively big names out of their pen to FA this year, but they all were varying degrees of inconsistent and/or hurt last year. Even if they resign Green, he’s likely out most of the year at best. Chapman was both terrible and made himself persona non grata at the end of the year. Britton was shaky in his return, and Castro is a full bore RNG reliever — he’ll either be awesome or terrible and sometimes both in the same at-bat.