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The Tommy Kahnle resurgence

If I asked you to name the Yankee reliever with the lowest ERA right now, could you? I guess since you already know the title of this article, the answer is probably yes: Tommy Kahnle. But nobody would have guessed this after last season. Not even after Spring Training. Yet here we are and Kahnle has been nothing short of dominant.

Kahnle has pitched 10.2 innings across 12 appearances, and outside of an appearance in Houston on April 10 when he gave up two runs, he hasn’t given up any other runs in his appearances. Wow. Before digging into this article, I knew Kahnle had been pitching well, but I didn’t know he had been pitching THAT well.

2019 Pitching Game Log
Date Opp IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA
MarĀ 31 BAL 1.0 0 0 0 3 2 0 0.00
AprĀ 4 BAL 1.2 0 0 0 1 1 0 0.00
AprĀ 9 HOU 0.2 0 0 0 0 2 0 0.00
AprĀ 10 HOU 0.2 4 2 2 0 0 1 4.50
AprĀ 14 CHW 0.2 0 0 0 0 1 0 3.86
AprĀ 17 BOS 0.2 0 0 0 0 1 0 3.38
AprĀ 19 KCR 1.0 0 0 0 1 1 0 2.84
AprĀ 21 KCR 1.0 0 0 0 0 2 0 2.45
AprĀ 22 LAA 1.0 0 0 0 0 1 0 2.16
AprĀ 25 LAA 1.0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1.93
AprĀ 26 SFG 0.1 0 0 0 0 1 0 1.86
AprĀ 28 SFG 1.0 0 0 0 1 2 0 1.69
10.2 4 2 2 6 15 1 1.69

What’s also interesting is that so far Kahnle has been used in just about every situation. Here’s a breakdown of which innings he’s appeared in (Y axis) and what the difference in score was when he came into the game (X axis).

Inning/Score Appearance Matrix
Inn <-4 -4 -3 -2 -1 Tie 1 2 3 4 >4 Total
4- 0
5 1 1
6 1 1 1 3
7 1 1 2
8 1 1 2 4
9 1 1
10+ 1 1
Total 1 0 2 3 0 1 1 1 0 2 1 12

As you can see, Boone has used him all over the place, though not in late, close games outside of an extra innings appearance. That could change if he continues to pitch well, and the majority of metrics show it seems likely.

Outside of his FIP, which places him at a more modest 3.22 rather than his 1.69 ERA, things look good. His hard hit % is just 13.6% according to Fangraphs. Last year it was 35.5%. In his stellar 2017, it sat at 31.2%.

He’s also done a great job at limiting fly balls, which in turn has contributed to the just one home run he’s given up this season. Through his 12 appearances this year, he’s given up 14 groundballs to just six flyballs. Over the past two years, that ratio has been closer to 50-50.

His strikeouts have been in good shape, too, and in line with recent years: 12.66K/9 this season vs. 11.57 last year or 13.79 the year before. The K has been always been there for him. His WHIP sits at a remarkable 0.94.

If you dig into Statcast, Kahnle’s numbers become even more impressive in the early going. His .138 XBA sits in the top 1% of the league, his XSLG of .224 is in the top 2%. His WOBA, XWOBA, XWOBACON, and K% all rank in the top 6% or higher.

What might explain some of this? Well, so far this season Kahnle’s fastball is up in velocity from where it was last year. His fastball has averaged 96.7mph, ahead of last year’s 95.5mph (though behind 2017’s 98.1mph). Below you’ll see where his fastball has sat vs. the last two seasons: already surpassed most of 2018 and in line with the lower end of middle of 2017.

He’s also throwing his fastball more than he was last year at a rate of 63.5%. That’s much closer to his career average of 65% than it is to last year’s 54.3%. Additionally, he’s throwing his changeup more at 32.5%, with a few sliders making up the rest of his repertoire. And that should make sense. Kahnle is a fastball/change-up type of pitcher, and if his fastball is working well, his changeup will also be more effective. Obviously, last year Kahnle lost confidence in his fastball given its lower velocity. Now that it’s faster, he’s back to throwing it effectively.

Kahnle probably won’t pitch THIS well for the rest of this season, but given the depth of the bullpen, if he can pitch somewhere closer to 2017 than 2018, the Yankees are going to have some serious relief firepower.