Tommy Kahnle made the Yankees’ Opening Day roster because he was out of options. That’s it. Not because he was worthy of a spot on the 25-man roster, but because he had one chance left with the Yankees to figure it out and they were going to give him that chance rather than designate him for assignment and possibly watch him figure it out with another organization.
In Kahnle’s first appearance of the season, he walked three in an inning of work, while also striking out two, showing the two extremes of his abilities and a continued lack of consistency. After a pair of scoreless appearances, on April 10 in Houston, he got knocked around by the same Astros team which sent his career into a downward spiral. Two earned runs on four hits, including a home run, in an eventual 8-6 loss and Kahnle’s early-season line looked like the 2017 version of Kahnle was gone and never coming back: 4 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 4 BB, 5 K, 1 HR, 4.50 ERA, 2.000 WHIP.
Where was the guy who struck out 96 in 62 2/3 innings in 2017? Where was the guy who became Joe Girardi’s go-to high-leverage guy during the 2017 postseason with Dellin Betances struggling, jumping both Chad Green and David Robertson in the pecking order? Where was the guy who pitched 11 scoreless innings and allowed only four baserunners in the 2017 playoffs before his ALCS Game 7 meltdown?
The last time we had seen the dominant Kahnle was in Game 5 of the 2017 ALCS, three nights before he would allow three insurance runs to the Astros in 1 1/3 innings as the Yankees’ season ended. It was that Game 7 appearance against the Astros which seemingly ruined Kahnle.
After allowing an opposite field home run to Jose Altuve, he allowed back-to-back singles to Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel. He was tired and ineffective, but Girardi kept him in the game and still didn’t have anyone warming up in the bullpen. One would think in Game 7, someone should always be warming as the next man up, never wanting the game to get too far out of reach. But not Girardi. Evan Gattis struck out and Girardi decided to double down on his decision to stick with Kahnle in what was yet another critical second-guess situation.
The Yankees were paying Brian McCann to play against them in the ALCS, so when he lined a two-run double down the right-field line to score Correa and Gurriel and give the Astros a 4-0 lead, the Yankees were paying for their own demise. Kahnle, who has the ability to throw 97, had inexplicably thrown 25 changeups in 27 pitches and gave up three runs, and Girardi either didn’t notice or failed to think it was a telling sign that the overworked Kahnle couldn’t trust his fastball. After the double, Girardi finally took Kahnle out.
Following that game, Kahnle pitched himself off the 2018 Yankees in mid-April with a 6.14 ERA. He came back at the end of May and put four men on in 2/3 of an inning, allowing two earned runs and two days later he was gone again. He rejoined the Yankees for one appearance in the disastrous four-game sweep in Boston, but became a mainstay in the bullpen from August 16 through the end of the regular season, despite pitching to a 6.75 ERA and 1.650 WHIP in 15 appearances over the last two months of the season. He was unsurprisingly left off the postseason roster.
Kahnle finished the 2018 season with 24 appearances for the Yankees, a 6.56 ERA, 1.629 WHIP, and .811 OPS against him with eight of his 12 inherited runners scored. His velocity had diminished and his fastball-changeup combination was no longer unhittable without the necessary velocity separation. Shoulder tendinitis and an abundance of Red Bull was the diagnosis, though I couldn’t help but think he had been ruined in the 2017 postseason, pitching in seven of the team’s 13 games, with five of those seven appearances for multiple innings. Kahnle had faced 39 batters and thrown 147 pitches in the highest of leverage situations over 18 days, and his decision to not throw his fastball in Game 7 of the ALCS was a clear sign something was wrong and that sign lingered through all of 2018.
I wasn’t happy, to put it kindly, when Aaron Boone started this season by using Kahnle as if it were still 2017, completely disregarding the way he had pitched since Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS. I understood the idea of seeing what he has to know if he will last as a Yankee, but with nearly the entire team injured and the threat of two other teams in the division this season, letting Kahnle sink or swim in non mop-up situations and in winnable games didn’t seem like the best idea. But this is Boone we’re talking about, and the best ideas are rarely utilized.
Kahnle was shaky to begin the season and even in April, he was testing my health. For nearly a month now, he has rewarded Boone’s faith in him, looking more like his 2017 self, with 11 straight scoreless appearances and nine straight no-hit innings. With Green experiencing a similar fall from success and being sent to Triple-A, Zack Britton walking the park and Betances hurt, Kahnle has worked his way back up the bullpen picking order, sitting aside Adam Ottavino as the only two non-closer trustworthy options this season.
It’s good to have Tommy Kahnle — the 2017 version — back. I missed him and the Yankees’ bullpen missed him.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!