On paper, the Yankees have a comically deep bullpen with three or four (or five?) relievers who would qualify as the best reliever on a not insignificant number of other teams. Things don’t always play out the way they look on paper, that’s just baseball, but the Yankees have clearly assembled an enviable collection of bullpen arms going in 2019.
New York’s bullpen is so stacked that Jonathan Holder is, at best, sixth on the reliever depth chart, and Tommy Kahnle isn’t even assured an Opening Day roster spot. I think it’s highly likely he’ll make the team, especially now that Dellin Betances is hurt, but the fact it is not completely set in stone is pretty bonkers. This guy was one of the top relievers in the game two years ago.
Assuming Kahnle makes the roster, he and Holder are behind Betances, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino, and Chad Green in the bullpen pecking order (once Betances returns). That makes them overqualified sixth and seventh relievers. Fortunately there’s no such thing as too many good relievers. Let’s preview their 2019 seasons.
In a bullpen loaded with big velocity, Holder is an outlier. His fastball averaged 93.0 mph last season and topped out at 95.4 mph. His max velocity was comfortably below Chapman’s (99.2 mph) and Betances’ (98.2 mph) average velocity. Holder is a kitchen sink guy who broke out last year after completely shelving his cutter and curveball, and leaning on his slider and changeup.
The end result was a 3.14 ERA (3.04 FIP) with an average-ish number of strikeouts (22.0%) and few walks (7.0%) or grounders (29.3%) in 66 innings. Holder almost certainly has some home run rate regression coming his way this year. Last year’s ground ball rate won’t usually produce a 0.55 HR/9 (4.2% HR/FB) rate when you play your home games in Yankee Stadium. Something has to give. Either more grounders or more homers are coming.
Based on the current bullpen layout, it sure seems like Holder will inherit Adam Warren’s old role as the super utility reliever. The jack of all trades, Swiss Army knife reliever. He’ll be asked to keep the game close when the Yankees are trailing, throw multiple innings on occasion, and fill in as a high-leverage guy when others aren’t available. That was Warren’s role and he was very, very good at it. Now Holder is the obvious heir apparent.
Holder and Warren are similar in that both have starter’s repertoires and resilient arms, allowing them to remain effective on back-to-back days and deep into the season. Holder doesn’t have a starter’s stamina — the Yankees tried him as a starter in the minors in 2015 and gave up on it after one year because his stuff backed up so much — but he won’t need it in relief. If he can go two innings at a time, maaaaybe three on occasion, that’s enough.
Another possibility: Holder as an opener. He started a game last September, though that was a traditional bullpen game and not an opener situation. Holder is opening today’s Grapefruit League game after Green opened yesterday’s game, so this is something the Yankees are considering, and Holder is apparently a candidate to open games. This is likely a better use of his skills than being the sixth option in the late innings, you know?
The Yankees clearly like Holder — they added him to the 40-man roster a year early so he could throw 8.1 low-leverage innings in September 2016 — and the way he overhauled his approach in the middle of last season shows he has the aptitude to make adjustments, which is an obvious plus. In any other year, I feel like we’d be awfully excited about Holder’s upcoming season. In this bullpen, he kinda gets lost in the shuffle.
Unfortunately for Holder, he has a minor league option remaining (two, actually) and is pretty much the team’s only reliever who can easily be sent down. I reckon he’ll experience an undeserved trip to Triple-A Scranton at some point this season in the name of roster flexibility. It certainly would not be the first time that’s happened. Such is life for a cheap, optionable reliever in the era of bullpen shuttles.
Holder is a reliever without a clearly defined role at the moment, though those things tend to sort themselves out, and having a guy like him as you sixth best reliever is a big luxury. The home run regression might be ugly — that potential trip to Scranton might not be so undeserved after all! — but Holder has the tools and the pitching know-how to be successful big leaguer. He may be far down the depth chart now. Given the way these things usually play out, the Yankees will undoubtedly need Holder to get some important outs this season.
Last season was a total mess for Kahnle. His velocity was down early, he spent a few weeks on the disabled list, and when he returned he intentionally gained weight in an effort to rediscover some velocity. When it was all said and done, Kahnle threw 23.1 big league innings with a 6.56 ERA (4.19 FIP) and 24.2 Triple-A innings with a 4.01 ERA (2.85 FIP). He walked 12.1% of all batters he faced. It was bad. Bad bad bad.
“I’m voiding last year. If I think about that I won’t be able to do anything now,” Kahnle said to Lindsey Adler (subs. req’d) recently. He reported to camp in noticeably better shape — Kahnle told Adler he’s given up the two coffees and five Red Bulls he used to drink every single day, which is kinda bonkers — and based on our limited looks during televised Grapefruit League games, he appears to be throwing much more free and easy, and with more velocity.
“Really exciting. That’s the best I’ve seen him throw since I’ve been here,” Aaron Boone said to Brendan Kuty after one of Kahnle’s early spring outings. “… He didn’t have to work to generate the velocity. I thought life in the zone was really good. He executed some changeups. He threw a good slider in there last night. But the way the ball is coming out for him, I know he really feels good about it and he should. That was exciting to see.”
Two years ago Kahnle threw 62.2 innings with a 2.59 ERA (1.83 FIP) and outstanding strikeout (37.5%) and walk (6.6%) rates. He wasn’t pretty good, he was great. Maybe getting Kahnle back to that level isn’t a realistic goal. How many relievers can do that year after year? What about Holder level production though? ERA and FIP in the low-3s with a few more strikeouts. Is that unreasonable? Maybe it is given how bad he looked last year.
Clearly, velocity matters a lot to Kahnle. Hitters were noticeably more comfortable in the box and with their swings when he was 94-95 mph rather than 98-99 mph. Kahnle has been mostly 95-96 mph on the television radar gun this spring, which comes with the caveat that it is the television gun, but it is encouraging to see bigger numbers already. Pitchers usually don’t reach their max velocity until a few weeks into the regular season, once the weather warms up.
What will Kahnle’s role be this season? Geez, hard to tell right now. Even with Betances out, there are at least three guys ahead of him on the setup depth chart (Britton, Green Ottavino) and my guess is Holder would get high-leverage work ahead of Kahnle until Kahnle shows he’s back to his 2017 self (or thereabouts) and trustworthy in important situations. I think things will be touch and go with Kahnle for the first few weeks of the season. A defined role may be a ways off.
It’s worth noting Kahnle, unlike Holder, is out of minor league options. He has to pass through waivers to go to the minors and I don’t see him clearing. He’s cheap ($1.387M this year) and under control through 2021, and he is only one season removed from the last time he was very effective. In a vacuum, wouldn’t you want the Yankees to claim a guy like that? The Yankees would sooner trade him given the likelihood of losing him for nothing on waivers.
Kahnle has thrown the ball well this spring and that was a prerequisite for making the Opening Day roster. Being out of options helps his case but only goes so far. Kahnle had to perform at least a little bit, and it’s encouraging that his velocity is up a bit and that he doesn’t have to put everything he has into each pitch to get to that velocity. I don’t know what Kahnle’s role will be this year, but I do know he’s an x-factor. Getting something close to 2017 Kahnle would make the bullpen that much deeper and that much more dangerous.