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Rockies 2014 season review: Tommy Kahnle showed glimpses of being a dominant reliever

If the Tommy Kahnle we saw during the first four months of 2014 is the Tommy Kahnle we're going to see in 2015 and beyond, the Rockies have a least one piece of the puzzle they need to solve their bullpen problems.

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The Rockies acquired Tommy Kahnle from the Yankees last December in the Rule 5 Draft. At the time, the move was lost in a swarm of Dexter Fowler, Brett Anderson, Boone Logan, and Justin Morneau headlines, and considering Kahnle had never thrown a major league inning, this was understandable. However, over time Kahnle would prove to be both an intriguing and useful member of the team that shouldn't be overlooked.

As a Rule 5 selection, Kahnle had to stay on the 25 man roster for the duration of the 2014 season if the Rockies didn't want to lose him, so it was sink or swim right out of the gate. Fortunately for the Rockies, Kahnle was ready for the challenge, and proved to be one of the most reliable members of an overall (to put it mildly) disappointing bullpen.

During his time in the minors, Kahnle posted an extremely impressive 12.0 K/9 rate to go along with a rather erratic 5.8 BB/9 rate. He was mostly able to get away with this wildness however thanks to his ability to limit big hits. In fact, over his 214 career minor league innings spanning 909 plate appearances against, Kahnle allowed 38 extra base hits (just 4.2 percent of the time), and only eight of those went for home runs (0.8 percent of the time).

As it turns out, Kahnle's minor league stat line was a strong indicator of what was to come in the majors; although he would sacrifice some of his high strikeout rate to gain a bit more control. On his way to a 4.19 ERA in a Rockies uniform, Kahnle posted an 8.26 K/9 rate, a 4.06 BB/9 rate, and allowed just 17 extra base hits in 285 plate appearances against (just 5.9 percent of the time).

This however wasn't the entire story for Kahnle. The hard throwing righty threw the ball much better over the first four months of the season than the last two. Here's just a few of the raw numbers against:

Kahnle splits

There could be several reasons for this, but mostly, it seems like Kahnle just ran out of gas. In the three years prior to 2014, Kahnle made 41, 31, and 46 total appearances respectively. In 2014 however, he already had 42 major league appearances by the end of July. In addition to this, his fastball velocity dropped over the last two months. Kahnle posted an average fastball velocity of at least 95 MPH in nine outings this year, but all of them came in the first four months of the season.

As his production slipped, Kahnle was placed on the DL with right shoulder inflammation in mid August. He would return in September and looked healthy, but he failed to recapture his early seasons dominance.

* * * * *

Despite Kahnle's excellent first four months of the season, he didn't have as much of a positive impact on the club as his numbers indicate he should have had. This is largely thanks to the team's stubborn refusal to use him in high leverage situations early in the season when hitters were struggling against his powerful fastball / slider / changeup mix.

In one particular stretch between May 2nd and June 10th, Kahnle was used 14 times and posted a 1.86 ERA while allowing just a .507 OPS against, but unfortunately, ALL 14 of those appearances came in a low leverage situation; so they were almost entirely wasted. It wasn't until late in the season (when Kahnle's stuff started to drop off) that he was put into higher leverage situations on a more consistent basis. As a result, his winning percentage added (WPA) on the season ended up at an underwhelming -0.517.

One thing to possibly be concerned about going forward with Kahnle is the .240 BABIP opposing hitters had against him this season. While that number is low, there are signs that Kahnle is generally going to fare better than most pitchers when it comes to this department.

For starters, opposing hitters posted a .226 and .254 BABIP against Kahnle in 2012 and 2013 when he was in the minors. So he has a track record of doing pretty well here. In addition to this, Kahnle's FIP and xFIP were both lower than his ERA. Finally, opposing hitters hit line drives against Kahnle just 17 percent of the time according to fangraphs. This coupled with Kahnle's general ability to limit extra base hits makes me believe that most (not all, but most) of the success Kahnle experienced over the first four months of the season is repeatable if he comes back healthy and strong.

2014 Grade with the Rockies: B-

I like most of what went on here and I see the possibility of good things going forward. The Rockies picked up a strong, cheap arm for nothing and made the most of a situation where he had to stay on the 25 man roster no matter what. Kahnle showed he belonged at this level with four months of very strong baseball and got some valuable experience in roles the Rockies might want to use him in going forward (even though it didn't line up with when he was pitching his best). The grade gets knocked slightly for his poor finish and bad WPA number, but since a big part of those things were shoulder inflammation, the Rockies using him in the wrong spots, and circumstance, he deserves a relatively strong grade.

What to expect in 2015

The Rockies now have complete control of Kahnle at minimum salary for the next two seasons. They can send him to the minors if they want but if he returns to his early 2014 form, that won't be necessary. Now that the club's gotten to work with him for a season, they should have a better idea of his strengths and weaknesses and therefore should feel more comfortable using him in appropriate situations.

If Kahnle does come back strong, one of his big goals in 2015 will be to stay fresh and finish the way he started in 2014. His body seems to suggest he'd up to that task. Kahnle is well put together: he's listed at 6' 1", 230 pounds and has two tree trunks for legs - So theoretically, he seems to have a body that should hold up better long term than it did in 2014, but as we've seen many times before this stuff isn't always that cut and dry. Still, he's entering his age 25 season and has the tools to frustrate major league hitters late in games. If the Rockies are going to have a strong bullpen in 2015, Kahnle almost has to be part of it.