Gordon Beckham was supposed to be the next great Chicago White Sox third baseman. If you’re clicking on this article, you’re probably well aware that things didn’t quite work out that way. Beckham had a good rookie campaign that was followed by years of struggling to arrive at a .200 batting average while providing essentially no power. For an eighth overall pick, that’s not exactly good. Beckham, however, turned into Yency Almonte who turned into Tommy Kahnle. Kahnle was just recently traded as part of a package of players sent to the Yankees. His value was likely the highest among the trio theWhite Sox sent away, which included Todd Frazier and David Robertson.
When the White Sox traded for Kahnle, there was a good chance he would simply never cut it on a competitive team. The stuff was always there, providing 11.1 and 13.5 percent swinging strike rates in his two seasons with the Rockies. He struck out batters at a rate of 22.1 and 25.2 percent those years. While that isn’t elite, it showed his ability to miss bats. The biggest problem was a common one among young pitchers — finding the strike zone. His 18.1 percent walk rate in 2015 was indicative of that issue. Even in his first season with the White Sox, his walk rate was at an uncomfortable 16.8 percent.
In this breakout 2017 season, however, the walk rate has plummeted to just 4.9 percent. That alone would have helped Kahnle become a more useful pitcher. What has been even more crucial is that his ability to find the strike zone has led to even more strikeouts. 37 innings into the 2017 season, Kahnle has struck out 43.1 percent of the batters he has faced. Only Craig Kimbrel has struck out hitters at a higher rate.
Kahnle’s much-improved control has had a domino effect on his pitching. With his walk rate reduced, hitters are more willing to chase pitches out of the zone. The swing percentage on pitches out of the zone against Kahnle has risen by 11.2 percent. He’s gotten first pitch strikes 53.7 percent of the time, a drastic increase from a season ago. He’s also dramatically improved the number of 0-2 counts he’s manufactured, now sitting at a rate of 29.3 percent. What these numbers boil down to is that he’s getting ahead in counts, and as a result getting whiffs to finish off batters.
All of this has come in one breakout season, or half season, really. There’s no certainty that it will last. Relievers are volatile, and a pitcher magically finding control doesn’t often last for a long stretch of time. That’s where the White Sox brilliance in his handling comes into play.
Relievers are wildly unpredictable, but the trade market at the deadline is incredibly lucrative for teams with bullpen arms to spare. The White Sox are aware of both of these things. Debates raged about whether the White Sox should deal the righty with three years of team control remaining. When the uncertainty of relievers is considered, it was almost a no-brainer that he should have been dealt at the height of his value. If a team was willing to give up valuable assets for a reliever with relatively no track record, the team should have absolutely jumped at that opportunity.
While opinions of Blake Rutherford certainly vary, he remains a Top 100 prospect at nearly every reputable prospect website, including being ranked 49th overall by Baseball Prospectus coming into the season (he was not included in the Midseason Top 50). That’s valuable to a White Sox team in the early years of a rebuild. And while Kahnle didn’t fetch that talent alone, he was likely the most valuable of the three pieces involved in the trade. The White Sox could have seen that value and decided to keep him on the staff. Instead, they decided to trade him while it is reasonable to assume he is at peak performance. It is this type of move that could be invaluable for the White Sox in the next few seasons, especially with pitching coach Don Cooper having a good reputation, albeit mostly anecdotal, for fixing broken pitchers.
The buy low-sell high tactic is certainly not a new one to teams in the throes of a rebuild. However, it’s not often that it works this well. Even by just looking inwardly at the White Sox roster, examples can be found of failures in this strategy. But when it works, it can turn something small into something really valuable.
Beckham’s failures were an indictment of the poor player development regime of recent years past, but they were able to turn him into Yency Almonte. Almonte in turn brought Kahnle to the South side. That provided the White Sox with half a season of a very valuable reliever, which then led to a Top 100 prospect landing in the organization. If the team is able to do that even just one more time, it would be a massive help in the process of rebuilding and piling on the organizational depth.
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