Corey Knebel Thriving in High-Fastball Environment

While the save statistic and closer role are slowly being de-valued at the major league level, it’s still a significant statistic in your roto league. And of all the early-season turnover at the position, Brewers reliever is Corey Knebel is one of the more interesting arms to occupy the ninth inning. Regardless of role, in real-life baseball, he’s become one of the more interesting relief arms in the game. A FanGraphs reader in yesterday’s chat suggested Knebel might worthy of a post, and I am here to serve.

Among pitchers, only elite relievers Craig Kimbrel (1.3 WAR) and Kenley Jansen (1.1) have matched or exceeded Knebel’s wins above replacement value (1.1) to date in a lesser volume of playing time than his 22 innings.

Of all pitchers to throw at least 20 innings this season, Knebel owns the majors’ No. 1 infield fly-ball rate at 33.3%. Only eight pitchers in the majors have a rate of 20% or greater. And it’s not a one-year fluke as Knebel has consistently produced double-digit infield fly-ball rates throughout his minor league career, including three times exceeding a 30% rate at various partial-season minor league stops.

While he ranks first among all pitchers to have thrown 20 innings in infield fly-ball percentage this season, he ranks second in strikeout percentage (43.7%) trailing only Houston relief ace Chris Devenski (46.8%). Chris Sale is third. Interesting company that Mr. Knebel is keeping early this season.

If you care for more traditional numbers, Knebel is doing well there, too. He is fourth among pitchers with at least 20 innings thrown with a 0.82 ERA. He ranks fifth in FIP (1.36).

Knebel comes with some pedigree. The 39th overall pick of the Tigers in the 2010 draft has been part of two trades, traded in July of 2014 in a package for Joakim Soria, and prior to the 2015 season in a deal with Luis Sardinas for Yovani Gallardo. He might have finally found a home in Milwaukee and in the back of the Brewers bullpen.

While was highly regarded as an amateur player, while he’s always been able to miss bats and create pop-ups, his stuff has taken a leap early this season. Knebel owes much of his success to his four-seam fastball which stands out for its combination of above-average velocity, averaging 96.6 mph this season — which ranks eighth among all pitchers — and above-average spin-rate (2,388 rpm). Knebel’s fastball has jumped from averaging 94.9 mph in 2015, to 95.2 mph last season to 96.6 mph this season.

Knebel’s fastball is keeping some special company when considering his combination of perceived velocity and spin. Consider this chart via a Baseball Savant search of pitchers who have thrown at least 100 fastballs this season:

Knebel ranks seventh among all pitchers in whiffs per swing against his fastball, according to Baseball Prospectus. And Knebel’s four-seamer ranks eighth among all pitchers in pop-ups per balls in play (23%).

Knebel is the type of arm that is well suited to live in an era when hitters are more focused, and better conditioned to take advantage of pitchers in the lower third of the zone. Knebel has no issue living up in the strike zone and in fact he thrives there, and seems more focused on pitching up in the strike. The evidence to back the assertion:

Perhaps that comes with more confidence in his stuff or living in a bullpen where a chatty Jared Hughes has been talking about launch angles, upper cuts and hitters having more success, more slugging prowess, lower in the strike zone.

Here is some of evidence of the pitch’s success against Andrew Benintendi, who pops up a fastball that he would likely tell you appeared to rise (and it does kind of appear to rise near the end of its flight to the plate):

Here’s another elevated fastball:

There’s a reason Milwaukee Brewers catcher Manny Pina wanted the fastball up against Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts.

And Knebel has a bat-missing offering that plays well off his fastball in his knuckle curve. Getting Mookie Betts to swing and miss for a strikeout is an accomplishment and is telling of a quality pitch and/or execution of a pitch:

Yes, Knebel continues to walk too many batters and miss in too many locations. He’s walked 10% of batters over the first 114 innings of his major league career and is walking a career-worst 13.8% early this season. But when a pitcher is able to throw 97 mph with spin and have a hammer curveball, when a pitcher generates the whiffs and weak contact like Knebel is this season, he can survive more mistakes and work around more walks.

The Brewers value the kind of fastball Knebel possesses. They signed a similar high-velo, pop-up king in Neftali Feliz this winter, and to date Knebel has been the superior model, now occupying the former ninth-inning residence of Feliz. And perhaps Knebel, with improved stuff, is an ideal model for this era of baseball. He is the type of arm that can survive and even thrive in this era of the home-run surge.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

That second clip is definitely not Hedges