Despite coming off of a down year in 2016, Corey Knebel figured to play a key role in the bullpen for the Milwaukee Brewers this season. Knebel dealt with injuries while he coughed up a 4.68 ERA in 35 appearances last year, even spending some time in the minor leagues. But he entered 2017 healthy and throwing like his former top prospect self again, and he began the regular season as a setup man for Neftali Feliz.
Once billed as one of the top relief prospects in the minor leagues, Corey Knebel fulfilled that promise in 2017. When he first debuted with the Brewers, Corey featured a straight fastball that averaged around 95 MPH. He experienced a significant velocity jump in 2017, averaging 97 MPH and touching 100 on several occasions. Combine that with his plus-plus hammer curveball, and you have the recipe for one dominant late-inning reliever.
He wasn’t scored upon until his 9th appearances of the season, and allowed runs in only two of his first 24 relief outings. The aforementioned Feliz struggled mightily and ceded the closer’s role to Knebel in early May, a position that Knebel may not relinquish for as long as he stays in Milwaukee.
Corey wound up pitching in 76 games for Milwaukee this season, working an even 76.0 innings. He recorded a save in 39 games, tied for the 4th-most in a single season in franchise history, and recorded a hold in 11 others. Knebel’s ERA was a minuscule 1.78, which was the 9th-lowest among qualified relievers in 2017. His outstanding success was supported by a FIP- of 57 and DRA- of 52, meaning that according to both statistics his performance this year was between 40-50% better than the league pitcher.
The big story for Knebel this year was the strikeout. He set a new MLB record by striking out at least one batter in his first 45 consecutive relief appearances to start the season. In his 76 innings, he struck out an incredible 126 opposing batters - tied with Craig Kimbrel for the most by a reliever this season. It was the first time in franchise history that a strict reliever had achieved the 100+ K plateau, and his 14.92 K/9 and 40.8% strikeout rate were both far-and-away the best in the club’s record books.
In fact, Knebel had arguably the most impressive season that any Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher has ever posted. His 76 appearances rank tied for the 7th-most in team history, while his 1.76 ERA was the 6th-lowest and his .180 batting average against was the 8th-lowest. In terms of fWAR, Knebel’s 2.8 wins ties him with Doug Jones’ 1997 season as the most valuable relief work in the history of the organization.
Corey also registered 3.7 bWAR and 2.3 WARP, giving him a composite WAR value of 2.93 wins above replacement in 2017. Knebel was Milwaukee’s lone representative in the MLB All-Star game this year, and there’s no doubt that he deserved the accolades. He was a workhorse out of the bullpen, shouldering a major load while shining in the closer’s role and even working more than one inning on a handful of occasions. For all of his exceptional efforts, Corey Knebel was elected by you the reader as the #3 Most Valuable Brewer in 2017.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs