Corey Knebel has not been able to repeat his All-Star performance from last year in 2018. An injury in his third appearance of the season cost Milwaukee’s closer more than a month’s worth of action and he just hasn’t looked like his once-dominant self since returning to active duty in mid-May. After yesterday’s debacle where he faced four batters, walked three, recorded zero outs and was charged with four earned runs, his ERA on the season stands at 4.79 through 35.2 innings.
That outing, along with Knebel’s prolonged struggles dating back to the start of July (he’s allowed 12 earned runs in his last 17.0 innings), have apparently cost the right-hander his job as closer for the time being:
Counsell on Corey Knebel: “The next time out, we’ll give him an easier spot, for sure. But at some point, we’re going to try to work to get him back to big spots in the game."— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) August 9, 2018
Specifically asked Counsell about using Jeffress as closer and he said he prefers to mix and match with Jeffress, Hader, Burnes, Jennings. Won't be using Knebel in high leverage for a while though.— Tom (@Haudricourt) August 10, 2018
If not for the injury suffered yesterday by recently acquired reliever Joakim Soria, it would’ve been logical for the veteran right-hander with 220 saves under his belt to slide into that ninth inning role. But now that Soria is on the shelf for at least the next week and a half with right leg issues, Craig Counsell will return to the matchup-based bullpen management style that served him and his squad so well earlier in the season.
When Knebel was on the DL earlier in the year, Counsell leaned heavily on the All-Star duo of Jeremy Jeffress (4 saves) and Josh Hader (8 saves) in the late innings, with both hurlers working several multi-inning stints. The bullpen’s ERA was 2.43 in March/April and 2.48 in May, but Knebel’s return to closing duties seems to have coincided with the relief corps coming back down to earth. The ‘pen’s ERA in June was 4.52, then 4.17 in July, and so far in August it’s been a putrid 10.33 in 27.0 innings. The Cream City Nine had a strong argument for their bullpen as the best in baseball in the season’s early going, but in terms of ERA they have plummeted all the way down to 11th in the league entering play today (3.75) due to the group’s more recent struggles.
Hader (1.60 ERA) and Jeffress (1.29 ERA) still have sparkling numbers on the year and should be able to be counted on in high-leverage situation. Not pigeonholing either one into a specific ninth inning role is important to the bullpen, too, as both have pitched in big spots all year long anywhere from the fifth inning and on. Organizational top pitching prospect Corbin Burnes has looked quite impressive during his first run in the big leagues, fashioning a nifty 3.00 ERA with a 14:4 K/BB ratio through his first 12.0 innings at the MLB level. And outside of a tough June (6.23 ERA in 13.0 innings), Dan Jennings has been quite reliable on the whole for Counsell this season. He owns a 3.15 ERA in 54.1 innings, but doesn’t miss bats like the other trio that CC mentioned as part of the late-innings mix.
With Knebel struggling and Soria, Matt Albers, and Taylor Williams all hurt, the club’s bullpen depth will face quite a tough test moving forward. It is incumbent that the four aforementioned hurlers continue their levels of success, but the Brewers will need one or two other arms to step up in a major way, as well. Perhaps that will be recent waiver claim Jordan Lyles, or maybe the maddeningly inconsistent Jacob Barnes will go on a hot streak. It’s possible that this could be the chance for one of the minor league taxi squad guys - Brandon Woodruff, Aaron Wilkerson, Adrian Houser, or Alec Asher - to carve out a role and make an impact down the stretch.
There’s always the chance that David Stearns and company could look outside the org to the waiver trade market for an addition before the month ends, too. Given the recent confluence of events in Milwaukee, that outcome seems quite a bit more likely now than it did just a few days ago.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs