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For Brewers, Corey Knebel’s comeback has been key down the stretch

He looks like his old All-Star self since returning from the minors.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Brewers opted to use an opener and go with a bullpen game during yesterday’s crucial contest at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The relief corps wasn’t at full strength when the game began, however. Unbeknownst to those on the outside, Jeremy Jeffress was unavailable while battling neck spasms, leaving Craig Counsell without the hurler who had been handling most of his club’s closing duties lately. When he needed to preserve the 6-4 victory in the ninth inning, CC elected to go with Corey Knebel, and the righty delivered a scoreless frame to secure the team’s 90th triumph of this championship season.

It’s safe to say that this surely hasn’t been the follow-up campaign Knebel envisioned after earning an All-Star nod in 2017. He missed more than a month after injuring his hamstring in April and when he returned to active duty, he wasn’t effective. Corey lost his grip on the closer’s role and yielded a 5.08 ERA and 7 homers in his first 39.0 innings of 2018, and on August 23rd, he was optioned to the minor leagues for a momentary reset.

Knebel spent only the minimum 10 days on assignment, throwing a handful of bullpens with Derek Johnson before making a single, scoreless appearance for Colorado Springs. He was recalled on September 2nd after rosters expanded and began the process of re-earning his manager’s trust. In 12 appearances and 12.1 innings since returning to the big leagues, Knebel certainly has not disappointed.

Corey has yet to be scored upon during the season’s final month, and in fact only two of the 41 batters he’s faced have even recorded a hit against him. He’s issued a mere two free passes (and has plunked two guys) en route to a microscopic 0.32 WHIP. Knebel has struck out 24 - 58.1% of the hitters he’s faced - and his 0.23 FIP nearly matches his perfect earned run average.

The key to the right-hander’s resurgence? An improved ability to throw strikes.

Corey was missing plenty of bats before his minor league interlude (12.7 K/9), but he was doling out walks at a 4.4 BB/9 rate. Only 45.6% of his pitches were in the zone, and he was throwing first-pitch strikes at a 54.8% rate. In September, those numbers have leapt up to a 52% zone rate and an outstanding 70.7% first-pitch strike rate. Knebel’s improved command has increased both his confidence and effectiveness with his curveball; he’s throwing it more often this month (32.6% vs. 26.8%), especially on the first pitch (42% vs. 32%), and is having little trouble spotting it where he wants it. That has helped to make his already potent fastball even more lethal. Corey’s velocity is up a smidge (96.8 MPH to 97.2) and he’s more than doubled his whiff rate with the pitch (13.49% to 27.12%). Knebel has boosted his overall swinging strike rate from 11.6% pre-September 1st to 17.7% since returning, and 17 of his 24 punchouts this month have been secured with his heater.

It’s obviously still too early to tell if Knebel’s improvements will be sustainable over the long haul, but that’s not necessarily the most important thing right now. He is pitching confidently - and successfully - with five games remaining in the regular season, and a hot hand is most important during the small sample size that is the MLB playoffs.

Corey Knebel looks revived, Jeremy Jeffress is ready to return from his temporary malady, and the presence of Joakim Soria and Josh Hader gives the Brewers four viable arms with proven high-leverage experience at the back end of the bullpen. That ought to make the Menomonee Valley Nine quite a dangerous club as postseason baseball rapidly approaches.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball