Prior to the 2017 season, Brewers right-handed reliever Corey Knebel was tabbed by many as the closer of the future. Neftali Feliz was slated to start the year as the teams closer, but if he faltered, Knebel would likely take his place.
Exactly that scenario happened. By mid-May, Knebel was the Brewers closer. He is tied for ninth in the league in saves despite most around him on the list getting a month-and-a-half head start. His earned run average of 1.38 ranks fifth among all relievers, and his 15.19 strikeouts per nine innings ranks third behind just Craig Kimbrel and Dellin Betances. Knebel has quickly become one of the top relief pitchers in baseball.
Not only is Knebel one of the best bullpen arms today, he may be having the best season out of the bullpen in Milwaukee Brewers history.
His 15.08 strikeouts per nine innings are easily the best in Brewers history. It comes as no surprise Knebel’s top mark comes in the highest strikeout environment ever but his 15.08 K/9 total is high even in the high strikeout context. If his 15.08 mark holds, it would be the twelfth highest total since 2000 among relievers.
His 1.87 Wins Above Replacement (WARP) is already eighth-best in Brewers history with over a month to go. It is not hard to see Knebel getting all the way up to third on the list by seasons end. He is just 0.13 WARP behind the current third place holder, Matt Wise’s 2005 season.
Save for an unbelievably dominant Septemeber from Knebel, he will not post the best Brewers relief season ever in 2017 in terms of WARP. Ken Sander’s 1971 and Doug Jones’s 1998 stand in his way with 2.83 and 2.57 WARP respectively.
Sander’s 2.83 WARP in 1971 has as much to do with how bullpens were used at the time as how well he pitched. Over 83 games, he threw 136 1/3 innings. Sander’s struck out just 80 batters while walking 34. He posted an earned run average of 1.91 but his deserved run average and fielding independent pitching show he might’ve over-performed in terms of ERA, as they were 2.65 and 2.87 respectively.
Although Sander’s ’71 was much more valuable than Knebel’s ’17, it’s hard to argue Sanders was actually a better pitcher when on the mound. He was pitching almost three times as many innings as Knebel has this year. If bullpens were used the same as they were in the early-seventies, Knebel would likely out-produce Sanders.
Doug Jones’s 1997 is a much easier comparison to Knebel this year. Jones worked 80 1/3 innings over 75 games in 1997. He won six games and saved thirty-six for a seventy-eight win Brewers team. He finished second among relievers that year in WARP behind Trevor Hoffman. He posted a 2.02 ERA and the FIP in the league at 2.19. Jones dominant season came right at the beginning of the Steroid-era, and he did it by limiting the home run and the walk. He allowed just four home runs and walked just nine over the entire season.
As of August 23rd, Knebel has an identical DRA to Jones’s ’97 at 2.38. Knebel’s FIP is slightly better at 2.16, and his earned run average is miles ahead at 1.36. He’ll have a hard time matching his innings total, since it’s unlikely Knebel will throw twenty more innings before seasons end. That will hold him back as far as passing him up in WARP goes.
It’s not hard to see Knebel putting up a 3.0 WARP season one day. If he can get his walks under control (currently 5.0 BB/9), he will join the Craig Kimbrel/Kenley Jansen tier of closers and consistently put up monster numbers out of the bullpen. In turn, he could become the Milwaukee Brewers’ best relief pitcher ever.
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