They tend to seek out reclamation projects in the bullpen, hoping that the player comes close to recapturing the glory of years past.
Knebel had Tommy John surgery which forced him to miss all of the 2019 season, and he returned in 2020 with lackluster results.
In most cases around the league, it’s easy to dismiss any struggles in 2020 as the result of a small sample size and the general chaos of a league operating within a global pandemic.
However, the Knebel issues may point to something a bit more alarming to his long-term viability as a relief weapon in this league.
He threw 13.1 innings this past season and registered an ERA of 6.08 with a WHIP of 1.73, which is part of the reason why the Dodgers were able to acquire him from the Milwaukee Brewers for just a player to be named later or cash considerations.
Back in 2017, Knebel looked like one of the best relievers in baseball, becoming an All-Star while tallying 39 saves and sporting a 1.78 ERA in 76 innings.
Although his ERA increased to 3.58 his next season, his WHIP fell from its 2017 total of 1.16 down to 1.08 in 2018, and he still looked like one of the premier relief options in baseball.
He began suffering from soreness in his right elbow shortly after the 2019 season began, and he was diagnosed with a torn UCL, which sidelined him for all of 2019.
Looking at just his pitching repertoire, it’s easy to identify the key culprits behind his decreased effectiveness in 2020 after returning from surgery.
His average fastball velocity took a dramatic dip in 2020. While he averaged a peak of 97.4 MPH back in 2017 and 96.9 MPH in 2018, he only averaged 94.4 MPH in 2020.
That decreased velocity likely contributed to him throwing his curveball more often as well. He threw his curveball 33.8% of the time in 2020 and hadn’t thrown that pitch more than 29% of the time in any of his previous three seasons with the Brewers.
Compared to his 2017 and 2018 seasons, Knebel had a higher percentage of balls hit off the barrel of the bat, indicating that he just wasn’t frustrating hitters anymore the way he had been.
Continuing to juxtapose his 2020 season with his 2017 and 2018 seasons to further illustrate the point that he wasn’t nearly as filthy post-injury, Knebel had a lower percentage of swinging misses both inside and outside the strike zone.
His fly-ball rate in 2020 soared to 53.8%, and up to that point, he had never even had a season in which that rate was higher than 45%.
Unfortunately, due to what the injury could have done, he might just have to completely reinvent himself as a pitcher going forward.
The way to have sustained success in the league as a pitcher is to properly adapt, whether it’s motivated by injuries sapping physical tools or just hitters making adjustments at the plate to what’s being thrown at them.
Knebel has a nice opportunity with the Dodgers to contribute to a bullpen that he won’t be under any pressure to disproportionately carry.
Bullpens are more important than ever before in today’s emphasis on individual matchups and pitch count limits, and the Dodgers have a formidable one.
This past season, they ranked eighth in baseball in the lowest percentage of inherited runners scoring, and Knebel has the potential to further strengthen the unit if he can successfully adapt post-injury.
Buying low on a guy who has put up the types of stats that Knebel has seems well worth the risk from the Dodgers’ perspective.
Despite that drop in velocity, he still managed to average 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings last season, so there are certainly glimpses that he can still be a solid option out of the bullpen.
Even if Knebel doesn’t quite get back to 2017-2018 levels but becomes a dependable reliever for Dave Roberts and the Dodgers, this acquisition will be well worth it.