MILWAUKEE -- With the 2018 regular season headed for the finish line, the Brewers are still "searching for answers" for deposed closer Corey Knebel, manager Craig Counsell said Wednesday.
Knebel, a National League All-Star last season as he set strikeout records on the way to a 1.78 ERA, saw his ERA rise to 5.08 when he surrendered a run for the fifth time in his last seven outings in Tuesday's 9-7 loss to the Reds. On Thursday, he was optioned to Triple-A Colorado Springs, which could free a spot for Joakim Soria's return from the DL.
Knebel's strikeout rate remains strong at 33.1 percent, tied for eighth among NL relievers entering Wednesday, and while his average fastball velocity is down 0.5 mph, it's still plenty firm at 96.8 mph, and his spin rate, according to Statcast™, is actually higher, which helps create the rising effect for pitchers like Knebel who throw fastballs at the top of the zone. He's holding opponents to a .228 average. And Knebel's walk rate is actually down a tick, from 12.9 percent last year to 11.5 percent through Tuesday.
But he has been far less effective. Besides allowing seven home runs in 39 innings (compared to six in 76 innings last season, and the second-highest hard-hit rate among NL relievers (46.7 percent), one way to measure Knebel's performance is RE24, a measure of run expectancy useful for assigning credit or blame to a reliever. At minus-1.70, Knebel has been by that measure the 12th least valuable reliever in the NL.
"Corey is struggling right now, for sure," Counsell said. "It's a difficult one, because the velocity has almost been better for a big chunk of this season, which makes it even more odd in trying to diagnose this.
"His curveball has come and gone a little bit. It's been more inconsistent. There have been some outings where we really liked it, and then the last two, it wasn't so good. It comes down to executing pitches right now."
Counsell was referring to the shape of Knebel's curveball, which is nastiest when it has vertical action. After he was ejected in a loss to the Cardinals last weekend, Counsell noticed on television that Knebel's curveball had more "east-west" movement.
The Brewers have been using Knebel in low-leverage situations since he lost the closer's role on Aug. 9, when he walked three batters and was charged with four runs in a loss to the Padres that was doubly costly because Knebel's replacement, Soria, suffered a groin injury that put him on the 10-day disabled list.
After that outing, Knebel dismissed a question about his confidence as a "stupid question," but Counsell said he believes confidence is part of the equation.
"There's no question. I think that's part of it," Counsell said. "We all need to have a little bit of success and have a little bit of positive feedback."
Albers activated from DL
Another reliever who has struggled of late, Matt Albers, was back in the bullpen Wednesday after the Brewers activated him from the 10-day DL for what the club called a left hamstring injury.
To clear a spot, the Brewers optioned outfielder Keon Broxton to Class A Wisconsin. It's a paper move that allows Broxton to remain in Milwaukee, where his girlfriend is expecting a baby any day now.
"The reason we had so much success early in the season in the bullpen was because we had Matt Albers and Taylor Williams and Dan Jennings throwing big innings for us and doing a nice job," Counsell said. "You need that. You can't have a two-man bullpen. You need six or seven guys pitching well."
The Brewers hope to get Soria back from the DL sometime during a three-game series against the Pirates that begins Friday.
2019 schedule released
The Brewers will open at home in 2019 on Thursday, March 28, against the Cardinals as part of a schedule unveiled Wednesday that includes Interleague games against the American League West and a trio of weekend series at home against the rival Cubs. MLB.com has highlights of all 30 teams' 2019 slates.