GLENDALE, Ariz. -- While the Dodgers’ offense and starting rotation dominated most of the headlines last season, a big reason for Los Angeles’ success en route to a World Series title was the effectiveness of its bullpen.
However, the Dodgers’ bullpen enters the 2021 season with a different look. Alex Wood, Jake McGee, Pedro Báez, Adam Kolarek and Dylan Floro are no longer on the roster. To fill some of those roles, the Dodgers could lean on Dustin May and/or Tony Gonsolin if the two right-handers don’t make it into the team’s loaded starting rotation.
Continued development from Brusdar Graterol and Victor González should also help the Dodgers fill some voids. But one pitcher that could drastically change the outlook of the bullpen: Former All-Star right-hander Corey Knebel.
“I’m certain the arm is healthy, he’s healthy,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “He’s a great make-up guy, great worker, and his skill set is pretty good.”
Knebel was acquired from the Brewers in December in what was ultimately a low-risk, high-reward move by the Dodgers, who have had success helping relievers get back to top form, such as Brandon Morrow in 2017 and Blake Treinen last season.
And if the Dodgers can get Knebel back -- or even close -- to his top form, they’ll have another power arm to lean on in the late innings.
“My expectation is that he’s a leverage reliever for us,” Roberts said. “[He’s] going to pitch some big innings.”
In 2017, Knebel was dominant. After not getting much experience in his first three big league seasons, Knebel established himself as one of the best relievers in the National League. He posted a 1.78 ERA, striking out 126 batters in 76 innings. Those numbers helped him become an All-Star for the first time.
But in 2018, Knebel underwent Tommy John surgery and was forced to miss the entire ‘19 season. Last season, the results were rough for the right-hander. Knebel pitched in 15 games for the Brewers in 2020, posting a 6.08 ERA. He also missed some time with a left hamstring injury.
Now with a season under his belt after the surgery, Knebel feels like he’s in a better spot, both physically and mentally.
“I’m feeling like I’m a lot closer than I was last year,” Knebel said. “Right now, I think I’m in a great spot. We have a whole other month and about a week of Spring Training left, so I’m confident that I can get close or right back to where I used to be.”
The biggest difference on the field for Knebel has been the lack of velocity on his four-seam fastball. In 2017, Knebel was blowing hitters away with a four-seamer that averaged 97.3 mph. That velocity helped him throw a curveball that got a swing-and-miss more than 42 percent of the time.
Last season, however, Knebel’s average fastball velocity was 94.3 mph and batters finished with a .361 average against the pitch. The good news? Knebel had an average of 94.9 on his fastball in four of the six appearances he made in September.
“I’d say it was kind of the process of learning how to pitch again,” Knebel said, when asked about the uptick in velocity in September. “Once I get everything synced, it starts clicking a little more. I had a couple of times last year where there’s some [velocity concerns], and I changed things about my mechanics so I know the velo is there, I know my arm is healthy.”
Adding Knebel was a quiet move for the Dodgers, considering the other transactions they made over the offseason. But as Knebel continues to focus on mechanics, particularly keeping his lower half engaged all the way through his delivery, it could turn out to be quite a loud move.
“They see something that maybe I didn’t last year,” Knebel said. “It gives you a little bit of confidence right there. Getting in here, I know there are plenty of guys that are going to help me get right and they’re going to do whatever they have to do. I’m in a good spot.”