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Knebel's fastball leads him to All-Star honor

MLB.com

Just after 4 p.m. CT Sunday, with Corey Knebel in for one more save before his first career All-Star Game, the 43rd domino fell. En route to clinching the Brewers' 50th win, Knebel made Aaron Judge into a footnote, appended to his dominant first half.

A Knebel strikeout has become the safest bet in baseball. The Brewers' closer and their only All-Star has a K in all 43 appearances, a single-season record streak for a reliever. Knebel extended it into the All-Star break by blowing away Judge with a 97-mph fastball at the top of the zone -- a fitting emblem of his sudden transformation into one of the game's explosive relief arms.

Just after 4 p.m. CT Sunday, with Corey Knebel in for one more save before his first career All-Star Game, the 43rd domino fell. En route to clinching the Brewers' 50th win, Knebel made Aaron Judge into a footnote, appended to his dominant first half.

A Knebel strikeout has become the safest bet in baseball. The Brewers' closer and their only All-Star has a K in all 43 appearances, a single-season record streak for a reliever. Knebel extended it into the All-Star break by blowing away Judge with a 97-mph fastball at the top of the zone -- a fitting emblem of his sudden transformation into one of the game's explosive relief arms.

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"Years past, it's been tough for me to get in there. This year, I've been able to get in there with confidence," Knebel said. "I think, 'I know I'm gonna get out of this,' compared to 'I hope I get out of this.'"

Knebel arrived in Miami for the Midsummer Classic with a 1.70 ERA and 14 saves for the surprise NL Central leaders. His 15.94 K/9 rate leads NL relievers and ranks third in baseball. Last year, his ERA was 4.68; he had five fewer K/9.

The 25-year-old's four-seamer and knuckle-curve have more life than they ever did in his first three Major League seasons. Knebel's fastball has more velocity, more rise. His curveball -- now slightly slower, creating a near-20-mph differential -- has more swoop and drop.

Tweet from @_dadler: #Brewers All-Star closer Corey Knebel's four-seam has gotten faster and faster. His curve has gotten slower. It's now a huge differential. pic.twitter.com/Bs80uoFsSb

According to Statcast™, Knebel's four-seamer is averaging 97 mph after sitting at 95.9 mph in 2016, 95.5 in '15 and 95 in '14. He's exceeded 97 mph on 52.3 percent of fastballs, compared to only 14.9 percent last year, eight percent in 2015 and never in '14. He's hit a career-max 99.8.

"I've never been able to do that in years past," Knebel said. "Maybe deep down I knew one day it would happen."

His four-seam spin rate has also jumped, to 2,424 rpm, from 2,284 rpm last season and 2,325 rpm in 2015, when Statcast™ started tracking. High spin gets swings and misses, especially up in the zone -- where manager Craig Counsell has said Knebel likes to work, and Knebel and catcher Manny Pina said he's commanding his fastball much better than in '16.

"This year I've been able to control it to get the fastball up," Knebel said. "Drive down through the ball, so it looks like it's going up."

Knebel's four-seamer is tied for the Majors' second-highest whiff rate: 34.5 percent, up from 2016's 22.7 percent. Statcast™'s pitch charts show most of those whiffs come when he throws high heat.

"He does that more this year," Pina said. "When I caught him last year, he didn't do it too much. Now, with two strikes -- 1-2, 0-2 -- he elevates. If you're a hitter looking for the breaking ball and you see that ball up, you think it's a breaking ball. So he beats the hitter with the fastball up."

And with the curve. Statcast™ shows Knebel's releasing his knuckle-curve from a lower arm slot, and batters have hit .135 and slugged .162 against it. Their ugly swings told the Brewers this could be a different Knebel.

"We started seeing, early in the year, hitters react a little differently to it. An inability to lay off it, really," Counsell said. "Moments like that were the times we started to say, 'Wait a second, this is a really tough at-bat. This at-bat has changed for the hitter.'"

Most importantly, as his stuff has become its most electric, Knebel has finally harnessed it.

"His command is really nasty right now," Pina said. "I remember when I was catching him in [Pittsburgh] earlier in the season, he struck out the three hitters. Just breaking ball, fastball … I just said, 'This guy is going to be big for our team.'"

With a long, high-motion delivery that begins with Knebel thrusting his pitching hand sharply toward the ground, command hadn't come easy. So this offseason, unsatisfied with his results, he decided to move from the first-base edge to the center of the rubber.

Video: MILL@NYY: Knebel strikes out side, nets four-out save

"Honestly, I just decided that I needed to change something: I've always been on the first-base side, and I'm not as accurate, so let's try to go to the middle of the rubber and see how it works," Knebel said. "I was a little more accurate, so I stuck there -- and I'd rather not change that now."

The outings in which he's struggled with command -- including a rocky stretch in New York -- Knebel said he visibly "drifts" instead of driving off his back leg. But those hiccups have been few. His accuracy improved, Knebel's better able to mix his pitches -- throw curveballs more often in zero-strike counts, spot up his fastball with two strikes.

"He's confusing [hitters]," Pina said. "He just throws a fastball and curveball, and he has a [1.70] ERA."

The leap has been dramatic. But it's maybe natural progression for someone who was drafted in 2013, then promoted to the Majors in '14 with limited Minor League experience.

"The thing with Corey is that Corey was basically put into the big leagues immediately after he was drafted," Counsell said. "I think getting those [professional] innings under his belt, coming into this year, it's all come into the right place.

"It's just confidence. Experience. There's no magic formula to that."

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.

Milwaukee Brewers