Knebel developed breaking ball after life threw him a curve

May 15th, 2022

This story was excerpted from Todd Zolecki's Phillies Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Think about the best Phillies moments in the past 20 years.

What comes to mind?

Undoubtedly, one is Brad Lidge’s 0-2 slider to Eric Hinske to clinch the 2008 World Series. Another is Brett Myers’ 1-2 curveball to Wily Mo Peña to clinch the 2007 NL East.

If the Phillies make the postseason this year, either as a division winner or as one of three NL Wild Cards, Corey Knebel’s breaking ball figures to be part of it. The Phillies signed Knebel to a one-year, $10 million contract in the offseason, in part because they love his curveball. It is a nasty wipeout pitch. Opponents are batting .182 with a .273 slugging percentage against it this season. When hitters swing at it, they miss it 33 percent of the time.

Combined with a fastball that averages 95.2 mph, Knebel has a 2.51 ERA and seven saves in eight chances, going into Saturday's game. He saved a couple games this week in Seattle and Los Angeles, although he was unavailable to pitch in Friday’s 12-10 victory in 10 innings over the Dodgers. He was available Saturday.

Knebel talked a few weeks ago about the development of his curveball:

TZ: When did you start throwing it?

CK: I started throwing it my sophomore year in college [at the University of Texas]. I was a sinker-changeup guy before that. I threw only fastballs as a freshman. I was a one-pitch guy, and I was pretty good that year. But my pitching coach [Skip Johnson] said, ‘Pro ball might be happening for you. You need another pitch.’ I couldn’t get my changeup back. I couldn’t throw a slider. Nothing. He spent two months teaching me a curveball that year. Finally, something clicked. He showed me Cliff Lee. 'Look at how he does it. He spikes it.'

TZ: So it’s the same spike grip as Cliff?

CK: People that spike, they’re all a little different. Some guys like to go across the horseshoe. I’m in line with the horseshoe. It’s all different, but it’s all a spike. It was good in college. I wouldn’t say it was great, but it exceeded expectations once I got into pro ball.

TZ: Why do you think that is?

CK: I think it’s the ball. The seams are bigger in college. You get to pro ball, the seams are much smaller, they’re wound a lot tighter. It’s just a feel thing.

TZ: What do hitters tell you about it?

CK: A lot of them will be truthful. They’ll say the one early in the count, up at their face, they think in their mind, ‘There’s no chance in hell it’s coming back down for a strike.’ But it does. But then they’ll say, 'Once I see it that one time, if you do it again, I’m ready for it.' That’s my big thing -- I can get there for a strike. And nine times out of 10, I feel like they won’t swing at it because when they haven’t seen it before and it starts at their face, they think no way it’s coming back down. But then it’s like, fool me once, you can’t fool me again. That’s what I’ve got to get down.

TZ: Zack Wheeler said a couple years ago that his curveball is the one pitch he always seems to have a feel for. Are you the same way?

CK: No. I’m not a big feel guy. Wheeler is one of the best in the game at what he does. That’s what all starting pitchers are. They’re big feel guys. They feel it. They know if they’re in trouble, go back to this. They’ve got multiple pitches. I’ve got two. I’m throwing as hard as I can with both of them. If one isn’t there, well, the other one better be.

TZ: A lot of people think kids should not throw curveballs. As a curveball guy, what do you think? Will you teach your kids to throw one?

CK: No. If you can get outs with your fastball and changeup, do that. I spent my entire career throwing fastball-changeup. A lot of guys my age who did that are in pro ball. We didn’t throw a curveball growing up. I’ll teach my kid, you’re going to get outs with your fastball and changeup. The changeup is the best pitch in baseball.

TZ: What do you think happened to your changeup? Do you ever miss it?

CK: Yeah, I do, but I will say I don’t regret it. I was throwing 86 mph with my sinker. My changeup was like 78. I gained velo, I went to four-seams and that was it. I lost the changeup, but I gained mph on my velo. I’ll take it.