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Corey Knebel finding bad luck early in career

Corey Knebel hasn't been perfect out of the gate, but if you wait, the results will come.

Reliever Corey Knebel delivers a pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Reliever Corey Knebel delivers a pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Tigers reliever Corey Knebel's ERA currently sits at 7.94. But that's not an accurate indicator of how well the 22-year-old rookie has pitched. Advanced stats tell a different story.

While Knebel’s fielding independent pitching (FIP) is a low 2.02, his expected FIP is slightly higher at 3.17 because that stat includes a 10.5 percent home-run rate on fly balls and Knebel has yet to allow his first major league home run.

FIP has been kind to Knebel, while ERA hasn't. Knebel is striking out 9.53 batters per nine innings while allowing just 3.18 walks per nine. But while these numbers align nicely with his minor league figures, it would have been unrealistic to expect a similar ERA in the major leagues, despite posting marks of 1.20 and 0.00 in Double-A and Triple-A, respectively, earlier this year.

Knebel has given up hits at the worst possible times, too. He is only stranding half of all runners after stranding more than 80 percent of runners in the minor leagues. The MLB average for that stat is between 70 and 72 percent annually according to Fangraphs.

Batting average on balls in play is more often used for hitters than pitchers, but Knebel’s has nearly doubled after his promotion. The obvious question is then whether Knebel is giving up harder-hit contact now that he is facing major league hitters, but it appears that that’s not the case. In Knebel’s 115 major league pitches, 69 of which have been strikes compared to 46 balls, Knebel has induced 11 ground balls, five fly balls, and just three line drives. It looks like the ground balls are just finding holes.

Tigers fans will forever worry about the bullpen, but they can direct their anxiety elsewhere when it comes to Knebel.  As the second player from the 2013 draft class to make it to the major leagues, he is still young and will not yet be counted on to pitch in late innings.

Knebel, however, has the background to pitch those late innings eventually. He was an All-American after a freshman year at Texas where he tied Huston Street’s school record for saves in a year with 19.

Once Rondon recovers from Tommy John surgery, he and Knebel could be a staple at the back end of the bullpen in years to come.