Is Craig Kimbrel the NL Rookie of the Year?

Craig Kimbrel continues to build on his ridiculous rookie season. While he’s been mentioned as a popular Rookie of the Year Award candidate, Kimbrel notched his 41st save last night — a rookie record — which should only increase his candidacy in the voters’ eyes. The save stat may be criticized in the advanced stats community, but the BBWAA voters still seem to hold the save in high regard. Last season, for example, Neftali Feliz won the award based on his high saves total despite finishing behind Brian Matusz in WAR. It wasn’t an egregious error, but it goes to show that the save still matters to the voters. With Kimbrel reaching heights no other rookie closer has reached before; has he all but locked up the National League Rookie of the Year Award?

Based on recent trends — especially in the American League — there’s a really good chance the NL R.O.Y. race is already over. While few rookies are actually thrust into the closer role — likely due to their manager preferring someone with a “closer mentality” — rookies with high saves totals typically perform well in the R.O.Y. voting.

In recent years, rookie closers have dominated the voting in the American League. The previous two winners of the award — Nefali Feliz and Andrew Bailey — were closers for their respective teams. In 2006, Jonathan Papelbon finished second in the voting, and a year earlier, Huston Street took home the hardware in the AL. Shingo Takatsu — if you considered him a rookie at the time — finished as the runner-up in 2004.

Posting a high saves total does seem to help rookies perform better on the ballot. While Papelbon and Feliz were the second best rookies in their respective seasons according to WAR; Bailey, Street and Takatsu all performed much better in the R.O.Y. voting than they deserved based on their WAR totals.

Over in the National League, things have been quite different. A closer hasn’t won the R.O.Y. Award in the NL since Scott Williamson accumulated 19 saves for the Cincinnati Reds in 1999. John Rocker actually posted 38 saves that season, but failed to make the ballot. The lack of closers on the NL ballot in more recent years is likely due to poor candidates, however, and less about voter preferences.

Looking back through the FanGraphs rookie leaderboards, there haven’t been many NL rookies thrust into the closer role in recent seasons. John Axford was a nice surprise last year — posting 24 saves for the Milwaukee Brewers — but he was up against some of the best rookie competition we’ve seen in years. Manny Corpas and Takashi Saito also managed to post some high saves totals over that period, but we’re also up against some pretty stiff competition.

If recent history is any indication, there’s a good chance the R.O.Y. Award is going to Kimbrel. High saves totals have been rewarded over in the AL in recent years, while the NL hasn’t had a decent candidate in quite some time. Due to Kimbrel’s gaudy saves total, it’s highly likely that he walks home with the hardware when the season ends. Kimbrel currently leads all NL rookies in WAR, so he’s certainly a legitimate candidate. Still, Kimbrel should win the award based on his complete dominance of the National League this season; not just his gaudy saves total.

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Chris is a blogger for He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

67 Responses to “Is Craig Kimbrel the NL Rookie of the Year?”

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  1. JT Grace says:

    Great article. Kimbrel’s only real competition comes from his own teammate, Freddie Freeman.

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    • Hizouse says:

      You can’t ask “Who’s going to win an award?” and then only discuss one candidate.

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      • Santos says:

        Did he ask that? It seems pretty clear from the title it’s an article about Kimbrel’s chances specifically. Am I missing something?

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      • DD says:

        Santos – wouldn’t you agree that his chances are heavily dependent on what other candidates are doing this year, and the perception they have in the voters’ eyes?

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      • Santos says:

        Yeah I suppose I would agree with that. I guess Hizouse’s wording threw me off a bit. He stated “Who’s going to win an award” as if the article was to discuss everyone’s chances, when I read it as an article discussing Kimbrel’s chances with regard to previous closers winning the award. I guess Hizouse’s point, however, is inherent in any discussion like this since you really can’t decide if someone is worthy for something without comparing his performance to the other candidates.

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    • Nik says:

      Only Freddie Freeman? Try Danny Espinosa.

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      • Dan says:

        Espinosa has tailed off pretty significantly in the second half. And even though it’s unfair, the voters still use BA to judge players. So with Espinosa hitting .229, he’s probably getting left out of the conversation, even though he should be in the running.

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      • Luke M says:

        Stop it.

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    • SOB says:

      Vance Worley

      By the end of the year he will be looking at 125-140 IP overall, and if he keeps up the production he will have lines extremely similar to those of teammates Halladay, Lee and Hamels.

      Its impossible to overlook

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      • Anon21 says:

        I haven’t followed his season, so perhaps when you say “if he keeps up the production” you’re talking about recent trends rather than his whole season’s body of work. Assuming you’re not, though, this is pretty silly. His FIP and xFIP, while quite impressive for a rookie starter, aren’t in the same ballpark with Halladay, Hamels, and Lee. I’m not saying Worley should get no RoY consideration–he’s had a very good season in limited playing time, while Kimbrel has been elite in a full season of an intrinsically less valuable role. But either way you come down on that, there’s no basis for putting Worley in the conversation with the Phillies’ front 3.

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      • SOB says:

        When mentioning the other three, I was referring to actual on field, ie more superficial, results (which is what these awards are generally decided on) rather then advanced sabermetric projection which gets its true value from predicting future production instead of telling people what actually did happen. Vance with a 9-1 record, the team being 14-2 when he starts and the miniscule 2.65 ERA is every bit as strong as the results the Phillies have gotten out of any of the other three. (and if he happens to keep up the recent trends you mention, you’re looking at about a 8.5 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, .65 HR/9 range pitcher over the last two months – which would match up very well with Halladay, Lee or Hamels)

        As far as the “limited playing time” compared to Kimbrel’s “full season”, you are right about it being roughly half a season to a year long gig. But you are also talking about a “limited playing time” of roughly 140 IP verses about 75 innings of full season because Kimbrel is a reliever. This difference will also likely play into the final month, where 2 poor outings can have a rather dramatic effect on Kimbrels superficial lines because of the limited amount of innings short guys see.

        No matter, I was saying a 10+W/1-3L, 2.5- range ERA rookie with about 140 innings on a championship caliper team is going to get a ton of vote attention here.

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      • Nick44 says:

        “Vance” should only win awards for best animal performance opposite PeeWee Herman in a movie about traveling circuses.

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  2. Like you said, Kimbrel should win the award based on his dominance over the NL and not just his gaudy saves total. Heck, I could not care less about the save total. If he had zero saves I’d still vote for him. He is 5th among all rookies in strikeouts and his K/9 rate is historically high and a rookie record (min 60 IP).

    Sad part is I though Espinosa had a great shot at winning around the AS break but he has tailed off completely.

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  3. Bill but not Ted says:

    What was the point of this article? I am pretty confident FG readers already worship WAR and hate Saves

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  4. balagast says:

    One thing I find to be absolutely amazing about Kimbrel this year. He is on pace to have a season that exceeds (in terms of WAR) basically every season Mariano has ever had with the exception of 1996 when Mo wasn’t even being used as a closer and therefore pitched significantly more innings.

    Not only is Kimbrel having a great year for a rookie, he is having one of the best seasons in recent history for any relief pitcher.

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    • Andrew says:

      That’s because fWAR is FIP based and loves Kimbrel’s strikeouts. Mariano’s results have consistently been better than his FIP, which is why I prefer to use rWAR to evaluate him. By rWAR, Mariano had 4.8 WAR in 2004. Kimbrel has 3.0 rWAR this year.

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  5. Ryan says:




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  6. DD says:

    You mention few rookies are thrust into the closer’s role because of a need for “closer’s mentality”? Then mention a half dozen rookies who have been ROY candidates in the last 7 or so years? I think it’s not that managers need a pitcher with a closer’s mentality, but instead might sometimes prefer the experienced arm over an unproven one. Obviously this is not happening all the time. Also, if you’re going to talk about Kimbrel’s candidacy, you HAVE to mention his scoreless streak and strikeouts as being exceptional feats he has accomplished this year. They put him ahead of Freeman in many people’s opinion, since Freeman is not hitting at an elite level for a 1B, but Kimbrel is doing things few relievers are doing, rookie or otherwise.

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  7. Josh says:

    I agree that Kimbrel should win the award. He has been downright amazing this season. However, I’m not sure why you waited until the last paragraph to mention than he leads NL rookies in WAR, never pointed out any of his ridiculous numbers other than saves, and failed to discuss his competition for the award (not that there’s much of it).

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  8. hunterfan says:

    *Is* Craig Kimbrel the rookie of the year? Despite the article’s title, I still don’t know.

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  9. Dan says:

    He is dominating the NL in a way very few relief pitchers ever have before. He is leading all MLB reliever in WAR by a large margin. Not only will he win the ROY, he will pick up votes for the Cy Young and maybe even a few for MVP. He has been virtually unhittable for months.

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    • NEPP says:

      So is Antonio Bastardo in Philly…

      .112 BAA (best in history for a pitcher with 50 IP)
      .418 OPS against (4th best in history for a pitcher with 50 IP)

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  10. The Frankman says:

    I would’ve thought Dillon Gee had a chance to win it in late July but fatigue/2-3 blowup starts has killed his ERA. He’d pretty much have to win his last 5 starts with a sub 3 ERA while Kimbrel regresses to have a legit shot.

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    • TK says:

      Absolutely no way. I guess he could climb into #2 with a 5-0 September with a sub-3 ERA (though I see no reason why that will happen). Vance Worley and Brandon Beachy have a better shot to move up. Honestly, 3rd place in the ROY voting is wide open, but Beachy could get it and give the Braves 1-2-3.

      1-2 is 90% or more Kimbrel and Freeman.

      Espinosa should get more consideration but .229 will hold him back.

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  11. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    Jonny Venters’ year isn’t so bad either – just without the saves. If Fredi had switched the two at the start of the year, would it be Venters for ROY?

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  12. Jonny Venters says:

    I’m not sure if this has been mentioned, but I’m not a rookie.

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  13. brett says:

    I don’t get why everyone gets behind pitchers for ROY but laughs them off for MVP. Shouldn’t this conversation be very similar to the Halladay vs Position Player MVP discussion we had last week? Where does this difference in mentality come from?

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    • TomG says:

      Because there’s no ancillary award for rookie pitchers like the Cy Young for most valuable pitchers. If there were, you’d probably have a similar debate.

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  14. Tom says:

    Hate to say it, but this article sucked.

    I came in expecting a debate on possible NL ROY candidates using the typical Fangraphs statistics and to come to the conclusion that even though he was a reliever (which the Fangraphs community knows is overrated) he has still been the best rookie iin the NL.

    I did not expect an argument based almost entirely on saves and no mention of other possible NL ROY this year. You cannot make a case for someone winning an award without mentioning or considering other people competing for the award. That’s simply idiotic.

    A rare swing and a miss by Fangraphs writers. Apparently Kimbrel is so good he is even making Frangraphs strike out.

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    • subtle says:

      The title of the article is “Is Craig Kimbrel the NL Rookie of the Year” and then the article is about Craig Kimbrel. I’m not sure how that’s misleading.

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    • cthabeerman says:

      You just hate historical narratives.

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    • Bronnt says:

      Yeah, I agree. The discussion here seemed more like “Should we expect Kimbrel to win the award?” than it was, “Should we view Kimbrel as the best rookie of 2011?” I would have preferred to read that article.

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  15. subtle says:

    A more apt title for the article would be, “Is OK to get the right result for the wrong reasons?”

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  16. derek says:

    Kimbrel not only leads NL rookies in WAR, he leads ML relievers in WAR by almost a full win.

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  17. Robbie G. says:

    I’d be interested in reading an article about how Kimbrel’s 2011 season stacks up to other top relief pitcher seasons in the history of MLB, or at least over the past 25-30 years.

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  18. Stringer Bell says:

    What about Edinson Volquez?

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    • Josh A says:

      Not sure how he plays into this discussion… If you’re thinking of Aroldis Chapman, he’s closer to being relevant. He’s having a pretty decent season, although his early season struggles pretty much have removed him from any consideration for ROY.

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  19. jim says:

    hey danny espinosa lovers, where did you all go?

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  20. Allan says:

    Unless voters specifically argue that it was the saves and not the WAR that made them vote for Kimbo, how will we even know their motivations? If we’re just tossing out possibilities, I hope they vote for him because he deserves and not because he’s white. That would be wrong…

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  21. pickapeppa says:

    Cory Luebke

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  22. Matty Brown says:

    I’d love an article about the Rookie Trio of Braves. (Kimbrel, Freeman, Beachy)

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  23. Josh says:

    No mention of the ridiculous K/9? Kimbrel has it “Without a doubt”. Can’t believe a topic was even made.

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  24. Josh says:

    What is the record for K or K/9 for a rookie RP? CK is in Wagner territory with those Ks (a comparable pitcher Kimbrel is often mentioned as the RH version of.)

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  25. Jeff G. says:

    This is a pretty weak article. How can you talk about a player’s chances of winning an award without even mentioning the competition?

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    • Josh says:

      That’s just it, there is no competition. Call me a homer, or whatever you wish, heck call it a prognostication, no contest.

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  26. JMS says:

    My favorite Braves relief dominance factoids:

    1) Kimbrel has the lowest ERA of any pitcher to ever pitch 85 career innings. The second lowest? Jonny Venters.

    2) Of NL relievers with 55 innings, Venters, EOF, Kimbrel

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  27. JMS says:

    rank 1-2-3 in era

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  28. Josh says:

    14 per 9 innings. Hasn’t allowed a run since June 11th spanning 33.2IP with 59K 10BB allowing only 12 hits. Sit back and breathe that in.

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  29. Robbie G. says:

    Here are the nine 3.7+ WAR (according to Fangraphs’ metrics) seasons over the past 25 years (1987-present):

    4.5 Eric Gagne 2003
    4.4 Mariano Rivera 1996
    4.4 Rob Dibble 1990
    4.1 Duane Ward 1991
    4.0 Francisco Rodriguez 2004
    3.9 Doug Jones 1988
    3.8 Brad Lidge 2004
    3.7 Rob Dibble 1989
    3.7 Tom Henke 1989

    Looks like Craig Kimbrel has a pretty good shot at joining that list. Shorten the list to 3.7+ WAR seasons over the past 15 years (1997-present) and you’re left with only Gagne, Rodriguez, and Lidge. Pretty impressive company for this kid; I’d say he’s the Rookie of the Year, alright.

    Nice to see Dibble’s dominance properly quantified. When I was really into baseball stats in high school, I remember thinking that Dibble was insanely underappreciated. This was before everybody realized that the save was a pretty arbitrary and therefore worthless statistic. Dibble was, of course, the setup guy for those Reds teams. I used to watch this guy pitch when he was with the Nashville Sounds. At the end of the game, after yet another save, he’d turn around, face the outfield, and throw the ball toward the outfield and clear out of the stadium. Dude was a lunatic!

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  30. My echo and bunnymen says:

    I had a huge problem with Neftali Feliz winning the award.

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