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.