And the Runaway Choice for the NL Rookie of the Year Award Is …

There are a handful of deserving candidates for the National League Rookie of the Year award.

Rookie first-baseman, Freddie Freeman, has developed into a middle-of-order hitter for an Atlanta Braves ballclub that boasts the NL’s second-best record. Freeman is on pace to top 20 homers and 80 RBI this season, while hitting .294 with a commendable .362 on-base percentage. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s smooth with the leather. As it stands, Freeman is the clear runner-up for the ROY award, but he’s not the winner.

Philadelphia’s Vance Worley is a recent addition to the Rookie of the Year discussion. In 13 starts, Worley is 8-1 with a 2.35 ERA. Impressive to say the least. The problem with his candidacy is that he was a mid-season insertion into the Phillies’ rotation, who will make fewer than 25 starts this year.

Braves’ fifth starter, Brandon Beachy, has turned heads with 105 strikeouts in 97 innings, while posting a solid 3.43 ERA through 16 starts. But like Worley, Beachy will fall well short of a full season’s workload, after an oblique injury sidelined him for him for more than month.

Danny Espinoza, Washington’s young second baseman, was considered by many to be an early ROY favorite. Espinoza is a skilled defensive middle-infielder, and he is on track to hit 20 or more homeruns in his rookie season. However, after a recent slump, Espinoza’s batting average has fallen to .226, and his on-base percentage has been reduced to a meager .311.

All of these candidates deserve at least some measure or ROY consideration, but none of them deserve to win the award. Not this year. Not when there is another rookie lifting and separating from the pack at a breakneck pace. Ladies and gents, the runaway choice for the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year Award is —

Craig Kimbrel

Kimbrel, the only all-star among this group of top rookie performers, has shown no signs of intimidation after assuming the Braves’ closer role in his first full big league season. That’s saying something, given that he’s filling the shoes of future-Hall-of-Famer, Billy Wagner, who retired over the winter, and closing high-pressure ballgames for a top postseason contender.

3-2, with an imposing 1.87 ERA, Kimbrel has converted 36 of his 41 save opportunities this season, striking out 89 hitters in 57 innings. Toss in a nifty 0.99 WHIP.

His recent performance is even more remarkable. In his last 24.2 innings pitched: 0 runs, 6 walks, 40 strikeouts, .089 opposing average. 18 of 18 in save opportunities. Take a moment to think about those numbers.

If you’re still not convinced, here are three reasons why Craig Kimbrel is the runaway choice for the NL Rookie of the Year:

1. As the closer for one of the top-4 teams in baseball, Kimbrel performs in a more pressure packed and pivotal role than any of the other finalists.

2. A realistic argument can be made that Kimbrel is the best closer in Major League Baseball at this moment. As gifted as the other candidates may be, could a similar case be made on their behalf? Are we ready to say Worley might be baseball’s top starting pitcher? Is Freeman the best all around first-baseman in MLB?

3. Kimbrel is poised to blow past MLB’s all-time rookie saves record (40), set by the Rangers’ Netfali Feliz, who won the AL Rookie of the Year award last season. In fact, Craig Kimbrel is on pace to finish his rookie campaign with the following numbers:

1.87 ERA, 50 saves, and 123 strikeouts in 79 innings pitched.

There is still approximately 1/4 of the 2011 season still ahead of us. So, of course, everything is subject to change. But as it stands right now, the case is closed and the choice is clear. It’s Craig Kimbrel.

Kent Covington is a columnist at and Host of the Southern Fried Baseball radio show, heard exclusively at Follow Kent on Twitter: @FriedBasballATL

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