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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Predicting the National League Rookie of the Year Winner

The 2011 National League Rookie of the Year race has been one of the most regional in recent memory. For some reason, the stars aligned and the majority of candidates for the award are in the NL East, with three frontrunners playing for the Atlanta Braves. The top contenders for National League ROY have each brought unique production to their respective teams, and look to be impact players for years to come. As the season winds down, a definitive pecking order has emerged in the ROY competition, and I have been able to determine who will end up winning the award, and who will come up short.

The Case for Freddie Freeman: Leading up to 2011, Freeman was a prized prospect in the Braves’ minor league system, but always regarded at a notch below that of golden boy Jason Heyward. Heyward finished second in the 2010 National League ROY voting and was expected to do great things this year, but has suffered through an injury and regression-filled 2011. Into the void stepped Freeman, who most felt would have a solid, but unspectacular season if given regular playing time. 

Freeman has been exactly what was expected. He has played solid defense, and is on pace to finish the season at .291 with 22 home runs and 78 RBI. Those are solid, yet unspectacular numbers, but exactly what the Braves need, with their offense being ravaged by injuries and underachievement. At 21 years old, Freeman is already one of the most consistent producers on the Braves, and a major reason why they are poised to be in the playoffs. He has played like a veteran all year long, a hallmark of a top rookie.

The Case for Dillon Gee: Starting pitching has been a black hole for the New York Mets in recent years, but they may have started to turn a corner with the young talent they have developed, starting with Mike Pelfrey and Jonathan Niese, and now Gee.

It feels like the right-handed Gee has gone under the radar for much of the year, which is due more to the Mets suffering another disappointing season, than the results he has produced. He is currently on pace for a 14-6 record and 4.37 ERA, numbers of a very solid three or four starter. He does not strike out a ton of guys, but has a decent 1.30 WHIP and keeps the ball in the park, giving up just 13 home runs so far this year. He has been a bright spot on the otherwise bland Mets.

The Case for Brandon Beachy: The close National League ROY race would be even tighter if Beachy had not suffered injuries earlier in the year. As it is, he is still in the conversation because of his excellent rookie season. He is on pace to finish the season with a 9-2 record, 3.31 ERA, and 156 strikeouts in 139.1 innings.
If he had pitched the entire year, the outcome of this award may have been very different, but Beachy won’t win the award because his numbers won’t be significant enough because of time missed. However, he has produced veteran results this year, and shown that the Braves have another exciting pitcher in their rotation.

The Case for Craig Kimbrel: Kimbrel has pitched so well this season at Atlanta’s closer that it is easy to forget that he is just a 23 year old rookie. The right-handed pitcher has dominated from the beginning, anchoring the Atlanta bullpen, which is the strength of their team.

Kimbrel is on pace to finish 2011 with 49 saves and a 1.79 ERA in 70 games. Most impressively, he projects to finish with 125 strikeouts in 77.2 innings. His strikeouts have come from a fastball that has averaged a little over 95 MPH this season, and a biting slider that hitters have a hard time laying off. Atlanta has enjoyed a successful season despite glaring holes on their roster, because if they can get into their bullpen with a lead, the game is typically over. Kimbrel is not only a strong contender for the National League ROY, but also for the title of best closer in baseball.

The Case for Danny Espinosa: On first thought, many people might wonder what Espinosa and his .231 batting average is doing on the short list. Closer inspection shows that he is a serious candidate for ROY. Although he had 103 at bats with the Nationals last year, he still qualifies as a rookie, and is in serious contention for ROY. 

The switch-hitting Espinosa leads all National League rookies with a 3.0 WAR according to FanGraphs. He has done a little bit of everything for Washington this year. No Gold Glover, he has been a serviceable second baseman, after switching from shortstop to accommodate fellow youngster teammate Ian Desmond. Espinosa is also on pace for 22 home runs, 70 RBI, and 16 stolen bases. As with many switch-hitters, he has shown more power from the left side and better batting average from the right. He has been a bright spot in an otherwise mediocre season for Washington, and on figures to get better going forward.

Honorable Mention: Darwin Barney, John Mayberry, Jr., Josh Collmenter, Vance Worley.

Final Decision: The National League has seen a number of exciting young players burst on to the scene in 2011. However, only one of them has been a true star this season, and that is why Craig Kimbrel is the clear cut choice for ROY. Pitching in the 9th inning for a playoff contender can be a steep challenge for a pitcher of any age, but Kimbrel has made it look easy, mowing down hitters with his electric stuff. He is not only having a great rookie season, but an all-time great year for a closer. 

While the other rookies in contention for ROY still clearly have room for improvement, it is hard to imagine Kimbrel being much better than he has already been. For him, sustaining his success will be key, because that will allow him to lead the Atlanta bullpen into the future. He has had an excellent start to his career and what he has accomplished so far gives everyone a great idea of what he is capable of down the road.

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