Monday November 14th, 2011

As predicted, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel and Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson have been named the 2011 Rookies of the Year.

Kimbrel, who set the rookie record with 46 saves and had a 38-game scoreless streak from June through September, was named first on all 32 National League ballots, thus becoming the 10th unanimous winner of the award in the NL and the 17th unanimous Rookie of the Year in either league. Hellickson was named first on 17 of 28 ballots (two voters per team in each league), but still won by a large margin over runner up Mark Trumbo of the Angels. Kimbrel was the only player in either league named on every ballot.

The National League vote finished exactly as my final Awards Watch predicted, with Kimbrel followed by teammate Freddie Freeman (.282/.346/.448, 21 HRs, 76 RBIs) and Phillies starter Vance Worley (11-3, 3.01 ERA). Of course, Kimbrel is the real story. He had the best season by any rookie in the National League this year and one of the great relief seasons in major league history, highlighted by his 46 saves that broke the one-year old record of 40 set by 2010 AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz. In addition to that, Kimbrel posted the fourth-highest strikeout rate of any pitcher in major league history with 75 or more innings pitched and set a major league record for most consecutive scoreless appearances (38), while posting the third-longest scoreless innings streak by a reliever of all-time.

Over the course of that scoreless streak, which lasted from June 14 to September 8, Kimbrel saved 25 games, won two others, struck out 67 men (16 K/9), allowed just 26 baserunners (0.66 WHIP, not including one hit-by-pitch), didn't allow a single extra-base hit or stolen base and held opposing batters to a .112 batting average with a .190 on-base percentage. By its end, his season ERA stood at 1.55.

The final game of that streak was Kimbrel's 71st of the season, and he struggled over the season's final three weeks due to fatigue, ultimately blowing the most important save of his young career with the Braves' season on the line in Game 162. It's encouraging that the voters did not hold that against him. Though the votes were cast the day after Kimbrel's blown save helped contribute to the Braves elimination in the season's final day, he was still the unanimous choice, as well he should have been.

The American League lacked a clear-cut favorite like Kimbrel. Hellickson (13-10, 2.95 ERA) was a popular pre-season pick (I had him as the favorite as far back as last Thanksgiving), but he didn't dominate the American League the way many, myself included, expected. In 30 Triple-A starts between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Hellickson struck out 193 men in 175 innings with a 3.86 K/BB ratio, and in his cup of coffee in the majors in 2010 (four starts, six relief appearances totaling 36 1/3 innings) he struck out 33 men in 36 1/3 innings with a 4.16 K/BB. In light of that his 5.6 K/9 and 1.63 K/BB this season, both well below the league averages of 6.9 and 2.25, respectively, were disappointing and confusing.

Hellickson wasn't so much good this year as he was lucky, leading all major league qualifiers with a .224 opponent's average on balls in play (compared to the league average of .295). Pitchers typically have very little control over their opponent's batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, and Hellickson is neither a knuckleballer nor a groundballer, the two types of pitchers who do seem to have some small ability to reliably induce weaker contact. Hellickson did induce an excess of pop-ups (22 percent compared to a league average of 15), which is to his credit, but despite fulfilling expectations of a Rookie of the Year win, Hellickson did not deliver the sort of season most expected from him.

The AL Rookie of the Year voters had a tough job this year, as that league had a deep and talented field of rookies, but no singly impressive performance. Rather the AL rookies came in two flavors: those who excelled in small samples, and those whose impressive numbers in a single statistical category were significantly undermined elsewhere.

Hellickson won on the strength of a 2.95 ERA which was undermined by his poor peripherals. Runner-up Mark Trumbo of the Angels led major league rookies with 29 home runs, but had a brutal .291 on-base percentage that should have sunk him even lower in the voting. Fourth-place finisher Ivan Nova of the Yankees led major league rookies with 16 wins, but his peripherals were comparable to Hellickson's and his ERA was three-quarters of a run higher. Fifth-place finisher Michael Pineda finished second in the AL with a 9.1 K/9, but his ERA (3.74) was higher than Nova's (3.70) and he posted a losing record (9-10) for the last-place Mariners. Trumbo's teammate Jordan Walden, who received a single third-place vote, finished fifth in the AL with 32 saves, but also tied for the major league lead with 10 blown saves. Blue Jays catcher J.P Arencibia hit 23 homers with 78 RBIs, great numbers for a catcher, but undermined that production with a .219 batting average and a .282 OBP and didn't receive a single vote.

Then there were the small samples. Pineda's teammate Dustin Ackley hit .273/.348/.417 as a second baseman, but in just 90 games, which limited him to just two votes (though one of them was for first place) and a sixth-place finish. Hellickson's teammate Desmond Jennings hit .259/.356/.449 with 10 home runs and 20 stolen bases, but in just 63 games. He finished tied with Walden for last with a single third-place vote. A's second baseman Jemile Weeks hit .303/.340/.421 in 97 games and didn't pick up a single vote. Nor did Blue Jays' third baseman Brett Lawrie, who crushed the ball to a .293/.373/.580 tune, but only for 43 games.

The only serious candidate for AL Rookie of the Year who didn't fit into either category was Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, who finished third in the voting with four first-place votes. Hosmer played in 128 games and hit .293/.334/.465 with 19 homers, 78 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. That's a bigger sample than Ackley and company and a more well-rounded performance than that turned in by Trumbo, Hellickson and company, but Hosmer suffered due to context. The average American League first baseman hit .271/.340/.452 this season with 24 homers and 89 RBIs (using the league totals divided by the 14 teams in the latter two cases), and Hosmer wasn't significantly better than that.

He will be. Of 16 rookies to receive votes this season, Hosmer could very well go on to have the best career, but Kimbrel had the best rookie season, and Hellickson was a deserving winner in an AL field with no clear favorite.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.