Braves closer Craig Kimbrel shattered the major league rookie record for saves in 2011, and on Monday he and Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman accomplished something no rookie teammates had done in more than two decades.
Kimbrel was a unanimous winner of the National League Rookie of the Year award from the Baseball Writers Association of America, and Freeman was the runner-up. Philadelphia pitcher Vance Worley finished third.
The Braves became the first team with the top two finishers in National or American League rookie of the year balloting since 1989, when the Chicago Cubs’ Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith finished first and second in the NL.
“It’s an award you only get one chance to win and I’m honored to have that privilege,” said Kimbrel, 23, who got all 32 first-place votes and 160 total points to become the 10th unanimous selection and first since Albert Pujols in 2001.
He’s the fifth Atlanta rookie to win the BBWAA award and first since Rafael Furcal in 2000.
“It definitely surprised me, that unanimous decision,” said Kimbrel, who got a phone call with the news early Monday while he and his fiancee were having coffee on the balcony of their hotel room on Maui, where they will attend Braves reliever Peter Moylan’s wedding Wednesday.
“I expected my teammate Freddie … for it to be close. I’m surprised by that [unanimous vote]. I looked at it and it was definitely a ‘wow.’”
The Alabama native tied for the league lead with 46 saves — six more than the previous rookie record — and led major league relievers in strikeouts with 127 in 77 innings.
Tampa Bay pitcher Jeremy Hellickson won the AL rookie award over Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo.
Five points were awarded for first-place votes, three for second-place votes and one for third-place votes. Freeman got 21 second-place votes and seven third-place votes for 70 points; Worley totaled 40 points on eight second-place votes and 16 third-place votes.
No other NL rookie was named on more than four ballots. Washington catcher Wilson Ramos was fourth with six points, followed by Arizona pitcher Josh Collmenter with five points and Washington second baseman Danny Espinosa with three points. The Cubs’ Darwin Barney and the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen received two third-place votes apiece to tie for seventh.
Freeman led NL qualifying rookies in average (.282), on-base percentage (.346) and slugging percentage (.448) while leading the league’s rookies in doubles (32) and RBIs (76) and tying Espinosa for the home run lead (21). He also played exceptional defense.
The Braves had a top-three-rookie finisher each year from 2008 through 2010. But until Monday the only time they had two top-five finishers was 1954, when the Milwaukee Braves’ Gene Conley placed third and Hank Aaron was fourth.
David Justice (1990), Bob Horner (1978) and Earl Williams (1971) won NL rookie honors as Atlanta Braves, and Sam Jethroe (1950) and Alvin Dark (1948) won as Boston Braves.
Braves right fielder Jason Heyward was the 2010 runner-up to San Francisco catcher Buster Posey. Heyward had nine first-place votes and 107 points to Posey’s 20 first-place votes and 129 points.
Cincinnati had three of the top five finishers in the 2009 rookie balloting and Florida had three of the top four in ‘06, but neither team had the winner and runner-up.
In 2009, Braves pitcher Tommy Hanson was third behind Florida winner Chris Coghlan and Philadelphia runner-up J.A. Happ. Only 11 points separated Coghlan and Happ.
Braves pitcher Jair Jurrjens was third in 2008, behind Chicago Cubs winner Geovany Soto and Cincinnati’s Joey Votto.
Kimbrel went 4-3 with a 2.10 ERA in 79 appearances. He converted 25 consecutive saves during a streak of 38 scoreless appearances from June 14 to Sept. 8, a stretch of 37-2/3 innings that was the majors’ longest scoreless streak in 2011.
He led all major league closers in both innings and appearances – no other closer had more than 75 appearances – and showed signs of fatigue in the final weeks of the season.
Kimbrel blew three of six save opportunities after Sept. 8 including one in the season-ending 13-inning loss against the Phillies, which kept the Braves from playing St. Louis in a one-game tiebreaker for the wild card.
“Having a short memory definitely is an aspect you have to have as a closer,” Kimbrel said. “I’m going to get over it but I’m not going to forget it. I’m going to remember what I did wrong and try to fix it. That’s how I look at it.”
The Braves lost 18 of their final 26 games and blew what had been an 8-1/2-game wild-card lead over St. Louis on Sept. 5.
“He had an unreal year,” said Braves reliever Jonny Venters, the only major league pitcher with more appearances (85) than Kimbrel in 2011. “To have it finish like that — I felt bad for him. He’s such a great kid. He’s got an unbelievable future ahead of him.
“Doesn’t change anything he did all year. We started to struggle at the same time.”
Kimbrel said winning the award would take any of the sting from how the season ended.
“I’s really nice to have this honor, but it’s not going to take away what happened at the end of the year,” he said. “… I do understand that I did have a good year numbers-wise, but there’s a lot of room for improvement. There are ways to help my team do better. That’s what I’m expecting out of myself, to do better going into next year.”
After the season-ending loss, Braves pitcher Tim Hudson said of Kimbrel: “He’s unbelievable. Great teammate, great kid, works hard. He just had one night where it didn’t fall in place for him, and it just happened to be the last game of the season.”
After the season-ending loss Kimbrel heard right away from retired closer Billy Wagner, who served as a mentor for Kimbrel during the 2010 season when Wagner pitched for the Braves.
“He was one of the first persons to text me,” Kimbrel said, “just to let me know he was proud he was of me, of how I handled myself during the year, and not to let it get me down. He said to let a situation like this make you a better pitcher and a better person. Don’t dwell on what happened, just think of what you did wrong and how to fix it.
“Don’t let the situation make you a worse player, have it make you a better player. I was definitely appreciative of him being there.”
Voting for BBWAA awards is solely based on regular-season performance; votes must be cast before the postseason begins.
The AL Cy Young will be announced on Tuesday, followed by AL and NL manager awards on Wednesday, and the NL Cy Young on Thursday. The AL MVP will be named on Nov. 21 and the NL MVP on Nov. 22.