Not to say I’m smart or anything — we all know better — but I wasn’t surprised that Craig Kimbrel beat Freddie Freeman more than 2-to-1 in voting for the National League rookie of the year. (Kimbrel had 160 points, which is the maximum; Freeman, who finished second, had 70.)
I wasn’t surprised because having been a card-carrying member of the BBWAA since 1984, I’ve done this voting-for-awards thing and I know a bit about how baseball writers work. Maybe this gave me an unfair advantage, but when you’re as lousy at predictions as I am you need all the help you can get.
(A note: I haven’t done the voting-for-awards thing lately. The AJC decided a few years ago that its writers shouldn’t vote on yearly awards.)
Baseball writers look at numbers first. (Remember, a baseball writer can’t watch every inning of every team’s games.) When a baseball writer sees Freeman’s numbers, he/she thinks: “The guy hit .282 with 21 homers and 77 RBIs — that’s a really good rookie year.” When the same writer sees Kimbrel’s numbers, he/she thinks: “He had eight more saves than any rookie closer ever — that’s a record-setting rookie year.”
We had the Kimbel-or-Freeman discussion in this space back in August, and I noted then that I’d vote for Kimbrel if I had a vote. A majority of you disagreed. (Check the poll accompanying that post. Freeman took 64 percent of the who-should-be-ROY vote.) The case for Freeman hinged on him playing nine innings everyday, and that’s a strong argument. But those of us who follow baseball for a living put a high priority on that one inning a closer works, and in September we saw why.
Kimbrel was nearly flawless until the final month, and then three blown saves — the Albert Pujols single in St. Louis that touched off the Cardinals’ grandstand finish; the Omar Infante homer in Florida that was the worst loss of the year, and the squandered lead against Philadelphia in Game No. 162 — proved the difference between making the playoffs and being known as the team that couldn’t hold an 8 1/2-game lead. If a closer does his job, he makes that one inning look routine. If he doesn’t, he’s seen as the reason his team lost.
For that reason, not many rookies are entrusted with the job. Even Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer ever, began as John Wetteland’s set-up man. Kimbrel was not only entrusted with it but he handled it beautifully until the very end. And after the loss in Game No. 162 he handled it like a 15-year professional, saying he’d let his emotions overpower him.
But back to the voting part: I was fairly sure in August that baseball writers would look more favorably on Kimbrel’s season than Freeman’s, and sure enough they did. All 32 who voted had Kimbrel as the first choice. Freeman played every day and was very good; Kimbrel was, on the record, the best rookie closer ever. In a baseball writer’s mind, that’s an easy call.
By Mark Bradley