ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 9: Reliever Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Atlanta Braves reads the signs from his catcher against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on September 9, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cardinals beat the Braves 4-3 in 10 innings. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Craig Kimbrel is already among baseball's elite relief pitchers at the age of just 23.
Craig Kimbrel had a special season in 2011. Not only did he set the all-time rookie saves record for Major League Baseball, but he also solidified a spot in Atlanta's bullpen that has faced so much uncertainty over the last two decades. From the miserable days of Chris Reitsma, Danny Kolb and Bob Wickman, Kimbrel made it all seem like ancient history every time he took the mound.
While setting the rookie record, Kimbrel finished tied for the most saves in the NL with 46. Among qualified relievers -- a total of 71 pitchers throughout the league -- his ERA (2.10) ranked 8th and his FIP (1.52) was the better than anyone. In 77 innings of work, he struck 127 batters out and only walked 32. For a pitcher whose only concern coming up through the Minor Leagues was his control, he answered any and all questions with his dominance in 2011.
Kimbrel led every reliever in WAR (wins above replacement-level), which essentially determines how valuable a player is to his team. At 3.2 'wins', he was worth approximately $15 million dollars for his efforts this past season. He earned $419,000. For an organization that has had to make cutbacks financially in recent years, Kimbrel is the absolute perfect fit.
Winning Rookie of the Year was not surprising to Craig or a good majority of baseball fans, but the unanimous decision -- which has only been given out nine times before -- was shocking. Kimbrel received all 32 first-place votes and was notified on Monday while in Hawaii with his wife.
"It definitely surprised me, that unanimous decision," said Kimbrel, "I expected my teammate Freddie (Freeman) -- for it to be close. I'm surprised by that. I looked at it and it was definitely a wow."
Freeman finished in second place, making him and Kimbrel the first teammates to finish No. 1 and No. 2 since 1989.
The awards and eye-popping stats are obviously a great achievement for Kimbrel, but his solidity at the end of the bullpen is what makes him so special. No longer will the Braves have to scratch and claw their way through the free agent market to find a suitable option for the ninth inning. Instead, they can rest assured that their young phenom will handle those duties for a long time to come.
"Having a short memory definitely is an aspect you have to have as a closer," said the 23-year old out of Alabama, "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."
Go get 'em, Craig.