Craig Kimbrel certainly had himself a rookie season to remember in 2011. In addition to breaking the rookie saves record, he was named to his first All-Star Game while establishing himself as one of the league's most dominant relievers, as well as becoming a strong frontrunner for NL Rookie of the Year.
Following the retirement of Billy Wagner, Kimbrel stepped into the closer role this year and pretty much picked up where Wagner left off, striking out just about anyone brave enough to swing a bat against him. At the All-Star Break, he had 70 strikeouts in 46 innings and was the NL Rookie of the Month for June.
The season wasn't without its usual growing pains, however. Kimbrel suffered five blown saves in his first 32 games, but then he embarked on an incredible streak. Between June 14 and September 8, Kimbrel mowed through opposing hitters, putting up a zero in 38 straight appearances. He converted 25 saves and struck out 67 in 37.2 innings during the scoreless streak and on August 31, he earned his 41st save of the season to break the MLB rookie saves record set in 2010. His dominance earned him a second NL Rookie of the Month honor, this one for August.
Kimbrel, like the rest of his team, struggled at the end of the season when he blew three more saves, but he finished 2011 with 46 saves and 127 strikeouts. In 77 innings, that translates to a mind-boggling 14.84 strikeouts/9 innings. Amazingly, that ratio is second only to LA's Kenley Jansen in all of MLB, but his 127 strikeouts led all relievers. His 46 saves tied for the most in the NL.
Kimbrel's rookie season puts him among some pretty elite company in the Braves franchise. Only John Smoltz's 55 saves in 2002 top Kimbrel's total, and only Smoltz and Wagner have lower ERAs among the top 10. His 127 strikeouts are the most EVER for a Braves reliever, eclipsing Steve Bedrosian's 114 strikeouts in relief (123 total) in his rookie year in 1982.
In order to see just how effective Kimbrel was this year, here is a chart comparing his 2011 WPA with that of the average of the 130 most-used relievers.
If green is good, then that is a whole lot of good that Kimbrel was in 2011, and he was much more effective than the vast majority of the league. Craig was as dominating a force as there was in all of baseball, but he'll have competition for the NL Rookie of the Year Award in teammate Freddie Freeman. Here's to the best of luck for both of them!