Closer time: Kimbrel is named NL's top rookie
Righty first Braves pitcher to win award; Freeman finishes second
ATLANTA -- As Craig Kimbrel progressed through his first full Major League season, there was reason to wonder why there had been any concern about his readiness to serve as the Braves' closer.
Blessed with an overpowering fastball and a knee-buckling breaking ball, Kimbrel cruised through most of 2011, becoming one of the game's most dominant closers.
Adding to the list of awards and honors received over the past few weeks, Kimbrel was unanimously voted the National League Rookie of the Year Award winner on Monday. He received all 32 first-place votes and finished ahead of Braves teammate Freddie Freeman.
"When I got the call, I was definitely surprised to hear it was a unanimous decision," Kimbrel said. "It's an honor. For it [to be unanimous] makes it that much more special."
Currently in Hawaii to attend Peter Moylan's upcoming wedding, Kimbrel was on his hotel balcony with his fiancée when he learned he had become the first unanimous NL Rookie of the Year Award winner since Albert Pujols in 2001.
Kimbrel received congratulatory texts from many of his teammates and plans to savor the accomplishment with Eric O'Flaherty, Kris Medlen and Moylan this week in Hawaii.
2011 NL ROOKIE OF YEAR Voting
"This is a good place to celebrate," Kimbrel said. "So I'm sure we'll be doing some of that."
The 2011 vote marked the first time teammates finished first and second in Rookie of the Year Award balloting since 1989, when the Cubs' Jerome Walton finished just ahead of Dwight Smith.
Kimbrel becomes the seventh player in Braves franchise history to win this award, and the first since Rafael Furcal in 2000. He is the first Braves pitcher to earn the honor, which is determined via balloting conducted by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
Freeman received 21 second-place votes and was included on 28 of the 32 ballots. He and Kimbrel were the only Braves players to receive votes this year.
"It's really nice to have this honor, but it's not going to take away from what happened near the end of the year or anything like that," Kimbrel said. "If anything, the end of the year is going to help me strive to do better and become a better pitcher."
Kimbrel's memorable first year in the Majors was tarnished by late-season struggles that accelerated his team's September collapse. But while the forgettable conclusion was the final memory of a record-setting season, it did not detract from the overwhelming belief that Kimbrel was more impressive than any other NL rookie this year.
That kind of dominance allowed Kimbrel to join Carlos Marmol (2010), Eric Gagne ('03) and Billy Wagner (1998 and '99) as the only pitchers to record at least 14 strikeouts per nine innings and notch at least 30 saves in the same season.
"I understand that I did have, numbers-wise, a good year, but there's a lot of room for improvement, as well," Kimbrel said. "I'm always looking for a way to get better and to help my team more. That's one thing I'll do this offseason. I always expect to do better the next year and the next year."
Kimbrel's presence allowed Braves fans to feel less concerned about the fact that Neftali Feliz had been part of the mega-package used to acquire Mark Teixeira from the Texas Rangers in 2007. Feliz won the 2010 American League Rookie of the Year Award after notching 40 saves, which stood as the rookie record until Kimbrel came along this year.
Unfortunately for Kimbrel, one of the lasting images of his memorable season will be the disgust he displayed after issuing three walks and blowing the one-run ninth-inning lead the Braves held before losing their must-win regular-season finale to the Phillies.
It was one of the three blown saves for Kimbrel in September. Before the skid, he had blown just five of his first 48 save opportunities, and the final-month struggles could have been a product of fatigue. His 79 appearances ranked second in the Majors.
"My body felt good through the season," Kimbrel said. "I felt like the workouts I did last offseason were very beneficial to this year. As for throwing, I'm not going to start throwing until about January. Last year, I started throwing a little bit earlier, because going into Spring Training, I was fighting for a job and had to come in to prove myself. This year, I'm going to start a little bit later. I did learn that the season is long, and you do throw a lot."
Kimbrel experienced a few hiccups during the season's first two months before emerging as simply dominant through the middle portion of the season. In the 38 appearances from June 12-Sept. 8, he worked 37 2/3 scoreless innings, limited opponents to a .112 batting average and recorded 67 strikeouts.
"He's had a Rookie of the Year-caliber year," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said after the regular-season finale. "We wouldn't have been here without him. He's going to be a better closer down the road because of this."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.