MLB 2011: Top 10 NL Rookie of the Year Candidates
In baseball especially, it's difficult to project how a prospect will handle the transition from Minor League ball to the Major League level.
It's a game of adjustments; opposing players will identify a new guy's weaknesses and exploit them. If a young professional refuses to make the necessary improvements--or is simply unable to--than he's unlikely to last a full season.
Plenty of those who struggle at the onset of their MLB careers turn themselves into serviceable players, but most of the league's elite shine from the very start.
Just as in the American League edition of this article, I'm ranking my top 10 candidates for Rookie of the Year.
*Note: I only considered rookies with 50+ innings pitched or 300+ plate appearances.
10. Lucas Duda (RF/1B): New York Mets
Duda got a taste of the Majors last September, but failed to distinguish himself. Because of his .202 batting average and high strikeout rate in 2010, he received only sporadic playing time with the Mets in April, May and early June.
However, his bat began heating up as the summer wore on. Duda leads the team in home runs and slugging percentage since the All-Star break!
You can bet that Mets' management is salivating over the possibility that they have discovered a genuine power hitter who they will be able to afford for the next several years. Remember, the last legitimate left-handed slugger to play for New York was Carlos Delgado (2006-2009). He was a great asset at the plate, but also an expensive one.
Similar to Delgado, Duda is a liability on defense. Although naturally a 1st baseman, the Mets plan to keep him out in right field provided that Ike Davis comes back healthy in 2012.
I think Duda's lack of contributions early in the season prevent him from contending for this award.
9. Dillon Gee (RHP): New York Mets
Dillon Gee has unfortunately regressed over the same period that Duda has improved.
He surged to top of the rookie class early on, undefeated at 7-0 with a 2.86 ERA heading into late June. Gee has just one victory against a winning team since then.
His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was suspiciously low for a while, but now the hard hits are finding some holes. His lackluster control is mainly responsible. Gee is getting hurt by poorly located pitches, or missing so badly that opposing hitters lay off and take a walk instead.
As a whole, his season went well. He led all NL rookies in games started, innings pitched and wins, and he was one of only two young starters to throw a complete game in 2011.
Gee still has plenty of potential, but fell out of the NL ROY race.
8. Josh Collmenter (RHP): Arizona Diamondbacks
After a disastrous 2010, the Diamondbacks decided to tear down and reconstruct their bullpen; Collmenter was just one of the new faces.
His effectiveness through early May could be attributed to his deceptive, straight-over-the-top delivery (see picture). Despite underwhelming "stuff," he was moved into the starting rotation to see if the unorthodox arm action could continue to baffle opposing hitters.
For a while it did. Four of Collmenter's first six starts were scoreless outings, and he carried a 1.12 ERA into the middle of June.
Although he threw a ton of strikes, Collmenter has became more hittable as this season has wore on. This can be explained by his high fly ball percentage. Luckily, the D-Backs had a smooth defensive outfield to play behind him.
Collmenter had a solid campaign, but he's far from the top the 2011 NL rookie class.
7. Cory Luebke (LHP): San Diego Padres
It's usually great to be a hard-throwing left-handed pitcher! Well, it wasn't in the best interest of Cory Luebke's Rookie of the Year chances.
After starting games throughout his minor league career and serving the Padres in the same capacity last fall, he was used exclusively out of the bullpen for the first half of this season. Luebke dominated southpaw hitters over inning-long appearances; he only received the opportunity to lead the rotation in July.
Unfortunately, with an anemic offense supporting him, Luebke often pitched in close games, usually with his team trailing. Not only does that ruin his win-loss record, but it ends most of his starts prematurely. A pinch-hitter would replace him, even if there was still some left in the tank.
The fact that Luebke was in the big leagues all season bolsters his candidacy. Still, I consider him a long-shot because of his trouble pitching efficiently.
6. Wilson Ramos (C): Washington Nationals
Ramos improved as much as any rookie since the start of 2011.
His batting average and defensive metrics especially took a turn for the better after the All-Star break. He's a solid power hitter with better plate discipline than most rookies (less than 1 K per 5 AB).
More importantly, Ramos was great behind the plate. He built a reputation for gunning down potential base-stealers and there are relatively few attempts against him. He was fundamentally sound with his footwork, whether it's blocking home plate or keeping wild pitches in front. Ramos should receive serious Gold Glove consideration.
His problems in particular situations held him back. For example, Ramos showed less power batting against left-handers, and quite frankly no ability to produce with runners in scoring position! The numbers were even worse in late/close scenarios.
All-in-all, Ramos is the National League's best 25-and-under catcher this side of Buster Posey.
5. Brandon Beachy (RHP): Atlanta Braves
Beachy has the "wow" factor, a prerequisite for Rookie of the Year candidates.
A strained oblique limited him in May and June, otherwise he would be neck-and-neck with Gee for the NL rookie lead in starts and innings pitched. Despite missing time, his performance post-injury was equally solid.
Beachy has better velocity than Collmenter or Gee and superior secondary pitches that have allowed him to strikeout more than a batter per inning. He led all National League freshmen in K% and total strikeouts.
He gave up a ton of fly balls, but luckily, the Braves recently acquired two-time gold-glover Michael Bourn to run down potential extra-base hits.
Beachy suffered from a lot of no-decisions (60 percent of his starts). While that indicates that he wasn't an efficient pitcher, it also proves--the three losses--that he rarely imploded on the mound.
The Braves' weathered serious injuries to starters Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens to stay alive in the wildcard race until Game 162. Beachy deserves some praise for being an effective replacement.
4. Danny Espinosa (2B): Washington Nationals
Espinosa led all NL rookies in stolen bases while ranking near the top in home runs, extra-base hits and runs scored.
The only skill he lacked was contact ability. Embarrassingly, Espinosa's high strikeout total ranks among the 10 worst in a single season for a 2nd basemen in MLB history! Naturally, his batting average struggled to move out of the low .200s.
Espinosa played in nearly every Nationals' game. Too many of his at-bats, however, were painful to watch.
3. Vance Worley (RHP): Philadelphia Phillies
Worley has thrown even fewer innings than Beachy, but his terrific results make him a top-three candidate for the award.
He found an opening in the Phillies' rotation in June and never stopped winning. There may have been some fortunate run support involved, but none of the team's aces--Halladay, Hamels or Lee--matched Worley's 14-start undefeated streak that ended on September 11.
The smooth Phillies defense was a great help to him on balls in play and he kept opposing hitters in the park despite pitching home games in a homer-friendly stadium.
Worley enjoyed a dominant streak immediately after the All-Star break. He just didn't get enough appearances down the stretch to deserve the hardware.
2. Freddie Freeman (1B): Atlanta Braves
The fore-mentioned Danny Espinosa and Freeman went back in forth all season for the NL rookie leads in at-bats, home runs, runs batted in and games played.
However, Freeman was easily the best first-year position player on the Senior Circuit. He had the highest batting average among the league's top 10 ROY candidates, and matches up with Lucas Duda in on-base percentage and slugging, even with twice the number of plate appearances!
Freeman is excellent at1st basemen with sure hands and great reaction time. He was one of only five National League players to log 1300 innings at the position this year.
The lone flaw in his game early on was hitting against lefties, but Freeman improved dramatically since mid-season.
Oh, and by the way, this guy just turned 22 years old!!!
1. Craig Kimbrel (RHP): Atlanta Braves
Barring sanity on the part of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, Craig Kimbrel will win National League Rookie of the Year.
The last two winners of the AL ROY award have been closers, so there's no reason that Kimbrel can't woo NL voters.
Kimbrel was unbelievable in limited action last season (4-0, 0.44 ERA), and his stuff translated beautifully over a full year.
OK, so he choked in the regular season finale with a chance to force a one-game playoff, yet he smashed Neftali Feliz's 2010 record for rookie saves and led all MLB closers in the category! He similarly ranked No. 1 among them in innings pitched and strikeouts.
He had far more strikeouts than rookie starters Collmenter, Gee, and Worley.
The Atlanta Braves used him regularly--arguably excessively--and his pitching has only improved. His massive scoreless innings streak from mid-June through early September was the longest by an MLB reliever in years.