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Braves Rookie of the Year candidates

The Braves have had a few close calls in the Rookie of the Year races over the last few seasons. Tommy Hanson finished third in 2009, and Jason Heyward was narrowly edged out by Buster Posey in 2010. But this could be the year that one of the young Braves takes the award home, with both Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel being serious contenders. Freeman’s season at the plate has been very impressive, almost matching what his teammate and fellow 21-year-old Jason Heyward did last season with a bat in his hands.

Despite Freeman’s performance, Rookie of the Year voters love their saves. Neftali Feliz and Andrew Bailey both won the awards in the American League in each of the past two seasons, which leads me to believe that Kimbrel is likely the favorite for the award at this point.

He has struck out 14.3 batters per game entering Friday night’s action. The only reliever who has struck out at least 13 per nine with a lower walk rate than Kimbrel’s is Sergio Romo, who has pitched just 36 innings compared to Kimbrel’s 54, and as a specialist Romo faces primarily right-handed batters whereas Kimbrel faces whomever is batting in the ninth.

Kimbrel has produced such a high level due to absolutely dominant performances since June 11. Up until that date, Kimbrel had a respectable 3.38 ERA and five blown saves over 32 innings pitched. Since then, Kimbrel has not allowed a run over 22 innings, while racking up 38 strikeouts and just six walks. In June and July alone, Kimbrel was worth 1.4 WAR, which is as much as all but nine other relievers have been worth all season.

The fact that Kimbrel won the Rookie of the Month award in June while pitching to a 1.93 ERA and a 25/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but he lost the award to Freeman in July while pitching to a 0.00 ERA and a 19/3 strikeout/walk ratio is rather odd. Kimbrel improving his performance in July compared after that June was certainly unexpected, but it was also rather welcome for the Braves, who had starter struggles in July to deal with, and on-base problems as well.

Even looking at traditional statistics, Kimbrel already broke the pre-All-Star rookie save record and is on pace to shatter Feliz’s rookie record of 40, set just last season. As it stands, Kimbrel’s 32 saves are just one behind Brian Wilson’s league leading 33.

The Braves bullpen has been one of the main reasons that they are the National League’s wild-card leaders to this point. They currently have the second-lowest bullpen ERA to that of the San Diego Padres, who lost a top reliever in Mike Adams at the deadline and may concede the top spot before season’s end. Additionally, the Braves’ bullpen has the lowest FIP in baseball at 3.00, xFIP at 3.20, and SIERA at 2.86 -- the three best ERA estimators out there. Most of the bullpen’s success is due to the lethal combination of Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. Venters was an All-Star along side Kimbrel, but O’Flaherty has pitched to an ERA under 1.00, which is astounding for a lefty one-out reliever turned set-up man. The combination of these three, which has been deemed “O’Ventbrel” by Braves’ announcers and fans, may potentially be the best combination of back-end relievers in the entire game.

Kimbrel may end up losing out to Freeman or Danny Espinosa in the Rookie of the Year balloting, but unless something drastic occurs, Kimbrel will have one of the top rookie seasons for a reliever in recent memory. Being arguably the top reliever in the game at 23 years old is something few can ever say, and Kimbrel’s dominance should certainly not be overlooked.

Ben Duronio writes about the Braves for the Capitol Avenue Club, part of the SweetSpot network. You can follow or tweet him at @Ben_Duronio.