The recent trend in the MLB, where starting pitchers pitch for fewer and fewer innings per start, has resulted in increased value among steady bullpen arms to provide fantasy production. As managers more frequently pull their starters at the first sign of trouble brewing in the middle innings, the setup man has taken on a greater role when drafting and making in-season adjustments to fantasy pitching staffs. Witness the trending decline in the number of starting pitchers that are contributing 200+ innings in a season: 2018 saw a mere baker’s dozen contributing that number of innings, following only 15 such hurlers in both 2017 and 2016, down significantly from the 28 we saw in 2016 and the 33 that were featured in 2015. As a result of these propensities among major league skippers and their pitching coaches, the role of middle relievers in both “real” and fantasy baseball has grown more significant.
Fantasy leagues are also beginning to embrace this in the form of a new statistical category that rewards for both saves and holds, either as separate scoring categories or as a hybrid, combined statistical category. As the save plus hold group grows in acceptance, it behooves fantasy owners to gain an understanding and appreciation of the intricacies of this new scoring arrangement. Thus, this article arrives to provide you with that very same assistance.
The Difference Between Saves and Holds
A save has a specific definition per MLB statistical rules. In order for the official scorer to credit a pitcher with a save, all four of the following requirements must be met:
- The pitcher is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team;
- He is not the winning pitcher;
- During his time on the mound, he is credited with at least ? of an inning pitched; and
- He satisfies one of the following conditions:
The save has been an official statistic of Major League Baseball since 1969, when it became the first recognized new major baseball statistic since the implementation of the RBI in 1920, although it should be noted that saves were unofficially recorded by certain baseball executives (notably Jim Toomey of the St. Louis Cardinals, Irv Kaze of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Allan Roth of the Los Angeles Dodgers) as far back as 1952. There can only be one save awarded in a game.
The hold, on the other hand, is not a recognized official MLB stat. As a result, the definition of a hold was initially up for grabs, but has now settled in as being awarded to a relief pitcher who meets the following requirements:
1. He enters the game in a save situation (see save definition immediately above);
2. Records at least one out;
3. Leaves the game before it has ended without his team having relinquished the lead at any point and does not record a save or is credited with the win.
Note that a pitcher can earn a hold by protecting a lead even if that lead is later lost by another, later pitcher after he exits the contest. Also, unlike saves, more than one pitcher can earn a hold in a particular game. Also, a reliever can potentially end up with both a hold and loss in the same game. Realize, though, that a middle reliever that does not succeed in securing a hold can be charged with a blown save, so there is that risk with non-closers in fantasy leagues that use negative stats.
Saves are a volatile fantasy baseball commodity. This is due to their very nature, there being the possibility that a game will not yield a save opportunity due to a blow-out victory by one team, a walk off win or the possibility that the closer will end up blowing the save he was called upon to deliver. On the other side of the fence, holds can occur on both sides of a contest, and can be awarded to multiple relief pitchers in the same game. Over the past six seasons, here are the total saves and holds awarded per season across both leagues:
Obviously, there are many more holds available for fantasy owners to harvest during the course of the season. Also of note was the significant decline in the number of saves credited in 2017, after the numbers being fairly consistent over the prior four seasons. That decline looks to have been a statistical aberration, as the number of saves bumped up once again 2018 to prior levels. Even so, there is a huge difference in the number of holds available in both real baseball as well as for fantasy counting purposes.
Closers themselves compound the unpredictability of the save stat, in that over the course of any given season in recent memory, one third or more of the closers that come out of spring training as the ninth inning option for a specific team losing their jobs, due to inefficiency on the mound, injury or a trade to another team. Alternatively, set up men and middle relievers generally settle into a role out of the bullpen during the early portion of the season, and unless circumstances force them to change their roles by joining the starting rotation or taking over as the closer, will continue to function as an arm summoned to shut down the opposition’s offense before turning the game over to the designated closer in the proper situation. Speaking of closers being traded, it is entirely possible that a closer you drafted in March or April will be shipped off to another squad, where his role will change dramatically as he becomes a set up reliever for the closer already in place on his new team.
Relief pitchers that are a holds source are much more stable for fantasy purposes than closers for the reasons set forth above. As such, the inclusion of holds as a statistical category does not water down the relief pitching corps in fantasy leagues, but rather builds up the pool of available relief arm options for owners to consider at the draft, or during the season as waiver wire targets or free agent pickups. In a league that only rewards for a save, as opposed to either giving points for holds as a separate category or a combined category of saves plus holds, the necessity to draft “bad” closers can have an extreme negative impact on a fantasy squad’s standings overall. Ineffective closers can inflate ratio stats such as ERA and WHIP (although the limited innings a closer contributes does minimize the negative effects), and in leagues that penalize for negative pitching performances, blown saves and losses (when the closer cannot lock down the save in a particular contest) can cost an owner a head to head matchup or provide a downturn in counting stats and points.
Quite frequently, the “holds guys” on a pitching staff, whether they be set up men or general middle relievers, are the best arms stashed in a team’s bullpen. They offer the best statistical profile, with superb strikeout to walk ratios, strikeout per nine inning numbers and miniscule ratio stats with ERAs below 2.20 and WHIPs settling in at 1.00 or below. Closers offer higher ratios as a group, although the strikeout numbers are usually desirable. Plus, managers are showing a greater tendency to turn to their holds providers when the game is on the line, fueled by the reduction in innings pitched by starting pitchers in today’s game. A pitcher that racks up holds will be there for the manager to summon from the ‘pen in any tight, important situation in the last four innings, not just in a save situation. Thus, pitchers that deliver holds will offer more innings over the course of the fantasy season, and if they are providing
great counting and ratio stats, those extra innings pitched become a value in any league setup, whether we are talking roto, category or points leagues. Due to the manner in which MLB teams are utilizing their bullpens, there are plenty of elite set up men and middle relievers to choose from in nearly every league, except for those leagues that roster huge (40 or more players) rosters or deep dynasty leagues that emphasize having deep minor league and reserve rosters. In a league with 15 teams or less, though, any owner should be able to find a good selection of middle relief options on the wire or as free agents to populate his or her roster.
It is also of importance that teams will insert a holds provider whether they have a lead in the later innings or just want to keep the game close. A manager will not hesitate to call on a middle reliever at any crucial point during a game, not just when the team has the lead in the last inning or so, as is the case with nearly all closers. Closer usage nearly always occurs when a team is leading or at worst tied going into the final stanza of the bout taking place on the field.
When targeting holds producing relievers, a fantasy owner can engage in streaming, in part because of the wealth of options available on the wire in most leagues, and also due to the lack of familiarity of many fantasy owners with the opportunities presented to effectively employ middle relievers as a part of a fantasy pitching staff. When adding (and dropping) holds men, look to a pitcher’s matchup potential for his upcoming schedule. Pick up relievers that have a good matchup against an opponent, where his team has a good chance to pick up a victory or two (or sweep the series). You should also target relievers on teams with good rotations (making them more likely to enter a game in the late innings with his team leading), as well as teams with either veteran or young pitching rotations, as these teams will potentially limit the number of innings pitched by the starters. Pursuing set up men that pitch behind a shaky closer is also a fine strategy, or perhaps a closer that has been involved in trade rumors, as either situation will open up the possibility of a promotion to the team’s closer. As noted above, set up men are frequently the best pitchers residing in a team’s bullpen, and therefore, someone a manager may trust if he no longer has the guy that was previously closing out games or where he has lost faith in the designated closer, temporarily or long-term.
It also helps to target those pitchers that are “swing men,” those pitchers that can be moved into the starting rotation when a team needs a sixth starter due to doubleheaders or general ineffectiveness from the starters in two or three consecutive games. These pitchers will generally return to the bullpen after a couple of starts (unless they pitch lights out in their limited showcase), and thus will provide stats as both a starter and a relief pitcher, with the potential to provide some value with a hold or two.
Before going into specifics regarding the various types of leagues you may participate in during the coming season, it is important, nay, imperative that you study and understand in depth the specific settings that your league utilizes. This will allow you to identify and target those players whose skill set and projections fit into your overall plan for 2019, and with keeper and dynasty leagues, for the seasons beyond the upcoming one. For example, does your league impose a hard cap on innings pitched? A limitation of the number of waiver wire or free agent claims you can make during the season? Do you need to accumulate a minimum number of innings in a particular scoring period, or conversely, do the settings mandate a maximum number of innings and/or starts/appearances that count toward your scoring totals? Any of these limitations or requirements will influence how you construct your roster and manage it during the season. It cannot be stressed enough: Know your league rules backwards and forwards so you can take advantage of any idiosyncrasies that exist for you to exploit and propel your team to a championship.
Combining the two categories of holds and saves serves to keep the value of relief pitchers similar to that bestowed upon starting pitchers. Starting pitchers typically can contribute in three of the same categories as relievers, namely ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, although the additional innings pitched by starters does make for an imbalance with regard to an impact on your overall stat accumulation. In leagues where relievers can benefit your team with either a hold or a save, though, that does aid in balancing out the value given to a win. In this day of limited starting pitcher win totals, however, it can be argued that the H+S category has more value for fantasy purposes.
For purposes of this discussion, it is assumed that your league will employ holds as some form of a scoring category, whether by using holds as a separate statistical set or as part of a hybrid saves plus holds stat grouping.
Realize also that AL or NL only leagues are prime sources to pick up middle relievers and set up men. You need to plan for a replacement closer, and with holds having statistical value where you have added the category, your league settings will also operate to open up a broader assemblage of potential pitcher value.
In a rotisserie format, the first focus should be on whether your league combines holds and saves or keeps them as separate categories. If the latter, then you can potentially avoid drafting bottom tier closers, and rely on elite middle relievers to accumulate stats for your team.
The overall effect of including holds in a roto league is to inflate the value of relievers, since you are now able to target players that can provide value on any team that can carry a lead into the late innings, not just those who can wrap up a game with a victory.
If your league sets a hard innings cap for the season, picking up an elite holds guy can prove much more valuable than rostering a back of the rotation starting pitcher. A SP4/5/6 will frequently provide an inflated set of ratio stats over several innings, whereas your holds pitcher will likely be limited to just an inning or slightly more, depending on how the manager uses him. If a middle reliever comes into a game and is ineffective, he will also probably not be in the game long, again limiting the damage he can do to your ratio stats.
Points leagues open up a lot of possibilities to have fun with holds or the saves and holds categories. Generally, starting pitching is the most valued commodity in a points league, because of the priority according to the value of a victory by a starting pitcher, frequently 10 points or better. But that does not mean that holds cannot be bestowed with a significant value, perhaps making them equivalent to a save or just a couple points less, especially in light of the ability for more than one hold to be credited in a particular game. The ability to assign point values to holds, holds plus saves and saves opens up a wide range of possibilities in points leagues for the adventurous commissioner and league.
Since there are no blown holds currently tallied in fantasy baseball, holds have only a positive value in points leagues (although recall that a middle reliever who fails to provide a hold can be charged with a blown save). Compare that to the cost of being saddled with a loss or blown save, and it becomes clear that using holds results in only positive results in points leagues.
Another approach in constructing leagues that combine holds with saves is to add an additional stat category, such as K/9 or K/BB, to reward the elite relievers. This could offset the extreme value that starting pitchers have vis a vis the points awarded for a win.
Head to Head Leagues
In any sort of league that employs a head to head format, there will be an even footing between holds guys and closers, as both middle relievers/set up men and closers will operate to help you win your category for the scoring period. It could be argued that with a holds guy having a better chance to pick up a counting stat in a particular game (remember, no blown holds, just blown saves in fantasy scoring systems), he has more value than a struggling or lower tier closer.
Holds producers can also help out in leagues that have minimum innings pitched limits, as it is more likely that a middle reliever will see action in a series, whereas the closer may never get a chance to toe the rubber at any point when two teams face off, due to the lack of a save opportunity be available.
Whether your league employs a snake draft (or some other variation thereof) or allows each team to bid on the players available to populate the league rosters, you will find that hold producers usually have a lower price tag or go in the later rounds. Part of this has to do with the broader pool of relievers that can provide a hold, and another part has to do with the relative paucity of available dependable closers in any draft or auction. In an auction, you can wait and pick up a holds man at the end of the draft for $1 or $2, or in the final rounds, while a top reliever is going to deplete your available bankroll early on or cost you an early round pick, most likely. Or just wait and pick up your holds producers off the wire following your auction or draft.
Dynasty and Keeper Leagues
Holds producers having value in a league that requires holding onto players over several seasons makes it easier to replace a departing owner. A team that has opted to trade away its closer(s), or just punted the category is one that is difficult to entice a new owner to assume. If your league allows for holds producers to have significant value, however, such a team is much more appealing to a replacement owner.
Long-term planning in dynasty or keeper leagues also lends itself to speculating on young arms that may step into a closer role in the future, even if there is not currently a position for the youngster to occupy. Plus, the rookie can always prove himself by serving in set-up role in the interim and provide holds as a positive value.
It was mentioned above that holds producers are good options for streaming purposes. You can wait until the first couple of weeks of the season play out, too, to see which middle relievers are being counted upon to keep games close and bail out struggling starting pitchers.
With holds being added as a scoring category, your league allows its owners to evaluate a pitcher’s skill set, as opposed to just his role (i.e., the new closer). This contributes to a more thoughtful approach to building a fantasy team.
By employing the holds stat, your league does not reward the owner with the faster trigger finger. You do not need to be the guy who is poring over the injury reports and late West Coast reports to be able to pick up the newest anointed closer, who is stepping into a new role to replace the former closer who just hit the disabled list or was traded to another team. Instead, you can locate the relief pitchers who are coming into prominence and providing fantasy stats on a consistent basis. Who has not regretted the decision to pick up some mediocre, temporary closer who subsequently blows a pair of saves or simply underperforms and immediately loses his new position? Avoid that heartbreak by adding holds as a category in some fashion to your scoring system.
When streaming pitchers to collect holds for your team, go for visiting teams. If the road team takes a lead in the eighth inning, the set-up man can enter the contest in a hold situation. If the home team takes an eighth inning lead, though, the hold opportunity has vanished. Also, target NL set up pitchers who are scheduled to take the mound in pitchers’ parks whenever possible, since the scores should be closer with less offense and you will experience more pitching changes in NL games where the pitcher is inserted in the lineup (no DH), and thus managers are more liable to make double switches and other lineup moves.
There is resistance to any change to an established system, and the adoption of holds as a separate stat category or as an addition to the saves category is no exception. Hopefully, the above discussion will stimulate interest in adjusting your league settings, allowing for the development of new statistical options that take advantage of the reality of how MLB teams are using their pitching staffs. Moving on from simply employing saves as a means of valuing relievers and adding holds to your scoring system has the potential of revitalizing your league, at least with regard to having teams punt the saves category or taking on poor options as closers just to have an arm that will fill a slot in their rotation.
Below for your edification is a list of the top projected relief pitchers for 2019, taking into consideration both their potential to provide holds and saves. As noted above, though, make certain to keep an eye on how managers are using their middle relievers and set up men early on and grab those pitchers that have an opportunity to break out this coming season. As ever, questions are welcome if directed via e-mail addressed to email@example.com.