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Bullpen Report: Time to hold on a second

Senior Fantasy Writer
  •  

Holds have added a nice little twist to the game of Fantasy Baseball.

Every day here, we get virtual waterfall of "Should I do this trade?" e-mails, Tweets, and phone calls. When one doesn't make a lot of sense because a seemingly-random middle reliever is included, there's always a follow-up pointing out that "holds are counted in this league."

Before holds leagues came along, middle relievers had limited value -- they were pretty much left to NL- and AL-only Roto leagues to keep WHIP and ERA low while giving an owner a decent amount of strikeouts. A Craig Stammen-type wouldn't be in line for saves, but he could help balance out a bad start from Edinson Volquez.

Most Added Relievers (as of 5/19)
Player Name % change
1. Jerome Williams, RP, Angels 16
2. Josh Lindblom, RP, Rangers 12
3. Kenley Jansen, RP, Dodgers 11
4. Heath Bell, RP, D-Backs 8
5. David Phelps, RP, Yankees 8
6. Ernesto Frieri, RP, Angels 6
7. Andrew Bailey, RP, Red Sox 4
8. Joel Peralta, RP, Rays 4
9. Tommy Hunter, RP, Orioles 4
10. Kevin Gregg, RP, Cubs 3

Lately, though, it seems like the hold is gaining steam. It's coming up in a lot more questions and there's still some uncharted territory in terms of how to best approach it, strategically. And for Fantasy players not in holds leagues, taking a look at the leaders still holds some value.

Last season, Jason Grilli finished with the fourth-most holds and Edward Mujica had the seventh-most. They have 27 saves between them this season. In 2011, Tyler Clippard led the majors in holds (he saved 32 games the following season), while Jose Veras and Grant Balfour finished in the top 10. It's not an exact science -- hold leaderboards are scattered with pitchers (Matt Thornton, Sean Burnett, Eric O'Flaherty) who may only see a handful of saves over their entire career. But it does give these low-ERA/WHIP, high-K pitchers -- who would otherwise go unnoticed and unappreciated by the general Fantasy-playing community -- some value.

There's no perfect way to present a holds column, so I'm going to chop it up into a bunch of fun little sections and let you decide what works and what doesn't. I give you ...

2013 MLB Holds Leaders

1. Mark Melancon, Pirates (14 holds)
2. Eric O'Flaherty, Braves (12)
3. Jesse Crain, White Sox (11)
4. Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals (11)
5. Joel Peralta, Rays (10)
5. Matt Thornton, White Sox (10)
7. Luke Gregerson, Padres (9)
8. David Robertson, Yankees (9)
9. Junichi Tazawa, Red Sox (9)
10. Jared Burton, Twins (8)

The top 20 in holds have averaged 8.95 so far this season, while the top 20 in saves have averaged 10.5. So for a Fantasy owner in a holds league to just dismiss closers as having the same value as holders (I'm calling them that for this column ... not sure if they actually have a term yet) would be a bit of an aggressive move. The flip side to that, however, is that holds are more readily available the deeper you go. So it's a question of wanting to consolidate your reliever counting stats (holds/saves) in one spot (using a closer) or getting it from two sources from a cheaper level (using a holder).

Saves trump holds in the upper echelons, but ...

The single-season record in holds is 40, set by Luke Gregerson in 2010. He is the only pitcher in the history of the game to register 40 holds in a season. Last year, five pitchers had 40 or more saves. In 2010, the year Gregerson set the standard, seven pitchers hit the 40-saves mark. But while the 50th-best holder had four saves last season, the 50th-best closer had 16. The reason for this? Multiple pitchers on the same team can get holds in one game, but only one pitcher can get a save.

Take Jose Veras, for instance. The Astros closer has just five saves this year, with a 3.94 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 16 strikeouts in 16 innings. He is unimpressive in a saves-only league (for reference, newly-minted closer Heath Bell already has six saves). But if you want to find Veras' holds doppelganger, it would probably be someone like the Twins' Josh Roenicke, with his five holds, 3.66 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, and 15 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings (it's not perfect, but it's close). A Veras-for-Roenicke trade seems absurd, but if you're in a 6x6 league that counts holds and saves, there's a case to be made that Roenicke's value is close to Veras'. Smart holds league owners can make this work in their favor.

So how can I use this to my advantage?

While saves are top-heavy, holds are middle-heavy. Say you're in a league that counts both holds and saves, and has a limited amount (we'll say three, for this exercise) of RP slots. Your bullpen may look like this:

Joe Nathan (12 saves)
Steve Cishek (5 saves)
Aaron Crow (7 holds)

But a more efficient way to run it might be to fill up all three slots with cheaper high-K, low-ratio relievers:

David Robertson (9 holds)
Aaron Crow (7 holds)
Robbie Ross (4 holds)

You lose some of the counting stats, but your ERA and WHIP would be lower, while strikeouts are edged out by one. But the draft spots you saved by passing on Nathan and Cishek could have been used to fill spots in another position -- one which isn't complicated by a counting stat (holds) that nearly-equalizes most of a specialist's (closer's) value.

In H2H category formats -- the most popular I've played with holds involved -- you lose the saves category in the above scenario, but dominate in holds, and you end up rostering pitchers who can contribute more in wins while keeping the WHIP and ERA down. Plus, if you happen to draft a holds dud, he's easily replaceable on the wire, thanks to that middle ground. Replacing a saves dud isn't nearly as simple.

In-season, the above owner can trade Nathan for someone like B.J. Upton, strengthen the outfield (eventually), and fill Nathan's spot with a top-30 holds contributor, who can keep pace with Ks, ERA, and WHIP, and only really see a downgrade in saves -- which is offset by the gain in holds.

Holds are on the rise

If you total the saves from the top five pitchers in the category each year over the last 10 seasons, there isn't much fluctuation. In 2003, the top five totaled 223 saves; in 2012, the group had 225. The numbers ranged from a low of 212 in 2006 to 241 in 2004. But if you look at the top five holds leaders, the numbers initially jump around with no pattern, then begin to rise as we near the 2013 season:

2003: 146 holds
2004: 162
2005: 161
2006: 149
2007: 167
2008: 142
2009: 149
2010: 162
2011: 175
2012: 171

Not only have holds risen among the upper echelon, the holders look to be closing the gap: so far this season, the top five in holds have totaled 58, while the top five in saves have totaled 72 -- a ratio of .80, which is an all-time high. That number has risen from .62 in 2008 and has gone up every year since.

What does it mean? That in holds leagues, getting a top-five holder is becoming almost as useful as getting a top-five closer. And with closers being drafted earlier and bid on for more money, there may be a market inefficiency in those H2H category formats. This can also be used in trades. A Joe Nathan for Mark Melancon swap sounds a little goofy even in a holds league, but the drop-off, in reality, isn't that stark. And Melancon could end up being a toss-in as part of a larger deal, even in that format.

Holds are up. Fine. But what about those other stats?

The top 50 closers have compiled a 2.74 ERA and 1.10 WHIP this season. The top 50 holders have compiled a 2.71 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. The closers have 43 total wins, while the holders have 48. The closers have a K/9 of 9.6, while the holders have a K/9 of 8.7. But while the closers have managed 299 saves this year, the holders have put up 347 holds.

What this means is that an owner in a holds league can fill his RP slots with holders, ditch saves, and then focus on getting better starters, or a bigger bat, in the spots where a closer would normally be. In a league with 16 teams and three relief spots in each, you're still operating within the top 50, and with 20 or so of those spots taken by closers, someone using the holds strategy could be picking from the top 30 of holders.

My brain is mush, just give me names

The holds leaders, by team:

Orioles: Brian Matusz, six holds
Red Sox: Junichi Tazawa, 9
Yankees: David Robertson, 9
Rays: Joel Peralta, 10
Blue Jays: Aaron Loup, 4
Royals: Aaron Crow, 7
Tigers: Joaquin Benoit, 5
White Sox: Jesse Crain, 11 (note: Matt Thornton has 10)
Twins: Jared Burton, 8
Indians: Vinnie Pestano, 4
A's: Sean Doolittle, 7
Rangers: Tanner Scheppers, 8
Mariners: Carter Capps, 4
Astros: Hector Ambriz, 6
Angels: Scott Downs, 8
Braves: Eric O'Flaherty, 12
Nationals: Tyler Clippard, 6
Mets: Scott Atchison, 4
Phillies: Antonio Bastardo, 6
Marlins: Mike Dunn, 6
Reds: Jonathan Broxton, 5
Cardinals: Trevor Rosenthal, 11
Cubs: James Russell, 7
Pirates: Mark Melancon, 14
Brewers:John Axford, 6 (note: weird, right?)
Giants: Jeremy Affeldt, 6
Diamondbacks: David Hernandez, 8
Dodgers: Kenley Jansen, 8
Rockies: Matt Belisle, 7
Padres: Dale Thayer, 7

How about a quick summary?

1. Holds leagues are on the rise
2. The gap between holds leaders and saves leaders is narrowing
3. Now is the time to deal your top closers for help elsewhere, because you can pick up holds on the wire.
4. Market inefficiency: because holders are considered so disposable, other owners may not value the good ones as much. But the good ones are putting up numbers similar to the top closers. Take advantage of that perception.
4. "Holders" just doesn't have enough pop to stick as a widely-used term.
5. Take a look at the hold leaders. Chances are at least one of them will be closing games next season (my bets -- Robertson and/or Burton).

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Nando Di Fino at @NandoCBS . You can also send our staff an e-mail at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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