Projecting holds leaders

Closers are such glory hogs.

Sure, they serve an important role, finishing off close games while sometimes facing intense pressure. But the save can be an overrated statistic. After all, there'd be no save to record if the supporting cast didn't hand the closer a lead, right?

Here's the problem with the save: A closer can start the ninth inning with a three-run lead, effectively a comfy, low-pressure outing, serve up two runs, load the bases yet manage three outs, and still be rewarded with that popular rotisserie statistic.

But what about the setup man who had to come on the inning before with only a one-run lead, one out, the bases loaded and the opposing team's cleanup hitter stepping to the plate? That fine individual had the toughest chore of the night, and while he did his job even more effectively than the closer did, he gets little statistical credit for it, and might largely be ignored in fantasy leagues.

Well, that setup man does get one thing: a "hold," for what that's worth.

Though nowhere near as popular a statistic in fantasy baseball as the save, the hold does at least give some credit to the setup men who toil away in relative anonymity. Per the Major League Baseball official rule book: "If a reliever comes into a game to protect a lead, gets at least one out and leaves without giving up that lead, he gets a hold." The rules are similar to that of a save; the circumstances upon the reliever's entry into the game must be equal to a "save situation," and the reliever cannot earn either a win or a save in addition to a hold.


Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.

Holds might not be nearly as popular as saves in fantasy baseball, at least not yet, but their appeal seems to be growing. Each year I see more and more questions in my mailbag or in chats like this one: "Who are your projected top 5 holds leaders?" In fact, I've played in a few leagues in recent years that awarded "half-save" credit per hold; in other words, two holds equaled one save.

Well, with little changing in the closer guard in 2010's opening week, and last week's Relief Efforts spent reviewing the closer gigs that did change recently, this seemed like as fine a time as any to answer the question.

Worry not, those of you who care only about saves; you'll still find value in this column. Typically, the best "holds guys" are the ones next in line to close, in the case of catastrophic injury to the closer. Or, naturally, the pitchers who tend to lead in holds are usually the ones who were the most effective in helping lower a fantasy team's ERA and WHIP. Sure enough, last season's top 2 in holds, Jeremy Affeldt and Matt Guerrier, had ERAs beneath 2.50 and WHIPs beneath 1.20. If you ignored them, you were missing out on two underrated ratio-helpers.

Here's how we'll do it: Listed below are my projected holds leaders by team, as well as that team's respective 2009 leader. Some teams won't matter much in the category, but that's what the write-ups are for.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Juan Gutierrez (Last year's leader: Jon Rauch). Gutierrez, who notched a save in the Diamondbacks' final game of 2009, drops back to a setup role this season, though he might face a challenge from new arrival Bob Howry for the holds lead. Interestingly enough, the Diamondbacks had the fewest holds as a team in baseball in 2009 (46). They'll fare better this season but still are not one of the deeper squads in the category.

Atlanta Braves: Peter Moylan (Last year: Moylan). Everyone thinks Takashi Saito with regard to Braves holds, but Saito isn't the healthiest fella; nor is the closer ahead of him, Billy Wagner, whom he'd presumably replace if Wagner gets hurt. Moylan is the quiet, productive type lurking in the shadows and could easily rank among the top 10 in baseball in the category for a second straight year.

Baltimore Orioles: Jim Johnson (Last year: Danys Baez). It makes sense that manager Dave Trembley wants to stick with Mike Gonzalez as his closer for as long as possible, in spite of Gonzalez's velocity issues from the spring, plus Gonzalez's opening-day blown save, if only because Johnson is one of the more reliable, not to mention underrated, setup men in the game.

Boston Red Sox: Hideki Okajima (Last year: Okajima). You'd think Daniel Bard is a natural fit here, but left-handers tend to be productive in the holds category because so often they'll come on for situational purposes against a tough lefty, get an out and promptly depart. Okajima is more than a "situational lefty," but he does have 23-plus holds in each of the past three years.

Chicago Cubs: John Grabow (Last year: Carlos Marmol). Another left-hander, but Grabow should see a lot of eighth-inning action after the season-ending injury to Angel Guzman. Marmol had a lot of holds (27) in that role last year.

Chicago White Sox: Matt Thornton (Last year: Thornton). He's as consistent as they come, with 20-plus holds in each of the past two seasons.

Cincinnati Reds: Arthur Rhodes (Last year: Rhodes). Same as Thornton. By the way, what a career comeback Rhodes has endured the past two years.

Cleveland Indians: Tony Sipp (Last year: Sipp, Joe Smith). If anything were to happen to closer Chris Perez while Kerry Wood is out, Sipp might be the most natural choice to replace him. With Wood perhaps back by the end of May or early June, however, this bullpen might have a solid one-two punch of Perez and Sipp in the eighth inning. Sipp, incidentally, would be the one residing in that frame all year, so he's the natural choice to pace the team in holds.

Colorado Rockies: Rafael Betancourt (Last year: Betancourt, Matt Daley). Manager Jim Tracy said during spring training that he regards Betancourt more as a setup man than as a closer candidate, which is why Franklin Morales is the one working the ninth while Huston Street is out. Incidentally, Betancourt's 12 holds for the Rockies last summer project to 29 if he had spent the whole year with the team.

Detroit Tigers: Ryan Perry (Last year: Bobby Seay). Did anyone else catch that, on Opening Day, the Tigers brought in seemingly obvious eighth-inning guy Joel Zumaya in the sixth inning, but Perry to record the final out of the seventh and three in the eighth to bridge to closer Jose Valverde? Perry seems like the Tigers' long-term closer solution, but Valverde is about as stable as current options come, so it's only natural the sophomore would spend a year as Valverde's protégé.

Florida Marlins: Dan Meyer (Last year: Meyer). There really isn't anyone else in this bullpen as effective holding leads as Meyer was last year.

Houston Astros: Brandon Lyon (Last year: LaTroy Hawkins). Sammy Gervacio was a sleeper to lead the Astros in holds, that is, before he landed on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. Lyon's and Matt Lindstrom's owners benefit, because the two should be safe in their eighth- and ninth-inning roles, even if the two swap places with one another several times all year.

Kansas City Royals: Juan Cruz (Last year: Jamey Wright). Only two teams had fewer holds than the Royals in 2009, and their leader in the category was a guy who has never had an ERA beneath 3.62 in any season. Speaks volumes. Cruz might lead this team with a number in the low teens, if barely double digits.

Los Angeles Angels: Fernando Rodney (Last year: Darren Oliver). I might be least confident in this pick, because by all rights, Rodney could supplant Brian Fuentes as closer at some point, each could wind up with 20 saves and only 10 holds, and Kevin Jepsen might sneak in as the Angels' holds leader. Considering Rodney's career ERA is 4.27, try to look elsewhere for holds help.

Los Angeles Dodgers: George Sherrill (Last year: Hong-Chih Kuo, Ramon Troncoso). Not many middle relievers are as safe, consistent or have the level of job security that Sherrill does.

Milwaukee Brewers: LaTroy Hawkins (Last year: Todd Coffey). He was the Astros' team leader in holds (19) last year and now he'll probably pace the Brewers, after signing a two-year, $7.5 million deal during the winter. It's a shame because Coffey probably deserves eighth-inning options coming off a strong 2009, but Coffey worked the fifth and sixth frames Wednesday, while Hawkins was the one who set up Trevor Hoffman in the eighth each of the past two days.

Minnesota Twins: Matt Guerrier (Last year: Guerrier). The uncertainty at closer makes Guerrier an unlikely bet to repeat last season's major league-leading 33 holds, but if he notched 33 saves instead, are you really going to complain?

New York Mets: Pedro Feliciano (Last year: Feliciano). Losing Kelvim Escobar to the DL left a gaping hole in the eighth inning, and the Mets have been known to mix and match relievers to bridge the gap to Francisco Rodriguez. Bingo! Lefty specialist Feliciano is a natural choice yet again.

New York Yankees: Joba Chamberlain (Last year: Phil Coke). It's tough to forecast the Yankees' setup relief plans, and David Robertson might make a sleeper run at this honor, not to mention 20-plus holds, but when Chamberlain was assigned to the bullpen late during spring training, I couldn't help but feel that was a permanent -- I'm talking career-length -- assignment. Watch him warm to the eighth-inning role, in which he has thrived before, given time to readapt.

Oakland Athletics: Michael Wuertz (Last year: Wuertz). Picking a guy on the DL is risky business, but Wuertz should be back before May 1, and he's about as complete a reliever as the Athletics have besides Andrew Bailey.

Philadelphia Phillies: Ryan Madson (Last year: Madson). This is Brad Lidge's job, through and through, once healthy. Or, at the bare minimum, he'll get a month-plus to prove himself unworthy. Madson has been rock-solid for the Phillies in the eighth inning for years, so why would they want to alter that arrangement?

Pittsburgh Pirates: Brendan Donnelly (Last year: John Grabow). Keep an eye on Evan Meek, but Donnelly is currently slotted in the eighth-inning role, with Meek typically slated to pitch the frame before it. Health is the key here.

St. Louis Cardinals: Kyle McClellan (Last year: Dennys Reyes). So McClellan goes from fifth-starter candidate to eighth-inning reliever in each of the Cardinals' first two regular-season games, in the span of a couple weeks? Interesting. Don't forget his name, though Dennys Reyes is another top holds choice from this 'pen.

San Diego Padres: Mike Adams (Last year: Luke Gregerson). Bucking the trend here, I'm assuming Adams stays healthy enough to handle the top setup duties, with the chance he supplants Heath Bell at closer if Bell gets traded the primary concern about his long-term holds appeal. In case you didn't notice, Gregerson got pounded in a third of an inning of work Tuesday, extending the road struggles he experienced throughout his rookie year of 2009.

San Francisco Giants: Sergio Romo (Last year: Jeremy Affeldt). My pick for the team that leads the majors in holds in 2010, the Giants are chock full of worthy candidates. Romo currently appears the team's top eighth-inning choice, and if he stays healthy, he's deserving of the honor. But don't underestimate Affeldt, or up-and-coming lefty Dan Runzler, either. All three relievers, not to mention closer Brian Wilson, can be of service to fantasy teams in ERA and WHIP.

Seattle Mariners: Mark Lowe (Last year: Lowe). Tempting, tempting to pick Brandon League, but Lowe handled these duties effectively in 2009 and should retain his primary setup role for as long he keeps up the pace. Each reliever, however, could crack the 20-hold plateau.

Tampa Bay Rays: Dan Wheeler (Last year: Grant Balfour). Balfour beat Wheeler by two holds in 2009, despite far less attractive ERA/WHIP numbers. Expect some correction in the category, with Wheeler a top holds choice.

Texas Rangers: Darren Oliver (Last year: Darren O'Day). Wait, what? Where's Neftali Feliz? If you want ERA/WHIP/K's help, Feliz is your man. Oliver, however, is the lefty who should come on in situational roles even more frequently, and number of outings is often a key advantage in the holds race.

Toronto Blue Jays: Scott Downs (Last year: Jesse Carlson). Jason Frasor and Kevin Gregg could swap closer and setup gigs all season, deflating their holds value, but with two right-handed options for the ninth-inning, Downs should settle in nicely as a seventh-inning/situational lefty option for the Blue Jays. Now, if the team's patchwork rotation can only get him leads to preserve …

Washington Nationals: Brian Bruney (Last year: Joe Beimel, Jason Bergmann). If Bruney leads this team with as few as 10 holds, don't be at all surprised. He has spent more than 150 days on the disabled list the past two seasons combined. Picking him is more a lack of interest in the alternatives.

So who, pray tell, are my overall projected holds leaders? Here's a quick stab at it:

1. Sherrill 34
2. Betancourt 31
3. Adams 30
4. Moylan 29
5. Downs 29
6. Romo 27
7. McClellan 26
8. Rhodes 26
9. Affeldt 25
10. Feliciano 24

Until next time, keep an eye on those middle men. After all, they're often underrated for their ERA/WHIP contributions … and you just never know when one might graduate to closer-dom.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.