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Mound Musings: Hold on There!

Brad Johnson

For more than 25 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.

Holds aren’t a category in too many leagues, so it can be difficult to find analysis of relief pitchers who might contribute holds rather than the more common (and usually more predictable) saves. Since it can be harder to sort through, competing in the holds category can be both frustrating and useful, but only if you consistently find the guys collecting those holds. A side benefit of checking out holds producers is the possibility that the pitcher(s) on that list could also be on the short list for future closers. Let’s take a look and see if we can make figuring it out a bit easier:

The seventh inning is often a key to finding holds.

The two most predictable relief roles – I didn’t say easy to identify, just easier to predict than other roles – are closers and primary setup men. Typically, closers pitch the ninth inning, and the primary setup men get the eighth inning, assuming they’re both available and don’t need a night off. So, when shopping, the seventh inning can often be a good place to look for treasure.

That said, it can be more challenging to find the pitcher working in the seventh inning who will be most likely to generate holds. The problem is, all seventh innings aren’t created equal. If the team is far ahead, another pitcher needing work might get the call. If the team is far behind, a pitcher working through a tough time might get the call to use that inning as a live pitching clinic. Not too far ahead, not too far behind, you’re looking for Goldilocks – the pitcher who consistently enters the game when the scenario is just right. The pitcher who comes on when the game is still in doubt, is your target.

Now, just knowing where to look, the seventh and eighth innings, is not quite enough to secure the services of the best non-closer relievers. Holds tend to be a relatively diluted stat. There are five guys with nine or 10 holds – Sam Dyson, Koji Uehara, Nate Jones, Zach Duke, and Joel Peralta. However, there are 33 pitchers with six or more holds. While it might be tempting to just grab a few of the contributors and let the chips fall where they may, I would suggest using these roster spots that are often interchangeable to prospect for higher value down the road. Below are some things to consider:

Here are some things to consider when shopping for holds:

  • Stay alert: By definition, “middle relief” is a flexible position. It ranges from the start (starter) to the end (closer) and can fall anywhere in between. Given the huge diversity of roles within that gap, it shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that the roles are constantly evolving, and you need to be ready to change and adapt as that evolution develops. Today’s great holds contributor could be thrust into the closer’s role due to performance issues with the original closer or perhaps because of injuries (that’s the good side of the coin), or he could be tomorrow’s mop up man if he falters or someone else steps up (the flip side of that coin). Unlike other scenarios where patience is often the best plan, with so many potential pitchers to choose from, when a guy you were counting on for holds starts losing opportunities, it’s often prudent to make a change in your roster. If he’s a long term producer, you can wait briefly, but if things don’t change for the better right away, make a move. You can come back to him later if need be.

  • Building confidence: This is by far the most impactful factor in determining the future holds opportunities. Managers want to win games, and they tend to trust high leverage situations – often resulting in a hold – to the pitchers with whom they have the most confidence. Ahead by one run or locked in a tie game as they reach the later innings, the manager will call to the bullpen with a specific name in mind – the guy he trusts. Watch for signs a manager is developing an ever-increasing level of confidence in a pitcher. Does the pitcher in question consistently find his way into games at a point where winning and losing hangs in the balance? And if so, does that appearance frequently have a positive result? If the answers are yes, that is a pitcher you probably want to grab. A good example of a pitcher gaining confidence is Toronto’s Gavin Floyd. A converted veteran starter, Floyd was little more than a spare part in the Jays’ bullpen early on, but the monumental struggles of Brett Cecil, and even Drew Storen, have allowed Floyd to move up in the food chain. Holds with a team capable of winning a lot of games could be coming. But, be aware, that new-found confidence can ebb and wane. Today’s confidante can be tomorrow’s goat or vice versa. Just look for the pitcher whose confidence level is steadily rising.

  • The starters matter: This would seem to be rather obvious. Better starting pitchers are more likely to get the game to a point where a reliever can come in and collect a hold. These pitchers win games – that means they pitch at least five, but preferably six or seven innings, where lesser relievers are brought in and endanger your hold chance. A few years ago – before they even had holds – you might have wanted to avoid the best pitching staffs since they could log too many complete games. There are still a few pitchers who will register an occasional complete game, but it’s too rare to be much of a concern from a fantasy holds perspective. For your purposes, you are looking for winning starting pitchers on winning teams who pitch deep enough in their starts to hit the seventh or eighth inning with a lead that needs to be protected. Note, a team like the White Sox fits these parameters, and have clearly defined roles leading to both Nate Jones and Zach Duke being among the holds leaders. As always, be alert. Bad starters can be replaced by better alternatives as the season progresses, and that could change the forecast for the arms in the bullpen.

  • Specialists could help: Specialists are those guys who enter a game for a specific reason. Perhaps it’s a southpaw who often gets asked to retire a very dangerous left-handed hitter, or an extreme groundball pitcher who gets the call with men on base in the later innings. They are extremely valuable to their teams, and they do get asked to pitch in high leverage situations, which would qualify them as potential holds generators, but there is some possible downside with these specialists. The scenarios are often volatile – maybe first and third with one out in a one run game – so the possibility of failure is higher. And, probably more important in my mind, they usually face only one or two hitters, which limits their potential for compiling counting stats like strikeouts, and they are most often deployed as specialists because they have vulnerabilities. They may struggle with hitters from the opposite side of the plate, and that limits their potential to ever step into an even more valuable role (see below).

  • Always seeking value: I’m sorry folks, I can’t help myself. I’m constantly trying to uncover hidden value, and this is just another rock to look under. In the vast majority of fantasy leagues, closers have considerably more value than middle relievers, even in leagues that count holds. Therefore, it stands to reason that a middle man on whom I’m counting for holds, will be far preferable to others if he also has a chance to replace a less than reliable closer at some point in the future. As an example, one of my favorite holds guys is Arizona’s Daniel Hudson. He often pitches the eighth inning of games where the Diamondbacks maintain a small lead, so he’s one of the 48 leaders in holds (pitches in high leverage situations with the game on the line), and he is capable of generating those always welcome extra strikeouts. But, what sets him apart is that he pitches in front of a closer I still feel is at risk to lose the gig at some point this year (Brad Ziegler). It can, over the course of a season, be a viable plan for competing in the saves category without making very expensive investments on draft day.

Some Notable Rotation Ramblings:

    The Angels just lost their best starting pitcher, Garrett Richards, for the season, and just days later, they lost defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons for at least a few weeks. That alone would be enough to discourage me from exploring other Angels’ arms when looking for someone to replace Richards.

  • Miami’s Jose Fernandez is still getting everything in order since returning from Tommy John surgery last season. The velocity is back, the movement on his pitches is back, and his command is progressing nicely. That’s typically the last thing to achieve completely, but he’s close. Extreme nastiness is imminent.

  • Quick. Name the top three starting pitchers in ERA since last August … Ready? 1. Jake Arrieta, 2. Clayton Kershaw, and 3. J.A. Happ (1.82). Happ has made some adjustments to his mechanics, and it’s working. He has always been an intriguing pitcher, but it’s clicking now. That’s six quality starts this year.

  • A pitcher who has really impressed me early on (and this is partially based on watching a start where he was knocked around) is Washington’s Joe Ross. He has a clean delivery and a good fastball with nice breaking pitches, but he’s still not consistent with his changeup, so he’s vulnerable to lefties, but it’s coming.

  • With his velocity down a couple of ticks recently, Phil Hughes, who sometimes actually throws too many strikes (he needs to keep hitters more honest) could be very risky to leave in your rotation. He can still have his good outings, but he’s probably too hittable and too prone to home runs to trust.

  • The Mets announced that they’ll be skipping Steven Matz’ next start due to elbow soreness. That’s never good news. Matz already had one Tommy John surgery back in 2010, and he was slow to recover, missing 2010 and 2011. He’ll visit with a physician and we’ll then see if this is anything serious.

    Endgame Odyssey:

    The Yankees have Aroldis Chapman back on the active roster, and all plans are for him to immediately take over the closer role. That obviously hurts the value of Andrew Miller, but he’s good enough in the other categories to hang onto just in case Chapman stumbles. The Rays say Brad Boxberger will step back into the closer’s role when he returns from the disabled list (likely in the next few days). I suppose there’s something to be said for managerial loyalty to players and it being unfair for a player to lose his role based on being unavailable due to injury, but Alex Colome remains their best option. It appears Tony Cingrani has taken the lead in the Cincinnati saves derby, but I’m not real confident it will last. Steve Delabar looks like a viable sleeper to me, but he’ll need to work on building up that confidence level. In Washington, Shawn Kelley is gradually positioning himself as a closer candidate if Jonathan Papelbon struggles (or departs). Nothing is on the horizon, but keep tabs on the situation. Francisco Rodriguez is doing his “keep it interesting” routine in Detroit, but they don’t have many good options. In Minnesota, Kevin Jepsen has been largely ineffective while attempting to fill in for the injured Glen Perkins. Perkins is probably at least a month away, so it might be time to get Trevor May on your radar.