Holds are a tricky statistic to predict. Last year 80 pitchers had at least 10 holds.
This year, most of those relievers will make the list again. However, some will be closers in 2011 and get none. Some of the pitchers who had 5-10 holds last year will earn 20 or more. Others who got 20 or more because they were the best among terrible options might get 5.
Like runs, saves and RBI, earning holds is more about opportunity than it is about skill. To earn a hold, the game conditions must meet certain criteria: it must be a save situation, meaning, typically, the team must lead by no more than three runs. Then the manager has to decide who he wants to pitch.
Once those variables are met, the reliever’s skill comes into play. Obviously, skill is important because the pitcher needs to be somewhat effective or he’ll get a lot more (L)s than he will (H)s in the boxscore.
With opportunities in mind, I took last year’s relievers who contributed 10 or more holds and put them in a spreadsheet. I sorted by team and calculated the average number of holds per sample players for each team. Twenty-nine of the 30 MLB teams were represented. Seattle did not have a pitcher with 10 or more holds in 2010. Arizona only had one (Aaron Heilman, who had 12) Obviously, I cannot recommend anyone look for holds on either of those rosters.
The two numbers accompanying these American League bullpen reports are total holds (from all players with 10 or more) and the average holds per reliever in the sample.
The teams are ranked based on average. This represents teams, managers or situations that lend themselves to high individual holds totals.
Let’s take a look at some of the most notable bullpens. We’ll start in the American League:
Los Angeles Angels
Holds average: 24.0 | Total holds: 48
Closer: Fernando Rodney
New additions Hisanori Takahashi and Scott Downs join Kevin Jepsen — he and Rodney each had more than 20 holds last year. Rodney is unlikely to hold the closer job through the season and Takahashi appears primed to take over that role. His 2010 numbers look unimpressive, but his second half stats — particularly from August on — tell a different story. Out of the pen late in the season he lost only one game, recorded all eight of his saves and two of his three holds. He posted sterling ratios and his K rate was serviceable. Jepsen will get some holds, but Takahashi and Downs are probably more skilled. Downs held 26 for the Blue Jays last year, posting a 0.99 WHIP and a 2.64 ERA. Jordan Walden is the closer-of-the-future and could see both save and hold opportunities in 2011. (See comments for more.)
Holds average: 22 | Total: 44
Closer: Matt Capps/Joe Nathan
Matt Capps is currently listed as the closer, but if Joe Nathan is good, Nathan will get the call in the ninth. Nathan’s a risky proposition, but is draftable at a serious value, especially in leagues where he could help in holds and saves. However, if things go as the Twins should hope — Capps in the 8th and Nathan in the 9th — there will be massive holds and saves to be had out of this bullpen . Jose Mijares projects to get a few holds himself.
Boston Red Sox
Holds average: 21.5 | Total: 43
Closer: Jonathan Papelbon
Hideki Okajima was a bit of a disaster last season, but Daniel Bard picked up all the pieces. He led the American League in holds, had sick good ratios and a decent K/9. It’s worth noting that Bobby Jenks is in Boston this year. He’s not exactly reliable, but when it all shakes out he could steal some holds and be next in line for saves. The Sox also added Dan Wheeler, who saved nine for Tampa Bay last season.
Tampa Bay Rays
Holds average: 18 | Total: 54
Closer: Jake McGee/Kyle Farnsworth
This bullpen is fluxing all over the place. Rafael Soriano, who saved 45 for TB last season, is in New York and Joaquin Benoit took his fantastic skills, and 25 holds, to Detroit. Grant Balfour, their next most effective reliever, took off for Oakland. And that’s not all. The three next best guys after Balfour (16 holds) — Dan Wheeler (9 holds), Chad Qualls (8 holds) and Randy Choate (18 holds) — all split, too. Joe Maddon was probably throwing darts at his depth chart this spring. My guess on how it will shake out: McGee’s the closer. Farnsworth and Joel Peralta will earn the holds, which figure to be substantial.
Toronto Blue Jays
Holds average: 17.7 | Total: 53
Closer: Jon Rauch/Frank Francisco
Fragile Frank Francisco (F3 for the remainder of this blurb) won’t be ready for the start of the season due to, shocker, some injury things. Jon Rauch saved a bunch for the Twins last season and Octavio Dotel saved some for the Pirates last year. They’re the top two options and if you look at their ratios, you’ll see why the team is looking to Rauch. If Rauch performs like he did in the first half last year, look for him to keep the job and F3 to take over the eighth inning role. However, the two could flip-flop midseason if Rauch disappoints again. Jason Frasor, Shawn Camp (who are both still in the ‘pen and could ruffle this blurb’s feathers) and Scott Downs gave the Blue Jays three players with at least 13 holds last season. Downs moved on to Anaheim, so that means there will be 20-30 more holds for the guys who are left.
Holds average: 17 | Total: 51
Closer: Neftali Feliz
Darren O’Day was effective last season, but is a prime candidate to disappoint. At age 40, Darren Oliver posted his best numbers in more than five years, including an unsustainable 9.5 K/9. He is currently the top setup man. Arthur Rhodes is a lefty killer, but as a 41-year-old specialist his holds come in fits and starts. The best bet would be to move C.J. Wilson back into the bullpen, but that’s unlikely.
Chicago White Sox
Holds average: 16.3 | Total: 49
Closer: Matt Thornton
Moving into the closer role, Matt Thornton won’t be the source of holds he has been for years. Right now it looks like Chris Sale (who had some pretty impressive numbers last season) and Jesse Crain are in line for the holds. Thornton, 34, wants to prove he’s right for the closer job. If he’s not, Sale could easily step in. Drafting either of them could net you a tasty holds-saves mix. It’s like Chex Mix without the pretzels!
New York Yankees
Holds average: 16 | Total: 64
Closer: Mariano Rivera
Although he logged holds, Joba Chamberlain was a terrible option last year. Rafael Soriano, on the other hand, is a Yankees setup pitcher we should want to own. Not only would he be in line for saves if age catches up with Mariano Rivera, but he could have the opportunity for league leader-level holds. Pedro Feliciano came over from the Mets. He’s got some holds history, but he is an anti-lefty specialist who disappointed last season.
Holds average: 15.7 | Total: 47
Closer: Jose Valverde
Last season, the Tigers holds brigade was led by Joel Zumaya, who was effective when he wasn’t hurt. Just checked and water is still wet. Zumaya will start the 2011 season on the DL. Luckily for Detroit, they went out and picked up Joaquin Benoit, who has an outside shot at leading the majors in holds this year if Detroit uses him right. Phil Coke, who was second on the team with 17 holds last season, moves into the rotation. He was a starter in the minors. Ryan Perry, the likely closer of the future, led Detroit with 19 holds in 2010. His K/9 was disappointing, but his 2010 second half was much better than the first. Depending on Zumaya’s health and effectiveness, this bullpen could post three 20-hold relievers by the end of the season.
Likely holds leaders for the next teams on the list:
Cleveland: Rafael Perez
Oakland: Grant Balfour/Brian Fuentes
Tomorrow we’ll look at notable National League bullpens.