I want to start this article by stating, clearly and in no uncertain terms, that I did not want to write this article. Bret made me do it. While on the one hand, aggressively targeting middle relievers in the early season is one of my favorite strategies for driving down my pitching ratios, projecting middle relievers before the season starts for draft day consumption is just a terrible, terrible idea. Yes, the flame-out rate is high. But just as importantly, the out-of-nowhere-hero effect is even higher. Dellin Betances? Yeah, that dude got drafted in like one percent of leagues last year. Wade Davis, Ken Giles, Brad Boxberger… none of those guys were high priority for drafters outside the deepest of leagues last spring.

Relievers come, and relievers go. How they’ll perform, nobody knows. Still, there do tend to be some traits in particular you’ll want to go after if you’re targeting guys in a Holds league. For one, there’s a significant correlation between strikeouts and the Holds leaderboards. Since accumulating Holds oftentimes depends on securing outs in high-leverage situations, this would seem to follow rather logically. Jeff Zimmerman wrote a nice piece to this effect last winter, and the basic punchline was that using past performance to predict future Holds totals is basically pointless, but that middle relievers with higher strikeout rates tend to be the best bets.

In this spirit I’ll go through the motions of throwing out some names below of guys who are as good a bet as any to at least open the season in advantageous positions to accumulate Holds. I’ll also dedicate a little space at the bottom to highlighting some of the guys who fit this bill but may be more innings-limited: specifically, the higher strikeout LOOGY types who may see a bump in value in leagues with innings caps. The sagest advice I can give in the area of Holds, however, is to keep your finger on the FAAB trigger through April, as the early returns on bullpen usage patterns and performance start to trickle in. And be prepared to cycle through a whole bunch of guys over the course of the season, because if you haven’t heard, middle relievers are not the most stable crew. Managers in daily leagues have the obvious advantage of being able to take this strategy to the next level by monitoring workload and swapping out relievers on off days or in the wake of back-to-back appearances. For the rest of us, we cross our fingers, roll the dice, and see what happens week to week.

In case you missed it, here are the Top 40 relievers in our tiered rankings.

Previous articles in this series: Catcher, First Base, Second Base, Third Base, Shortstop, Outfielders, and Starting Pitchers.

Arrows Up

The best guys to target out of the gate, obviously, are the eighth inning guys who are likely the first ones in line for Saves in the event of Closer Failure. But if my guy becomes the Closer he won’t accumulate any more Holds, you may say. You shouldn’t say that, because it’s a silly thing to say. Don’t worry, young grasshopper, there’s always another middle reliever that will generate Holds for you. Below are some of the setup men and other middle relievers who won’t appear in Mike’s tiered rankings and will be a bit cheaper and more under-the-radar on draft day, but who have as good a shot a sanybod to accumulate a bunch of Holds for you this season.

Kevin Quackenbush, RHP SDG
On the heels of a stellar rookie campaign in 2014 that included time spelling an injured Joaquin Benoit in the ninth inning, Quackenbush will head into 2014 as the eighth-inning guy for what should be a vastly improved Padres ball club. Despite throwing a four-seam fastball with average velocity three quarters of the time he posted reverse splits last season, holding lefties to a .512 OPS. He’s currently going as the ninth non-presumed-closer off the board in NFBC drafts, and he makes for one of the better setup investments outside of the top tier setup men.

Every Cardinal and other non-Quackenbushian Padres Reliever
Chalk it up to standard-issue Cardinal Devil Magic, but somehow St. Louis manages to craft a top-shelf bullpen at protecting leads seemingly every year. Over the past three seasons they’ve checked in second, seventh, and first in team Holds, and if PECOTA is to be believed, they’ll threaten 90 wins again this season. The Padres meanwhile also always seem to have one of the best bullpens in baseball, and when they’re recent vintages have had enough offense to matter, their middle relievers have been dominant sources of Holds top to bottom.

Josh Fields, RHP HOU
I wrote extensively about Fields on Monday, and he’s all the more interesting as a low-cost investment in Holds leagues. He posted the 13th-best FIP of any reliever who threw 30-plus innings last season and offers sneaky ratio potential buried deep in the land of the lost relievers.

Jumbo Diaz, RHP CIN
He used to weigh 350 pounds. He still weighs 280 (allegedly). He spent 13 years toiling in the minors before making his debut last summer. Fat guys with inspirational stories of perseverance are, by their natures, destined for greatness. We the fans are frankly overdue for an out-of-nowhere All-Star relief season by a round man, and I’m here to tell you: Jumbo Diaz is round.

Zach Duke, LHP CHW
Duke significantly altered his arm slot this past season, dropping down to a true sidearm angle with a majority of his offerings. The results were real and they were spectacular: a whiff rate that exploded from 12.7 percent to over 30 percent. And average-against that plummeted 75 points. A FIP nearly half his 2013 effort. You get the idea. He’s also currently going 100th among relievers with an ADP of 632. So go grab him, he’s lonely. And he was really, really good last year.

Darren O’Day, LHP BAL
Outside of an injury-riddled 2011 O’Day’s kind of quietly been one of the best relievers in baseball over the past six seasons. He’s a rare model of consistency in middle relief who’s been a consistent threat as a top-15 option for Holds in the AL during his career. Especially given the current construction of Baltimore’s bullpen O’Day’s just about as good a bet as you can make on a quality Holds guy in the AL for 2015.

Junichi Tazawa, RHP BOS
Tazawa’s boring. And by boring I mean generally effective, and pretty clearly John Farrell’s GUY for protecting leads in an ideal scenario. He led the Sox in Holds in each of the past two seasons, and they’re going to be substantially better this season than they were last. His walk rate has crept up a bit over the past couple years, but he’s posted a 2.67 ERA over his last 175 innings now, his velocity has been on the rise, and his entrance music is some sneaky-dope Japanese reggae. It’s really not a bad package.

That Guy, Some Team
It’s okay to admit that you’d never heard of That Guy before. Maybe you remember his name from back when he was a starting pitcher in his prospect days a few years back, but then he never developed a third pitch, got hurt, and you haven’t thought about him since. Or maybe you literally had never heard That Guy’s name before he struck out 11 of 14 batters after his early May promotion to Some Team’s injury-ravaged bullpen. But make no mistake, That Guy is a legit reliever now. Thanks to a mechanical tweak and some gnarlier facial hair, he’s morphed into a one-man wrecking crew who throws 98 with a wipeout slider. Or splitter. Whatever, the point is That Guy is awesome at getting major-league hitters out. You should have seen it coming.

Chris Hatcher, RHP LAD
Hatcher can lay claim to being one of the quirkier anomalies in the majors after he became the first guy since before World War II to debut as a catcher and later convert to pitching. He also throws 95 and has taken his four-pitch mix and other assorted talents from South Beach to the still-somehow-kind-of-a-mess-despite-a-$3.4-billion-payroll Dodger bullpen this offseason. In addition to some potential Save opportunities while Kenley’s on the shelf to start the season, he figures to be a staple in high-leverage situations for one of the better teams in the NL.

Jason Motte, RHP CHC
Maybe Motte will come back strong from Tommy John surgery. Maybe he won’t. But he can single-handedly win you all the hair-related categories just by showing up, and that has value in deeper leagues.

Jake Diekman, LHP PHI
While your leaguemates are all tripping over themselves to grab Ken Giles in the middle rounds, you can sit back and take his fairer-handed bullpen-mate with the better whiff rate in the final rounds of your Holds league draft and feel just fine about it. His 14.05 K/9 and 1.16 FIP against lefties both ranked fourth among all relievers last year. He walked almost six righties-per-nine last year, and it doesn’t sound like the Phillies have any intention of altering his usage patterns. So there’s some WHIP danger here, but on the flipside even a modest step forward with his command against opposite-handed hitters could lead to a gigantic amount of surplus value generation given his current pric etag.

A bunch of other guys I didn’t write about
Yes, the guy you were just going to ask about in the comments is a good option too, and you’re right that he may even be in line for Save opportunities if things break right. Definitely grab him in your draft.

Arrows Down

Joba Chamberlain, RHP DET
He racked up the fifth-most Holds in baseball last season, but he’s still got Yankee Stink on him far as I’m concerned. Pass.

Dale Thayer, RHP SDP
That he used to rock this look and traded it in for a run-of-the-mill beard is inexcusable. He has no place on your team despite providing consistently decent ratios.

That Other Guy, Some Other Team
Man, you really shouldn’t have spent that mid-round draft pick on him, huh? I know this is a Holds league, and yeah, his ratios were solid for the last couple years. And sure, his manager said all that stuff about how much he trusted That Other Guy during Spring Training. But whew, that was an ugly start to the season there, huh? He lost four whole miles an hour off his fastball. How is that even possible? He was still claiming he was healthy right up to the day they shelved him with a vague “back strain.” But that stretch where he gave up 16 baserunners and 11 runs over four appearances single-handedly knocked your team’s ERA and WHIP from middle-of-the-road to bottom-of-the-barrel. Maybe next spring you should just hold off on drafting a middle reliever.

Innings Cap Assets

In addition to providing strong Holds potential on account of their situational play, these guys can be particularly valuable to you in leagues with an annual cap on innings by providing some solid bang for the buck with good whiff numbers and ratios despite limited innings that leave them as fringe plays in standard Holds leagues. Rotating a couple LOOGYs and/or righty specialists (rare as they may be) through the back of your rotation can help augment your pitching line at little to no cost, provided you’re investing in the right guys. As always, standard disclaimer that nobody really ever knows who those “right guys” will turn out to be, so maybe this strategy isn’t so great after all. In fact, let’s just go back to talking about hitters after we scroll through these guys quickly, yeah?

Charlie Furbush, LHP SEA
Furbush wasn’t used exclusively as a LOOGY last year, but he was certainly deployed strategically as a fire-putter-outer, and that makes sense given his strong stuff and excellent control. He threw just 42 and a third innings over 67 appearances last season, and when he did face lefties he was absolutely lights out, racking up just shy of 12 K/9 while walking only two of the 84 lefties he faced all year. With a bunch of suspect options behind him on the left-handed depth chart

Will Smith, LHP MIL
Smith finished fourth in Holds last season, so he’s not a totally out-of-the-blue guy to toss onto this list. But he warrants special attention because he whiffed just north of 44% of the 106 left-handed hitters he faced last year, holding lefties to a .516 OPS against and pitching to a 1.71 FIP that may just have slipped through the cracks under his 4.05 surface ERA. The Brewers let him face a whole bunch of right-handed hitters last year to account for much of that damage, so he doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional LOOGY given those usage patterns. But given the splits (righties tattooed him to the tune of a .295/.391/.481 line in 180 plate appearances) he sure looks like a guy best utilized in a more limited, focused role in 2015. And if that comes to pass there’s potential for thorough ratio dominance over a smaller, more easily digestible sample.

Randy Choate, LHP STL
andy Choate is awesome at getting lefties out. So good, in fact, that the 37-year-old just signed a three-year contract extension this offseason. Last season in 88 plate appearances against Choate left-handed big-league hitters put up a .091/.205/.147 line and whiffed against his 84-mph hotness almost a third of the time. He’ll give you 40 innings max, but they’re likely to be fairly strong innings.

J.P. Howell, LHP LAD
Howell’s a poorer man’s Choate, but basically the same deal with probably a few more innings on account of being able to hold his own against righties when needed. He’ll be the high-leverage lefty in the Dodgers pen all season barring total collapse, and figures to be as good a bet as any to match or exceed last year’s seventh-best mark of 27 Holds.

Mike Dunn, LHP MIA
Despite not exhibiting particularly relevant splits, the Marlins seem content to deploy Dunn in a highly situational manner. He whiffed double digits-per-nine last year despite working partial innings an overwhelming majority of the time. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to it, but so long as the Marlins utilize him in this kind of pattern, he’ll have additional value in cap leagues, even though he doesn’t otherwise register nearly as high in standard formats.

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Last season, That Guy really came through for me after I punted Saves. Don't have a keeper slot for him, but I'll try to pick him up again in the late rounds.

As for That Other Guy, yeah, I picked him up, then he proceeded to get shelled three games in a row, so I dropped him before he could really trash my stats.
Yeah, see? You know the score.
Who is That Guy and The Other Guy? I keep forgetting their names and every year I end up kicking myself for it...
Are relief pitchers really harder to predict than any other position?
The short answer is yes, they are. Michael Jong did a nice quick and dirty study of closer performance over time last summer looking at this. Basically, for closers (i.e. ostensibly a sample of the most effective relievers in the game) the attrition rate of worsening performance over a three-year margin was something like 75%. In other words, if a guy pitched well for a couple seasons three in four pitched worse the following year. Extrapolate that out for less good, even more volatile middle get the idea.