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We made it! That’s right, this is the penultimate installment of the Baseball Prospectus Fantasy Categorical Breakdown series and it’s dedicated exclusively to holds, the category that garners less attention in fantasy baseball than Mark Grudzielanek attracts on the Hall of Fame ballot. In case you missed it, J.P. Breen analyzed the saves landscape yesterday. And be sure to stay tuned as Matt Collins wraps up our series with a look at quality starts tomorrow.

Fantasy owners who play in traditional 5×5 rotisserie (or head-to-head) formats don’t need to pay any attention to holds. Because of the scarce number of leagues that actually use holds as a scoring category, they hardly receive any attention from the fantasy industry. That doesn’t mean, however, that non-closing relievers are completely worthless, like kickers in fantasy football. Middle relief is where future closers are born and valuable trade assets are plucked from the wavier wire. Even if you don’t entirely care about holds, it would behoove you to get to know these relievers.

Before we go any further, let’s start with a quick refresher of what constitutes a hold. According to Baseball-Reference, a hold is “granted to a relief pitcher who enters a game with his team in the lead in a save situation, and hands over that lead to another reliever without the score having been tied in the interim.” Therefore, targeting elite setup men is the name of the game when it comes to selecting holds specialists. Here is a condensed look at the holds leaderboards for the past two seasons.

2014 Leaders

Holds

2015 Leaders

Holds

Tyler Clippard

40

Tony Watson

41

Tony Watson

34

Sergio Romo

34

Wade Davis

33

Joe Smith

32

Will Smith

30

Justin Wilson

29

Joba Chamberlain

29

Joaquin Benoit

28

Brad Ziegler

29

Dellin Betances

28

J.P. Howell

27

Pat Neshek

28

Casey Fien

26

Kevin Siegrist

28

Pat Neshek

25

Pedro Strop

28

Darren O’Day

25

Zach Duke

26

The ironman himself, Tyler Clippard, has ceded his claim to the tile of “holds king” to Pittsburgh’s Tony Watson, the only reliever to record a top-10 finish in holds in consecutive campaigns. To further illustrate the exceptionally high turnover rate among elite setup relievers, check out the holds leaderboard from just two seasons ago.

2013 Leaders

Holds

Joel Peralta

41

Tyler Clippard

33

David Robertson

33

Trevor Rosenthal

29

Luis Avilan

27

Jared Burton

27

Jake McGee

27

Tanner Scheppers

27

Sean Doolittle

26

Scott Downs

26

Brandon Kintzler

26

Mark Melancon

26

With the notable exception of Clippard, no reliever from this list came close to replicating his performance (in holds) the following season. That statement is a bit misleading, because Robertson, Rosenthal, McGee, Doolittle, and Melancon evolved into closers, but we haven’t heard much from guys like Avilan, Burton, Scheppers, Downs and Kintzler since then.

Historically, elite holds contributors, much like closers, tend to materialize out of thin air. While there is a small flock of several established veteran relievers fantasy owners should be targeting, this column will take a deeper look to uncover some potential hidden gems.

Hold Me Tightly (Six must-own studs to target for 2016)

Tony Watson, LHP, Pirates

The gold standard when it comes to non-closers, the presence of Mark Melancon continues to relegate the southpaw to the eighth inning, where he has been an incredibly valuable commodity in holds leagues over the past three seasons. In addition to leading all relief pitchers with 97 holds, he’s also thrown more innings (224.1) than any other reliever in baseball during that stretch.

The former Cornhusker’s value extends beyond just holds formats, as evidenced by the $9 he earned in standard mixed leagues this past season, finishing as a top-75 pitcher overall. Coming off a campaign in which he posted the lowest Deserved Run Average (2.60 DRA) of his career, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be one of the first non-closer (behind Betances of course) off the board in 2016 drafts.

Sergio Romo, RHP, Giants

The Giants offseason rotation upgrades bode well for Romo, who should continue to get the call in big late-inning spots after he was outstanding, racking up 34 holds (second-most in the game) last season. His underlying numbers (11.15 K/9 and 1.57 BB/9) remained outstanding last year, but his 2.98 ERA was buoyed by a .331 BABIP (14th-worst out of 131 relievers to toss 50 innings) and a 72.7 percent strand rate, the lowest single season mark of his career since his sophomore season as Brian Wilson’s understudy back in 2009. The trademark slider, which he threw nearly 60 percent of the time in 2015, remains vintage.

He’s still only 32 years old and while the mileage (409 innings since 2008) may be a valid concern, his performance going forward shouldn’t be. According to cFIP, a predictive pitching metric, Romo finished last season with a sterling mark of 70, the 19th-lowest of any pitcher in the game. Even mixed league owners should be paying attention to Romo given incumbent closer Santiago Casilla’s age (35) and struggles (4.51 DRA) a year ago. Let’s not rule out the possibility that he steps back into the ninth inning at some point in 2016.

Luke Gregerson, RHP, Astros

The acquisition of 25-year-old Ken Giles, who spits hot fire, is likely to push Gregerson into an ultra sexy LiRPA role for the Astros this season. It’s a capacity he’s been more than comfortable to fill in the past. Since 2009, Gregerson has posted 20 or more holds in a single campaign five times. The strikeouts are still there, but he’s quietly evolved into a ground ball specialist (62 percent groundball rate in 2015) as a result of dramatically increased sinker usage over the past two years.

He may not possess the upside of the other names on this list, but since his career began in 2009, only Clippard has thrown more relief innings than Gregerson (480.1). The quantity and quality are worth the investment, even in mixed leagues.

Joaquin Benoit, RHP, Mariners

Anyone else get the feeling that GM Jerry Dipoto pulled a Steve Harvey when he announced that Steve Cishek would open the upcoming season as Seattle’s closer? There is the distinct possibility Benoit slides into the ninth inning if Cishek, who posted a 4.71 DRA (105 cFIP) between Miami and St. Louis last season, implodes sooner rather than later. The 38-year-old veteran racked up 28 holds setting up Craig Kimbrel in San Diego a year ago and is one of the most reliable relievers on the planet for the last six years. Even if he’s only operating in a setup capacity, he’s an immensely valuable commodity worth going the extra mile (or dollar) for in holds leagues.

Darren O’Day, RHP, Orioles

The recipient of a massive four-year, $31 million contract as a free agent this offseason, O’Day has earned every penny with his recent performance. Since 2012, he ranks fifth in holds (63), 18th in appearances (204), and sixth in ERA (1.79) among all relievers. Barring an injury to the closer whose turned decimating the Baltimore worm population into an art form (Zach Britton), O’Day will remain the O’s primary set-up arm in 2016. The dark horse to watch long-term is fellow sidewinder Mychal Givens, but for right now, O’Day isn’t going anywhere.

Joe Smith, RHP, Angels

The clear-cut eighth inning man behind established stopped Huston Street for manager Mike Scioscia, he showed no signs of slowing down after setting a career-high with 32 holds last year. Over the past five seasons, Smith has racked up 112 holds, managing at least 16 in every campaign during that stretch. If you’re a risk-averse fantasy owner who places a premium on durability, Smith has you covered there, having made at least 70 appearances per season, dating back to 2011. Boring name, steady results. Lock it up.

The Next Generation (Five young guns poised to become elite holds contributors in 2016)

Carson Smith, RHP, Red Sox

A prominent piece of Boston’s offseason reload was to install uber-stud Craig Kimbrel as the lock-down ninth inning option and transition the steady veteran presence of Koji Uehara sliding into a setup capacity. The previous sentence alone is enough to make you forget that they also acquired Smith, who finished last season in Seattle with the same cFIP (66) as Wade Davis. Clearly the Red Sox front office mandate over the past few months was to shorten the gap between their starters and Kimbrel and Smith is going to play a major role in that process.

Let’s not forget about Junichi Tazawa, who remains a solid middle reliever, but he will be a free agent at the end of 2016 and Uehara is a dinosaur at 40 years old. Smith is only 26 years old, under team control through 2020, and poised to evolve into one of the premier holds specialists in the game right out of the gate.

Kevin Siegrist, LHP, Cardinals

In addition to more than doubling his career innings total, the 26-year-old left-hander finished the 2015 campaign with a 2.17 ERA (3.66 DRA) and an 81 cFIP (47th out of 329 pitchers to throw at least 50 innings). He also accumulated 28 holds in 81 appearances. The sheer volume of innings and the serious lack of competition in the Cardinals bullpen should enable him to continue to rack up the holds for one of the heavyweight contenders in the senior circuit.

Carter Capps, RHP, Marlins

I’m going to write about him every week until my editors ask me to stop. The 25-year-old is an obvious target in holds leagues with AJ Ramos firmly entrenched as Miami’s ninth-inning stopper. On a per-inning basis, Capps was arguably the most unhittable force in the game a season ago; however, he managed to rack up just 31 innings before being shut down with elbow concerns. His 42 cFIP was not only the lowest mark of any pitcher this past year, but only four pitchers (Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara, Greg Holland, and Aroldis Chapman, who did it twice) in the last five years have recorded a lower figure in a single season. Circle his name on your draft board.

Brett Cecil, LHP, Blue Jays

While we are on the subject of cFIP, let’s not overlook the 29-year-old southpaw, who recorded a rather astounding mark of 66 (14th-lowest in the game) this past season. He also didn’t allow an earned run over his final 37 appearances, a streak which began on June 24. Over that stretch, he also posted underlying numbers that would make Aroldis Chapman blush (12.51 K/9 and 1.14 BB/9).

Cecil isn’t as young as some of the other names in this group, but with Aaron Sanchez moving back into to the starting rotation (for now at least), he should be the primary table setter for upstart Roberto Osuna. He had just nine holds last season, but more than half of them came in the final two months. Savvy fantasy owners should be all over Cecil as a late-round target in 2016.

Jairo Diaz, RHP, Rockies

Do not sleep on veteran Adam Ottavino, who the Rockies signed to a three-year extension last week, as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. If the high-90s velocity returns, he’s the best bet to close in Colorado. Until he returns, the door is open for Diaz, whose average fastball velocity (97.80 mph) paired with a 56 percent groundball rate in 21 appearances late last season should be enough to put him on your radar. The firmly ingrained belief among 99 percent of fantasy owners is that it’s a fool’s errand to target any Rockies pitcher, but for every “rule” there is an exception, and Diaz could be just that exception in 2016.

The Holds Sleeper (The deep reliever that should be on the fantasy radar entering 2016)

Arquimedes Caminero, RHP, Pirates

Always draft talent over present-day role. Acquired from Miami for cash considerations after he was designated for assignment last March, Caminero’s triple-digit heat became an immediate weapon for the Pirates in the middle innings after he harnessed his command under the guidance of Ray Searage and Jim Benedict in Pittsburgh. There is a chance he could be even better this upcoming season because of the sinker he added to his repertoire on August 1st. According to MLB.com’s Pirates beat reporter Adam Berry, “He (Caminero) worked with pitching coach Ray Searage and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas to refine the pitch, eventually reaching the point where he was confident enough to throw it in a game.”

Not only is it the sixth-fastest sinker in terms of average velocity of any reliever in the game, trailing on the truly extraterrestrial offerings of relief aces like Jeurys Familia and Kelvin Herrera, but the new pitch was the main reason he posted a spectacular 63.8 percent groundball rate over his final 26 appearances to close out the season.

Date

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

GB%

ERA

Pre-Aug. 1

45.2

9.26

3.35

1.18

37.5%

4.34

Post-Aug. 1

29.0

8.07

3.72

0.31

63.8%

2.48

His path to the late innings cleared up after the departure of Joakim Soria this offseason, but Melancon and Watson still block his path to both saves and holds long-term. Still, the prodigious raw talent alone is roster-worthy in deeper formats heading into 2016.

Thank you for reading

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cmellinger
12/22
Thank you. Useful information.
GBSimons
12/22
"the only reliever to record a top-10 finish in holds in consecutive campaigns."

Well, him and Pat Neshek.
jfranco77
12/22
The Pirates are still rumored to be shopping Melancon. Definitely worth watching if you need holds from Watson or Caminero.
lewist
12/22
Great analysis, I'm in a holds league and as you can expect, there isn't much published on Holds in the baseball blogosphere.

As we see more Closer-by-committee, I have to imagine this stat will gain more relevance in standard redraft leagues.
BurrRutledge
12/23
I'm in a Holds league that has an innings cap, and as a backup to the elite 8-inning targets, I've found its a useful strategy to find a LOOGY whose manager is comfortable bringing him in for 1 out. You often get a K, a Hold, and just 0.1 knocked out of your IP.