The final edition of the Adjuster for 2017 will focus on relievers. Specifically, we’ll look at relievers you should pay extra attention to if your league uses holds as a category. There are several ways you can go about choosing the middle relievers you’ll focus on in a fantasy draft.
- You could put the names of every reliever in a bowl and pull a few out.
- You could put the names of a few relievers on a dart board and see which ones you hit.
- You could ask your child’s Magic 8 Ball regarding specific relievers.
Oh wait, you came to Baseball Prospectus because you wanted fantasy advice informed by statistical analysis. Here’s the best advice I can give you. Trying to nail down which relievers will excel in holds before the beginning of the season is incredibly difficult. In the words of Wilson Karaman from last season’s Adjuster, it is a “fool’s errand.”
A few points will highlight the instability of the category. Only five of the top 10 relievers in holds from 2015 could crack the top 30 in the category in 2016 (Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Dellin Betances, Pedro Strop, and Zach Duke). Only Betances and Duke have finished in the top 10 for holds over the past two seasons, and Duke will miss all of 2017 due to Tommy John surgery.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few ways you can increase the likelihood you land a reliever who can provide a solid total in the category. As we’ll note below, there are a handful of relievers who have shown the ability to be somewhat reliable in this area. One option to consider on draft day is to focus on the best projected middle relievers on the teams projected to have the most wins. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but teams who are expected to have the lead more often than not should give their relievers more opportunities to accumulate holds.
Last season, seven of the top 10 teams in holds had winning records. Looking down the list a little further, nine of the top 15 teams in holds had winning records. You’ll find similar results at the other end of the standings. Six of the bottom 10 teams in holds had losing records, and nine of the bottom 15 teams were at or below .500. While this might be a helpful guide, don’t forget that the 103 win Cubs had only the 19th highest hold total last season with 74.
Before we look at the relievers most likely to provide you with holds, here are links to each previous article in the series:
Dellin Betances, NYY – As mentioned above, Betances is one of only two relievers to finish in the top 10 in holds each of the past two seasons. Once the Yankees re-signed Aroldis Chapman, it ensured that Betances should finish with a similar total in 2017. Betances’ strikeout rate hit a career high 42.1 percent last year, and it’s been over 38 percent in four straight seasons. His ERA did jump up to 3.08 (his career mark is 2.06), but that was largely due to an uncharacteristic 9.64 ERA in September. Betances is easily one of the safest bets on the board if you’re looking for holds this season.
Andrew Miller, CLE – Even if you play in a league that doesn’t account for holds, Miller would be worth drafting for his impressive rate stats. He ran a whiff rate of 44.7 percent last year, and his ERA fell to 1.45. Miller finished last season with 25 holds (tied with teammate Bryan Shaw). Cleveland has shown a willingness to deploy Miller early and often, and he should get plenty of innings in 2017. There’s always the chance he could slide into the closer role if Cody Allen struggles, but unless you’re exclusively worried about holds that won’t impact your totals.
Will Smith, SFG – Smith is one of a handful of relievers to have racked up 20+ holds for three straight seasons. He moved from Milwaukee to San Francisco in August, and looked even more impressive than he had in the first part of the season. Smith’s strikeout rate has been above 28 percent for four straight years. On occasion, his control can be an issue (10.8 percent walk rate in 2016), but there’s little reason to think he won’t be a solid middle relief option on your fantasy roster.
Tyler Thornburg, BOS – Thornburg pitched more than 35 innings for the first time last season, and he excelled with the expanded opportunity. He notched 20 holds for the Brewers, and registered a 2.15 ERA. His whiff rate took a noticeable step forward (34.2 percent). Thornburg looked so good in 2016 that Boston traded for him in December to help solidify their bullpen. The 28-year-old will likely be slotted in as the setup man behind Craig Kimbrel. Boston’s offense should provide the team with plenty of leads this season, and Thornburg will be one of their top options to hold those leads.
Bryan Shaw, CLE – It’s easy to forget about Shaw with Andrew Miller and Cody Allen in the same bullpen. However, Shaw tallied the same number of holds as Miller did in 2016 (25). This was his third straight season with 20+ holds, and there is little reason to suggest he won’t replicate that production. Also, his strikeout rate hit a career high 25.1 percent last year. Shaw might not get as much attention as other members of Cleveland’s bullpen, but he’s a solid option you can acquire at a cheaper price.
Pedro Strop, CHN – Over the past five seasons, Strop has been one of the most dependable options for holds in baseball. He’s racked up at least 20 in four of his past five seasons, and in 2013 he was still good for 17. Strop dealt with a groin injury last season that limited his innings, but when he was on the mound he was impressive. His strikeout rate hit a career high 32.1 percent, and his walk rate fell below 10 percent for the first time. The Cubs are a safe bet to win a lot of games, and Strop will be one of the team’s go-to options to hold leads late in those games.
Justin Wilson, DET – Wilson has developed into a solid middle reliever, and since 2012 he’s accumulated 84 holds. The past two seasons he’s registered 25 or more. His ERA wasn’t what fantasy owners were looking for last season (4.14), but both FIP (3.18) and DRA (3.46) suggest he wasn’t that bad. Part of the increase to his ERA was due to an uncharacteristically high HR/FB rate (12.2 percent) that should come back closer to his career average of 8 percent. Wilson’s strikeout rate has been above 25 percent each of the past two seasons, and he’s better at limiting walks than some of the options listed above. You’ll find middle relievers who will give you more strikeouts, but Wilson has a pretty safe floor.
Kyle Barraclough, MIA – Barraclough finished 2016 with the second most holds in baseball (29, tied with Neftali Feliz). Not only that, but among the relievers who finished in the top 30 in holds, Barraclough racked up the third most strikeouts. His 36.9 percent whiff rate is attractive, but he’s going to have to limit the walks (14.4 percent). Although, it might not matter if teams continue to hit just .173 against him.
Hector Neris, PHI – Last season, Neris joined Betances and Barraclough as the only three relievers to finish in the top 10 in holds with 100+ strikeouts. He was Philadelphia’s best reliever, and there’s a chance he could become the closer before the start of the season. Neris’ propensity to allow home runs is one glaring issue moving forward. His HR/FB rate has finished above 14 percent each of the past two years.
Brad Hand, SDP – Hand’s first season in San Diego was the best of his career. Previously, he had spent five seasons with the Marlins. 2016 was Hand’s first season with 20+ holds, and he kept his ERA under 3 (2.92). He also tallied 111 strikeouts over 89 innings. Hand’s strikeout rate jumped to 30.5 percent (from 16.4 percent in 2015) in part due to his increased reliance on an effective slider. Hand doesn’t have the same resume as others on this list, but the clear changes to his approach suggest he could sustain this level of production.
Nate Jones, CHA – Jones finally put together his first healthy season since 2013, and he excelled with the opportunity. He dropped his ERA down to 2.29, and he kept his strikeout rate right around 30 percent (29.2 percent). Also, Jones’ walk rate shrank to a career low 5.5 percent. He should see steady work as the setup man behind David Robertson this season, and he’ll likely become the closer if Robertson is moved.
Addison Reed, NYM – This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Reed who led the league in holds last season with 40. In his first full season with the Mets, Reed held down a 1.97 ERA (2.97 DRA) and struck out 29.9 percent of the batters he faced. Reed’s walk rate dropped to a career low 4.3 percent. If you’re specifically looking for holds, you need to pay attention to what happens with Jeurys Familia prior to the season. If he faces a suspension, Reed would likely become the Mets closer. Regardless, it’s hard not to roll the dice on a reliever who led the league in a category.
Injured pitchers. Starting pitchers. Established closers. Position players.