Pitchers to Target in a Holds League (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
Personally, I love incorporating holds into fantasy leagues. It appears most leagues that have adopted holds have done so by using a saves/holds category. Other leagues, however, have added it to their scoring format while keeping saves. The latter requires adding a hitting category to keep hitting and pitching categories balanced, but I fully support either method for adding holds to the fold. They’re obviously more plentiful than saves since more than one reliever can hold a game, but only one pitcher can record a save.
However, the argument for utilizing holds in some capacity is to increase the value of MLB’s best relievers by detaching the importance of which late-inning role they have. In short, the best high-leverage pitchers aren’t penalized for pitching in non-save high-leverage spots. Sharp teams and managers seem to be more willing to use their best relievers in high-leverage spots before the ninth inning, when it looks like the game could be in the balance.
To that end, the Reds manager David Bell indicated back in the middle of February that Raisel Iglesias won’t be limited to traditional closer usage. Andrew Miller stands out as another recent example of an ace reliever who wasn’t limited to traditional closer usage, and Josh Hader’s 2018 season is the most recent example of routinely calling upon a relief ace prior to a save situation. If you check out my Relief Pitcher Primer from last month, you’ll see a table showcasing 40-plus and 50-plus save totals per season going back to 2010. Fewer than five pitchers have bested 40 saves each of the last two years. From 2010 through 2016, that total was bested in a season by six pitchers twice, seven pitchers three times, eight pitchers once, and a high of nine pitchers in 2013.
It’s likely the lack of huge save total seasons the last two years isn’t merely a blip on the radar and instead is the product of teams using their bullpens more wisely. With that in mind, why should fantasy leagues continue to use dinosaur scoring when MLB is changing their pitching usage? In my opinion, leagues should get with the times and change their scoring accordingly.
New scoring, however, requires re-evaluating players to fit the scoring changes. The aforementioned Hader and teammate Corey Knebel aren’t featured below, but I do love drafting the duo together and enjoying their elite strikeout and ratio contributions while not having to worry about how each of them is used in Milwaukee’s bullpen. Drafting elite reliever pairs from other clubs with fluid late-inning roles is a solid move, too.
The following relief pitchers are great targets in leagues that use holds or saves/holds categories, and they’re specifically selected with holds in mind (i.e. they’re unlikely to garner more than a handful of saves as long as the entrenched closer ahead of them stays healthy). If a reliever seems like an odd exclusion from this piece, it’s likely that I expect them to either share save opportunities with another reliever in their club’s bullpen, or I expect them to overtake the currently projected closer. Additionally, high-strikeout hold options got the nod over lower-strikeout peers due to their added value from the punchouts.
Adam Ottavino & Dellin Betances (RP – NYY)
The Yankees added to an already loaded bullpen by inking Ottavino to a three-year pact. The former member of the Rockies tied Archie Bradley for the MLB lead with 34 holds in 2018. He was one of only eight relievers to best 100 strikeouts, and one of those relievers, Ryan Yarbrough, was a starting pitcher in disguise who frequently piggybacked an opener for the Rays.
Betances will open the year on the injured list, but don’t ding him too heavily in holds leagues. He was one of the other relievers who bested 100 strikeouts, and his 115 strikeouts in 66.2 innings last year were the third most for a reliever and three ahead of his new teammate’s fourth-place 112 punchouts. Both Ottavino and Betances will serve as bridges to incumbent closer Aroldis Chapman, and the duo made up half of the relieves who totaled at least 20 holds and reached triple-digit strikeouts.
Ryan Pressly (RP – HOU)
Unsurprisingly, Hader is one of the other two pitchers who bested 100 strikeouts with 20 or more holds. The fourth and final member of that elite quartet was none other than Pressly. The 30-year-old reliever opened the year with 47.2 innings of solid work in 51 appearances for the Twins before being acquired by the Astros and closing the year with eye-popping numbers. In 23.1 innings across 26 appearances for the Astros, Pressly twirled a 0.77 ERA (1.49 FIP, 1.99 xFIP, and 1.60 SIERA), 0.60 WHIP, 3.6% BB%, and 38.1% K%. With Houston, he cut back on his fastball usage in favor of ramping up his curve usage.
Pressly’s swinging strike percentage actually dropped from 17.9% with Minnesota to a still elite 17.0% mark with the Astros, but he more than made up for the drop by coaxing more swings out of the zone (37.9% O-Swing% to 41.0% compared to a league average of 30.9%, per FanGraphs) and freezing hitters more often in the zone (64.7% Z-Swing% with Minnesota, 54.3% with Houston, and 67.3% for the league average in 2018). Relievers are a volatile bunch, but nothing under the hood suggests Pressly was anything short of elite last year. I’d slightly prefer him to Ottavino and Betances in leagues using holds, but the trio is collectively the cream of the non-closing reliever crop.
Carl Edwards Jr. (RP – CHC)
Brandon Morrow will open the year on the injured list, and presumed fill-in closer Pedro Strop is iffy for the start of the year. If Strop is also on the shelf early, Edwards is in the mix for saves, but he should spend the bulk of the year working in non-save situations. Edwards missed the entire month of June last year with shoulder inflammation, but he pitched well upon his return and had a strong season last year overall.
He has control issues that fueled a 14.4% BB%, but he made up for the free passes by striking out a hearty 30.2% of the batters he’s faced. His 30.2% K% last year was actually a sizable step back from his 35.9% K% in 2017 and 37.7% K% in 2016, so he’s no stranger to striking out batters in bunches. In 154.1 innings spread across 167 appearances since 2016, Edwards owns a 3.03 ERA (3.12 FIP, 3.42 xFIP, and 3.31 SIERA), 1.06 WHIP, 13.5% BB%, 34.2% K%, and 15.4% SwStr%. His WHIP during that time frame is likely lower than he’ll post this year and far lower than his 1.31 WHIP in 2018, so it’s wise to temper expectations in that category. Regardless, his total package is that of a top-flight holds target.
Lou Trivino (RP – OAK)
Trivino’s 23 holds last year were tied with Edwards, a forthxoming reliever, and two others for the 12th most in 2018. He enjoyed a breakout rookie season, but a 5.46 ERA in 29.2 innings in the second half could create a recency bias discount. The 27-year-old righty throws hard (97.6 MPH average fastball velocity), misses bats at a high rate (27.4% K% and 14.2% SwStr%), and posted a solid ground-ball percentage (46.7% GB%) with a track record of coaxing more worm burners in the minors.
Craig Stammen (RP – SD)
Stammen is the forthcoming reliever I alluded to in Trivino’s write-up. In addition to tallying 23 holds, Stammen tied for 21st in strikeouts (88) by a reliever last year.
His 27.8% K% in 2018 was a 5.3% improvement from his first season with the Padres in 2017, and it was his best since totaling a 31.6% K% in only 10.1 innings for the Nationals in 2011. The veteran righty’s strikeout surge was accompanied by a leap from an 11.4% SwStr% in 2017 to 14.0% last year. He also bumped his outside-swing percentage up from 30.6% to 37.7%. Stammen bumped up his fastball usage with the Friars, and after sporting a career-high 62.9% fastball usage as a reliever in 2017, he bumped it up yet again to 68.0% last year.
All of the notable projection models have him taking a step back this year while remaining solid, but I’m a bit more bullish on Stammen’s outlook. In 159.1 innings over 133 appearances for the Padres during the last two years, Stammen owns a 2.94 ERA (3.29 FIP, 3.47 xFIP, and 3.29 SIERA), 50.5% GB%, 1.12 WHIP, 7.0% BB%, and 25.1% K%. A low-3.00 ERA that’s in line with his ERA estimators since 2017 feels about right, along with something along the lines of a 1.15-1.20 WHIP and 24-26% K%.
Tony Watson (RP – SF)
Watson’s 32 holds last year were in a three-way tie for the third most. He’s a trade candidate for the rebuilding Giants, but the veteran lefty should retain a late-inning role if acquired by a contender. Watson struck out 27.6% of the batters he faced last year, but he hadn’t bested even a 22% K% in the three years prior, so regression should be expected even after digging into his other numbers a little further. Projection models such as THE BAT, ATC, Steamer, and ZiPS all agree, with each pegging him for a bit under a strikeout per inning.
Watson can help make up for regression in strikeouts by remaining an asset in WHIP and ERA. Watson has compiled a WHIP of 1.06 or lower in five of the last six years with his 1.38 WHIP in 2017 serving as the outlier. Even in his down 2017, he totaled a 3.38 ERA, easily his highest mark since totaling an identical ERA in 2012.