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Saves Plus Holds Leagues Primer (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

by Brendan Tuma | @toomuchtuma | Featured Writer
Mar 23, 2021

In my SPSB roto strategy article from earlier this month, I spent some time talking about how baseball has changed over the years. I believe this means our fantasy strategy should change as well. Taking the idea a step further, it also means that our league scoring systems should change. There isn’t anything wrong with playing in a standard 5×5 league that only uses saves, but with bullpens operating differently in 2021 than they ever have before, saves plus holds leagues are my preferred format.

There are several ways to incorporate holds into your league. Of course, the easiest way is to alter the saves stat into saves plus holds. If you’re playing in a points league you could turn holds into a stat that’s worth a little bit less than saves. In a H2H categories league you can either use saves plus holds or make them two separate categories.

There are two big reasons to play in a saves plus holds league. The first is that they more closely emulate “real” baseball. MLB teams routinely mix and match for save opportunities, often using their best relievers earlier than the ninth inning or whenever the most “high leverage” game situation arises. Therefore, fantasy baseball should reflect the idea of the best relievers not always earning saves.

More importantly, including holds in your league shifts the fantasy prep from who is this team’s closer to who are the best relievers. There’s something to be said for the idea of chasing saves as part of playing fantasy baseball, but I’d argue that including holds requires a deeper understanding of the player pool. Closers still have the most value since saves are tougher to come by than holds, so it isn’t as if things change too drastically.

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Below is a chart created using FantasyPros’ projections, sorted by saved plus holds, and with all starting pitcher-eligible players removed from the player pool:

Top Closers Remain Kings

High-end closers typically earn more saves than top setup relievers earn holds. This notion is proven in the projections chart above, as the cream of the crop in saves plus holds leagues is still who you’d expect to see in a standard 5×5 context.

If anything, the elite closers actually become a bit more valuable in this format. With more of your league mates targeting holds, there isn’t always the “next man up” available on the waiver wire. For example, Jordan Romano probably wasn’t rostered in a typical roto league before the injury to Kirby Yates. However, he was definitely employed in a saves plus holds league. Whereas Yates was easy enough to replace in a saves-only league, the valuation of closers changes when a lot of the top eighth-inning arms are already on rosters. Therefore, top closers remain king – and they become even slightly more valuable in certain situations.

Biggest Risers

In addition to the top closers seeing a small increase in value, there are two other type of relievers who see a significant bump in usability.

The first is obvious – setup men. There is no better example than Devin Williams of the Brewers. I personally believe he’s roster-worthy in standard leagues, but he’s the exact type of pitcher who benefits most from saves plus holds. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if DW came out of 2021 without a save. But 25 holds? That’s well within reach. When the two stats are combined we don’t care which we get. Williams’ 25 holds count the same as Trevor Rosenthal‘s 25 saves. Combined with some otherworldly ratios, DW becomes a borderline top-five reliever in this format.

Other “holds specialists” who gain value:

Meanwhile, we should also be more willing to invest in relievers in ambiguous situations. The perfect examples of this are Nick Anderson and Drew Pomeranz. Both of these bullpen aces could wind up with 10+ saves and 20+ holds. That’s a bit frustrating in traditional scoring leagues, but not in saves plus holds formats. Anderson and Pomeranz are undoubtedly two of the best RPs in the league, and they should be valued as such despite the absence of a defined role.

Other “ambiguous situations” who gain value:

Biggest Fallers

This is another intuitive answer, but the players losing the most value are the ones who were only draft-worthy due to a projected amount of saves. If we’re bumping up high-end relievers who might not necessarily get saves, it only makes sense to move down low-end relievers who are only rosterable thanks to saves. A prime example here is Anthony Bass. He’s projected to open the year as the Marlins’ closer, but his ratios won’t come close to someone like Romano, which makes the latter more valuable in saves plus holds leagues.

Other “low-end closers” who lose value:

Please note that this doesn’t mean the above names lose ALL of their value. It’s just without the precious demand for saves, their utility declines.

In summary, it’s pivotal to know who the top setup men are while playing in leagues that combine saves and holds. More of your draft prep should be focused on how good a pitcher actually is – and not what role they’ll have in a given bullpen.

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Brendan Tuma is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from Brendan, check out his archive and follow him @toomuchtuma.

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