- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Saves are obviously a flawed statistic and hardly reflective of actual effectiveness for myriad reasons, and holds, I must admit, aren’t that much better. It’s nice that relief pitchers who do great work before the ninth inning have a specific statistic that gets recognizes their accomplishments, but as with saves, there are certain game conditions in which pitchers can generate the statistic without doing their jobs well. Still, I’ve played in leagues in which saves or holds were separate scoring categories and others where they have been combined into one, and felt the former method was a better way to appreciate the work of successful pitchers -- like using quality starts instead of wins. In reality, many of the pitchers who pile up holds are better than those who get the saves.
Alas, that’s not the point of this blog entry today. A few weeks ago, I promised several Twitter users and said on the Fantasy Focus Baseball #06010 podcast that I’d write about holds and, as a man of my word, here it is. I take note of the Tyler Clippards and Joel Peraltas of the world and have for a long time. Seattle Mariners right-hander Fernando Rodney led the major leagues in saves last season, but I doubt anyone would call him one of the best 10 or so relief pitchers in the game, just like the overrated Jim Johnson before him. Check his 2014 season! Rodney’s probably not in the top 30. Clippard, on the other hand, led the big leagues with 40 holds and has been accumulating that statistic for years: He's one of only two pitchers in history with five consecutive seasons of 70 games and 70 innings pitched, while also providing significantly more value than Rodney, if anyone cares. Judging by salaries, at least non-closer relievers are starting to get paid and receiving multiple-year contracts.
But Clippard probably isn’t going to be the fellow to acquire if you want holds this season. He’s starting the season as the closer for the Oakland Athletics, because lefty Sean Doolittle has shoulder woes and frankly, I don’t think even he knows when he’s going to pitch again. It could be a few weeks. It could be a lot longer. I predict Clippard, a pending free agent, saves more than 30 games and Doolittle, when healthy, is the setup man along with Dan Otero, who should see a healthy number of holds. Will Otero be top 10 in holds? Well, here’s my list. But let it be known that predicting holds is often tougher than doing so with saves.
1. Kevin Jepsen, Tampa Bay Rays: He comes off a solid season with the Los Angeles Angels in which his innings didn’t match his appearances, which is good for accruing holds. I also realize there is a new manager in Tampa, but the organization always seems to provide them since they don’t score a ton of runs. Peralta led the majors in holds in 2012-13 and I see Jepsen in that role, setting up for Brad Boxberger and, if healthy, Jake McGee.
3. Bryan Shaw, Cleveland Indians: A really good, durable right-hander on a team I think will win its division, and with a safe closer. Shaw led all pitchers with 80 games last season. To be among the holds leaders, you need to pitch a lot.
4. Jason Grilli, Atlanta Braves: Sure, Atlanta is not a great team, but Grilli also has little chance for saves with Craig Kimbrel around. That’s another theme to look for. Grilli owns the eighth inning.
6. Tony Watson, Pittsburgh Pirates: Not just a LOOGY (left-handed one-out guy), he was second to Clippard in holds last season and the Bucs don’t really have a lock-down right-hander in the setup role, other than perhaps Jared Hughes.
8. Mike Dunn, Miami Marlins: Not many lefties accrue a lot of holds. Last season, only seven of the top 30 in the category threw with their left arm. Dunn was among them and it’s extremely unlikely he’s going to win 10 games again. No relief pitcher had more. But 75 games and 25 holds seems about right.
9. Joba Chamberlain, Detroit Tigers: No matter what you think of closer Joe Nathan or next-in-line Joakim Soria, there seems little chance of Chamberlain getting save chances. That’s good for his holds total.
10. Aaron Barrett, Washington Nationals: Surprise! This selection comes out of left field, but that's true of many holds leaders each year. I don’t trust setup man Casey Janssen to remain healthy, so Barrett could be handling the old Clippard role, preceding closer Drew Storen.
Eric Karabell predicts the top 10 in holds for the 2015 season.