Can We Get Some Statistical Respect For The Setup Men?

In baseball, starters get all the attention, closers get all the glory, and there is not much love left over for anyone that pitches in between. To find evidence you need to look no further than the hold statistic in baseball. What’s that? You don’t know what a hold is? Well that proves my point to some extent. Here is the definition according to BaseballReference.com:

A hold is an unofficial statistic that measures the effectiveness of middle relievers. 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.

So in other words it is a save that happens before the 9th inning. But don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of a hold. The key word in the definition above is “unofficial”. It’s not a stat kept officially by the MLB. As such, even the expansive baseballreference.com does not keep a list of the all-time holds leaders (you can find one on Wikipedia though). The hold is a relatively new statistic in comparison to most others in baseball. It was invented in 1986  by John Dewan and Mike O’Donnell, a pair of Chicagoans who have to be considered patron saints of middle relievers for the efforts to invent a statistic tailored for them.

So, who is the all-time holds leader? The answer is journeyman left-hander Arthur Rhodes who has 231. He is followed on the all-time list by Matt Thornton (206) and LaTroy Hawkins (184). These are players that are far less well-known than their 9th inning counterparts. That list is loaded with big names and is topped by Mariano Rivera (652) and Trevor Hoffman (601). You may notice the big discrepancy between the totals for the all-time holds leaders and the all-time saves leaders. The explanation for that gap is simple: exceptional 8th inning relievers are typically promoted to the closer job at some point in their career (there are many examples of this in baseball today with Zach Britton, Will Harris, Ryan Madsen, Wade Davis, Brad Zeigler, and Kenley Jensen all being current closers that were formerly setup men, just to name a few). That makes it difficult for the best relievers to rack up large numbers of holds over the span of their career. It’s not surprising that the left-handed specialist Rhodes is the all-time leader. He did one thing: get lefties out. Which was a gig that never translated to being a closer.

hold statistic in baseball
Arthur Rhodes, working on a hold.

But isn’t the 8th inning essentially as important as the 9th? Sure, a closer might face a few more difficult batters if a team trots out some pinch hitters in a last ditch effort to take a lead. But a blown lead is a blown lead whether it happens in the 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th inning, and it’s about equally devastating to the team no matter when it happens. So why should the 7th and 8th inning guys be asked to deal with that pressure and labor away with no official statistic to measure their results? That’s what makes the hold a valuable statistic and one that should be made official.

But away from the official MLB scorecard, the hold is starting to gain some exposure among other baseball-centric organizations. You can now find them listed in box scores in USA today and ESPN recognizes and tracks them as well. You can set them as a pitching category on Yahoo Fantasy baseball (which we recommend you do!). But until holds become an official statistic by MLB they will never be a fully ratified part of the game. One has to imagine it would be a bit more difficult to make a case for an outstanding middle reliever to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame under the merits of an unofficial statistic.

So what gives MLB? If you expect fans to sit through all the late innings pitching changes at least give us a stat for middle relievers that we can chew on. Our national past-time’s setup men have labored for too long and for too little statistical glory.

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