Bullpens gain more and more importance each season. Starters are throwing fewer innings, and relievers are throwing more. As relievers have become more a part of the game, the same can be said for fantasy baseball. While fantasy baseball used to be just about closers, as an industry we are now prioritizing the elite middle relievers. Saves and holds leagues are becoming more common with every season which is a good thing. Sometimes a team’s best reliever might come in to face the heart of the order in the eighth inning instead of getting the save in the ninth. This should not reduce their fantasy value. In this article, I outline some of the strategies behind drafting in saves and holds leagues and identify three players to keep an eye on late in your fantasy drafts.
The season is not here yet, but why not get a head start and jump in a Fantrax Classic Draft contest? Get a jump on the season with a Best Ball league or maybe a Draft and Hold. Or put some green on the line with a new season-long league to try and conquer. There’s no better time than now to get your baseball on!
The Trends of Saves and Holds
Last year, Ryan Kirksey wrote an excellent article for Fantrax analyzing saves and holds leagues. I decided to build on his article and update it for the coming season. The table below is from last year’s article looking at trends in saves and holds from 2018-2021, but I also included a column for 2022.
|Players with 30+ saves||11||10||9||10|
|Players with 30+ holds||7||3||3||1|
|Players with 20+ saves||21||22||19||18|
|Players with 20+ holds||28||25||19||21|
|Players with 10+ saves||43||37||39||35|
|Players with 10+ holds||106||88||100||91|
The data is great, but what trends does it show? To start, the number of holds is nearly double the number of saves available. Glancing quickly, you might think that this means it is easy to find relievers who have way more holds than saves. This is not what you should take away from this. In last year’s article, it was identified that there are more players with 30+ saves than 30+ holds and that remained in 2023. The days of the dominant closer are not dead. Ten players saw 30+ saves while only one player saw 30+ holds.
Teams still rely on elite closers to finish games for them however, it is important to consider the players who receive both saves and holds. These players are just as valuable despite receiving less consistent save opportunities. You can see the number of relievers with saves and holds combined in the table below.
|Players with 30+ Saves/Holds||19|
|Players with 20+ Saves/Holds||62|
|Players with 30+ Saves/Holds||143|
Suddenly there are a lot more options for you to draft in your fantasy league. Closers are important because they are locked into a late-inning role. However, there are plenty of other options out there if you miss out on the elite closer run.
Strategies for Drafting Saves and Holds Leagues
The number one strategy that I tend to use in leagues like this is to not pay up for relievers. In a typical league, there are only a handful of relief pitchers that are guaranteed to get you saves. This puts a premium on the position and pushes relievers up the draft board. In saves and holds leagues, you are afforded the opportunity to wait a little bit longer. Instead of ten players that can help set your team apart, there are 19. Instead of 18 players that are solid options, there are 62. Prioritize other positions before prioritizing relievers.
If you still want the saves and holds category to be a position of strength, one of the most important things to do is identify teams with a set group of good relievers. If teams have a plethora of high-leverage relievers in their bullpen, then they will likely rotate who gets the opportunities depending on matchups. Two teams that instantly stick out in my head are Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. Philadelphia has added several bullpen arms to the mix to compete for high-leverage situations. Seranthony Dominguez, Jose Alvarado, Gregory Soto, and Craig Kimbrel are all options in that bullpen and the opportunities might be spread out too much for any of them to have significant value. In the case of Tampa Bay, it seems they are always finding new relievers to throw into high-leverage situations. I am avoiding this bullpen.
So, if I am avoiding those teams, which teams should you be targeting? There is importance in drafting relievers from a good team, but maybe not as much as you think. Of the 19 relievers with 30+ saves and holds, 10 of them came from playoff teams. Of the 62 relievers with 20+ saves and holds over half (32) of them came from teams that did not make the playoffs. Playing on a team with a good record is less important than being locked into a high-leverage role. The Cardinals and Brewers are two teams that I think are good targets. The Brewers had three players with 30+ saves and holds, but really it was only two since Josh Hader was traded mid-season. The Cardinals also only had two players each with 26 saves and holds. These teams show a clear reliance on a set group of players.
Three Players to Target in Saves and Hold Leagues
Giovanny Gallegos- RP St. Louis Cardinals
I mentioned the Cardinals above, and now recommend you target Giovanny Gallegos. The Cardinals have a clear one-two punch in the bullpen with Ryan Helsley and Gallegos. Entering 2022, many assumed that Gallegos was going to be handed the closer role and when that did not happen, it seemed he fell off the fantasy map. The Cardinals still relied heavily on Gallegos who posted 14 saves and 12 holds with a 3.05 ERA. Looking at just the second half of the season, Gallegos was one of the best relievers in baseball. After the All-Star Break, he posted a 1.96 ERA.
Gallegos also posts high strikeout rates to help your fantasy team. Since 2019, Gallegos is averaging 11.12 K/9. He is as consistent as they come and his WHIP over that period sits at a sparkling 0.89. Steamer projects ERA regression, but I do not see it. In the last two seasons, he has posted an average FIP of 2.80 and I do not see the HR/9 increasing much higher than it did this year.
Looking ahead to 2023, St. Louis has not added any competition for saves or holds to the bullpen in free agency. Gallegos should be locked into a high-leverage role for this season on what figures to be a solid Cardinals team. Gallegos is currently going around pick 280 in fantasy drafts and that is a steal. He is a player to target in saves and holds leagues.
James Karinchak- RP Cleveland Guardians
James Karinchak has had a roller coaster of a career so far. He was dominant in 2020 before his struggles in 2021 led to a demotion, but he returned to be dominant again in the second half of 2022. He combined for 11 saves and holds during this stretch. More specifically, these 11 opportunities came from August forward during which he posted a 1.91 ERA. Karinchak is back and the Guardians figure to rely heavily on him in 2023.
His profile does carry risk. The strikeout rates and stuff are incredible, but he lacks control. The lack of control is what got him in trouble back in 2021 and he will need to show continued improvement with this in 2023. In addition, his success in 2022 came with a 0.46 HR/9. This is unsustainable and figures to creep up closer to one in 2023.
Looking at Cleveland’s bullpen the other high-leverage relievers are Emmanuel Clase and Trevor Stephan. Clase is the clear closer, but the set-up role is up for grabs. Stephan was great last year, but down the stretch, the Guardians leaned on Karinchak for the big moments. I think both players will get their chances to pitch in front of Clase. That being said, if Clase is unavailable Karinchak is the guy. Stephan only had three saves all year despite being with the team for the entirety of the season. If I am picking the next man up it is Karinchak, and he is currently going outside the top 450 picks in drafts. He is a great value with where he is going right now.
A.J. Minter- RP Atlanta Braves
Remember at the beginning of this article when I said only one player had 30+ holds in 2022? That player is A.J. Minter, and he is going virtually unnoticed heading into 2023. Minter was undoubtedly the best set-up man in baseball last season posting a 2.06 ERA, a K/BB ratio of 6.27, and most importantly for this discussion 34 holds. In 2022, Minter dropped the cutter usage by 12% while increasing his four-seam usage by 7% and changeup usage by 5%. This helped him to increase his strikeout percentage by almost 10 percent while nearly cutting his walk rate in half.
This marks the second season in a row in which Minter has posted at least 20 holds. With his newfound success, there is no reason to not bet on this happening again in 2023. Kenley Jansen is no longer with the team, pushing Minter into the next-man-up role in Atlanta. He could see save opportunities if Raisel Iglesias is unavailable, but regardless should be an elite contributor in saves and holds leagues. The most astonishing part is that Minter is going outside the top 570 picks in drafts right now. Minter is my favorite target for saves and holds leagues.
In case you were curious if I walk the walk, I drafted two out of these three players listed in the industry Ottoneu Mock Draft! I love all three of these players for leagues with this scoring setting.