Middle-inning relievers are crucial in baseball, but are often overlooked in fantasy, although this has been rectified in many leagues by requiring spots for setup men and by making holds a scoring category in 6 x 6 roto leagues. While the hold is not officially recognized by Major League Baseball, it has gained enough currency through the statistics services to be used in fantasy. The requirements for a hold are essentially the same as those for a save, except the reliever does not have to finish the game. You can have a succession of relievers each securing a hold in the same game.
In addition to holds, things to look for in a good setup man are strikeouts, ERA and WHIP. Saves are generally rare and wins too random to plan for. Pitching for a winning team is a big plus since you need to have a lead to get a hold. Another thing to look for is consistency. Middle-inning relievers are notorious for following up good years with stinkers. Lastly, the potential to move up into the closer's role is a nice bonus.
There are many more middle-inning men than closers, so you can pluck a decent pitcher from your free agent or waiver wire. Let's take a look at some of the better known commodities.
1. Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers: Broxton's 45 K's are tied for major-league lead among relievers and his 17 holds are third. Broxton had three bad outings in late May/early June which elevated his ERA to 3.63. He's recovered from that slump and has not given up a hit in his last five outings. Broxton has the potential to close if 37-year-old Takashi Saito breaks down.
2. Akinori Otsuka, Rangers: When Eric Gagne was on the disabled list, Otsuka converted four of six save opportunities. If Gagne makes a third trip to the DL, then Otsuka will become the closer again. In the meantime, he will have to settle for setting up Gagne. He has seven holds and will get a lot more if Gagne stays healthy. Either as a closer or a setup man, Otsuka has excellent value going forward.
3. Rafael Soriano, Braves: Soriano had a strong season as a setup man in Seattle last season with 18 holds. This season he has been even better for the Braves. He already has 12 holds and an outstanding 0.65 WHIP. He backs up an old and creaky closer, Bob Wickman, so he also gets the occasional save, picking up five so far.
4. Derrick Turnbow, Brewers: Turnbow was awful last year and lost his job as the closer to Francisco Cordero. This season he and Cordero have been thriving in their respective roles. Cordero leads the majors in saves (27) and Turnbow is leading in holds with 20. Turnbow's ERA (3.73) is high, but that is due to some bad outings in May. It's been trending down since then.
5. Scott Linebrink, Padres: Last year's leader in holds (36) is having another good season with 11 so far. Pitching for the first-place Padres helps. Linebrink's strikeouts are below his career average, so that should trend upward.
Armando Benitez, Marlins: Benitez has been good as the setup man to Kevin Gregg since being dealt to Florida. He has had four holds, a 2.00 ERA and a tiny 0.78 WHIP since rejoining the Fish. Benitez could get a shot at closing if Gregg falters. Gregg is inexperienced in this role, with only 13 career saves.
Scot Shields, RP, Angels: You have to love his consistency. He was second in holds (31) in 2006 and is second in holds (18) this season.
1. Aaron Heilman, Mets: Heilman was a highly sought-after setup man prior to the season. Never happy as a reliever, Heilman has lost the confidence of manager Willie Randolph, who is more likely to go to Joe Smith or Pedro Feliciano in the eighth. If you still have Heilman on your roster, you would be better served dropping him for Smith or Feliciano. Both have more holds and significantly better ERAs.
2. Hideki Okajima, Red Sox: The law of averages has to catch up with Okajima. He is a good pickup for holds (11) but don't expect his mastery of AL hitters to continue. He won't sustain his current 1.01 ERA. Okajima was good in Japan, but not dominating, with a 3.36 lifetime ERA in 11 Japanese pro seasons. He's too old (31) to be suddenly finding himself.
3. Heath Bell, Padres: Speaking of the law of averages, I submit Mr. Heath Bell. Before this season Bell was considered a quadruple-A pitcher: too good for the minors, but not good enough for the majors. Coming into this season his career ERA was 4.92. Bell is tied with Broxton with the most strikeouts among relievers. He is part of a deep Padres bullpen, but he does not have the resume that a Linebrink has. Bell has fluke written all over him.
4. Scott Proctor, Yankees: Proctor pitched a lot of innings last season: 102 1/3 in 83 games and compiled 26 holds, tied for the fifth overall. He's not pitching as many innings this season as Joe Torre has been quick with the hook on both his starters and his relievers. Proctor is the best of a weak Yankees middle relief corps. That's not saying much.
5. Brad Lidge, Astros: It's not always a good thing when your setup man gets promoted to closer. Lidge was awful in 2006, awful again this April and then finally pitched well in May. He got back some of his swagger but was rushed back to closing, which was a mistake. He was 0-for-3 in save opportunities. Now he's on the DL and Dan Wheeler becomes the closer again in Houston with Chad Qualls setting up. Don't expect to see Lidge as either a closer or a setup man until sometime in July.
Juan Rincon, RP, Twins: An example of the good year/bad year rule. Opposing batters are hitting .303 against him.
Joel Zumaya, RP, Tigers: His ruptured tendon will keep him out of action until August.