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The Absurdity of the Hold Statistic

In yesterday's game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Washington Nationals closer Drew Storen had what could only be described as a meltdown appearance. If not for the triage work of Todd Coffey, Sean Burnett and Henry Rodriguez, as well as a five-run 11th courtesy of a Rick Ankiel sacks-juiced walk and a Mike Morse grand slam, Storen would have squandered the curly-W.

All in all, Drew Storen's butcher job amassed a dismal -0.449 Win Probability Added (-0.457 WPA if you ask FanGraphs instead of Baseball Reference).

He also earned the hold.

Wait, what's that you say? Storen earned the hold even though it was his runners who tied the game? He earned the hold even though he was on the hook for the loss should Coffey allow another inherited runner to score?

Yes, that's correct. In fact, Storen's HD is the 10th worst in WPA terms since the stat was invented, and the 4th worst in a winning game. It's easily the most detrimental hold this season.

And had the Nationals lost in the 9th, Storen would have kept his HD and earned the loss, while Coffey would get the blown save and the Nationals would drop another game below .500. How is this possible? I'll tell you after the jump.

Ten Worst Holds (in WPA Terms) Since the Statistic was Invented in 1986:

Rk Player Tm Opp Rslt Scr Dec IP ERA WPA RE24 aLI Date
1 Steve Karsay TEX SEA W 6-4 H 0.1 27.00 -0.475 -3.033 2.642 23-Aug-05
2 Lee Guetterman NYY TOR L 7-11 H, L 0.2 27.00 -0.474 -2.639 3.037 25-Aug-91
3 Willie Hernandez DET BOS L 5-6 H, L 0.1 81.00 -0.470 -3.076 3.350 06-Apr-88
4 Dan Plesac PIT SFG L 10-12 H, L 0.1 108.00 -0.469 -3.038 2.236 13-Aug-96
5 Carlos Marmol CHC CHW W 5-4 H 0.1 54.00 -0.468 -3.080 2.702 26-Jun-09
6 Kyle McClellan STL FLA W 6-4 H 0.1 54.00 -0.464 -2.907 2.650 13-Aug-08
7 Danny Kolb ATL WSN L 6-8 H, L 0.1 108.00 -0.464 -2.902 2.184 02-Jun-05
8 Scott Garrelts SFG STL L 6-7 H, L 0.1 81.00 -0.456 -2.519 2.996 09-Jul-87
9 Cal Eldred STL MIL L 4-9 H, L 0.1 108.00 -0.455 -2.736 2.162 16-Jun-03
10 Drew Storen WSN ARI W 9-4 H 0.1 81.00 -0.449 -2.731 2.398 05-Jun-11

Before I continue, I should note that the hold is not an official MLB stat, like the save or the win. The hold was invented in 1986 by John Dewan (of Fielding Bible and STATS, Inc. fame) and Mike O'Donnell as a way to give middle relievers credit the way that the save proffers similar credit for closers. The definition varies, but typically a reliever earns a hold whenever he enters in a save situation, records at least one out, and leaves the game still in a save situation.

This is where the stat becomes problematic. Closers, by definition, cannot finish a losing game and earn a save at the same time. However, if the closer blows the save, the setup man still earns his hold. Moreover, if the setup man leaves the game after a hold opportunity, but the next pitcher allows an inherited runner to score the winning run, the first pitcher still earns the hold because he fulfilled the above criteria. Thus, a setup man can earn the HD and the L in the same outing.

In fact, this has happened quite often. Relievers have logged 1,652 holds in games where A) his team lost and B) he posted a zero or negative WPA since the advent of the stat. That's an average of 63 questionable holds per season, a great number of which qualified as losses. The total number of HDs "earned" in losing efforts since 1986 exceeds 5,000.

You may be thinking, "Sure, holds are irrational and arbitrary, but they're no worse than saves, right?" Wrong. You may already know that Fangraphs employs two stats that remedy inherent irrationality of holds and saves, called meltdowns and shutdowns. As further evidence of the absurdity of the hold stat, a whopping 3,278 holds classify as meltdowns since the hold was invented, compared to four saves.

I don't want to be too hard on the stat here. Dewan and O'Donnell were well-intentioned in trying to quantify the value of middle relief. I even include holds as a stat in my fantasy league in order to open up the player universe to all pitchers. That said, the history of the hold stat, including the embarrassing effort of Drew Storen in yesterday's game, serves to remind us that we need to move on from saves and holds.

A parting note: the all-time holds leader is former Yankees and Braves setup man Mike Stanton (not that one, the other one) with 266, of which 34 (13%) occurred in losing games.

Sources: Baseball Reference's Play Index; MLB Rules, Regulations and Statistics; Rob Neyer (link no longer available); Wikipedia