Trevor Hoffman versus Arthur Rhodes

On Sept. 7, Trevor Hoffman closed out the St. Louis Cardinals for his 600th career save. Some feel the achievement makes Hoffman a lock for the Hall of Fame and sets a mark for career saves that will fall only when the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, makes an appearance sometime in early 2012 for his 601st.

We shouldn’t fault Hoffman if he finds himself second to Rivera in a few years, because Rivera is easily in the Hall and Hoffman would still be at least 122 saves ahead of Lee Smith, who has his own Hall of Fame supporters.

While Hoffman’s achievement is truly notable, the save itself is of increasing importance in baseball. Saves were initially conceived as a way to recognize good relievers, but I’d argue that they’ve gone on to have a tremendous impact on fantasy baseball. Saves are a roto category filled with players who contribute little else statistically and are reliant on their real team leading lots of games by three runs or fewer going into the ninth inning, just to provide opportunities to post the one stat that helps your fantasy team.

But that’s just fantasy baseball. Smarter people with an eye for the bigger picture, like Joe Posnanski, argue convincingly that the save statistic has changed how managers manage the game on the field. The save has also changed how general managers pay relievers. Those with a history of piling up saves make far more money than other relievers with similar skills, simply by occupying a certain role in the bullpen.

Hoffman’s historic endgame total had me wondering about another controversial reliever statistic. What about the hold? Are there any looming landmark totals possible with that one? As it turns out, there is one on the horizon.

The hold is a statistic that’s really about as silly as the save, but it is far less popular because it’s not an official MLB stat and doesn’t have its own category in any respectable fantasy baseball league. Here’s a nice summary of its definition, but in short a hold is awarded to a middle reliever who serves as a bridge from starter to closer by holding the lead in a save situation, but not being in a situation to vulture a win or tally a save.

While we’ve all watched Hoffman stumble to 600 saves, Arthur Rhodes is quietly sprinting toward the all-time Holds lead. At the moment, Rhodes trails Mike Stanton on the career leader board with 240 holds to Stanton’s 266. Rhodes has 23 this season and could pass Stanton for first around the time Rivera passes Hoffman for career saves.

During Hoffman’s 600 saves, he has a 0.84 ERA, a 0.73 WHIP, and 663 strikeouts in 601 innings. During Rhodes’ 240 holds, he has a 1.14 ERA, a 0.83 WHIP, and 261 strikeouts in 229.1 innings. Hoffman’s numbers in those save-earning outings are better than Rhodes’ numbers in hold-earning outings, but not by much. Since the blown saves and other non-qualifying appearances are out of the summaries I give for both pitchers, their numbers in those spots are better than their overall numbers.

When you compare the two without cherry-picking as I did, Hoffman has a career ERA of 2.87 and an ERA+ of 141. Rhodes, who is hampered by a few unsuccessful years early in his career as a part-time starter, checks in at 4.06 and 110 respectively. That’s much more of a difference and indicative of what many would naturally feel justly ranks Hoffman as the better reliever.

However, Hoffman’s career Wins Above Replacement, courtesy of Fangraphs, is closer to Rhodes’, 22.8 compared to Rhodes’ 18.9. Hoffman, the clubhouse leader for greatest closer of all time, has been worth just a few extra wins, not per season, but over the course of his career, than has Rhodes. Nonetheless, Hoffman will still be considered a far more valuable player than Rhodes and may end up in Cooperstown.

Not only that, but if Rhodes does eventually rank first in career holds, no one is going to care. All because the harebrained hold is less popular than the overly important, but equally silly save.

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David Schultz
13 years ago

Holds are inequitable. A reliever comes into a game with a one-run lead, gets one out and proceeds to load the bases before being relieved.  Since the lead is still intact he gets a hold. The follow-up reliever gives up a Sac Fly allowing the game to be tied, then retires the next hitter.  Reliever #2 gets the blown save.

I ask, which reliever was more effective?  Reliever#1 gets a positive stat and reliever #2 a negative one.

Richard Barbieri
13 years ago

Perhaps the best way to compare Rhodes’ time as a reliever only:

Rhodes: 828 IP, 3.38 ERA, 329 BB, 874 K

For Hoffman, that’s his career numbers. Of course, as you point you, they’re all jousting for second place behind

Rivera (as RP): 1090.2 IP, 2.03 ERA, 245 BB, 1009 K

David Wade
13 years ago

Good point.  I also meant at one point to compare Rhodes’ career income to Hoffman’s.  Maybe I can save that til next Thursday and check out several closers vs. talented relievers with less glamorous roles.

David Wade
13 years ago

Very true.  Blown saves also turn into wins if your team picks you up in the bottom of the inning.  But my favorite is the win without throwing a pitch.