The hold: a useless stat 20 years ago, and still useless today

On Thursday, the Reds beat the Mets 8-6.   Cincinnati’s pitching line looked like this:

Cincinnati IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA
Arroyo (W, 1-0) 6.0 8 5 5 2 4 0 7.50
Burton (H, 1) 0.1 2 1 1 0 0 0 6.75
Rhodes (H, 1) 1.0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0.00
Weathers (H, 1) 0.2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.00
Cordero (S, 1) 1.0 0 0 0 0 3 0 0.00

Yes, Jared Burton got a “hold” despite retiring only one of three batters he faced, giving up two hits and allowing a run (which scored after he left the game on a sacrifice fly).  The score was 8-5 Reds when Burton entered the contest.  When he left, it was still 8-5, but runners were on first and third and there was only one out.  Fortunately for the Reds, Arthur Rhodes, David Weathers, and Francisco Cordero all pitched effectively, and Cincinnati hung on for the victory.

However, Burton got that hold, just like Rhodes and Weathers (Cordero was credited with the save).  That’s because pitching effectively is not a requirement for a hold.  All you have to do is enter a game in a save situation, record at least one out, and leave the game without having given up the lead.  That’s the STATS Inc. standard, anyway; according to SportsTicker, you don’t even need to record an out.

The hold statistic was invented by John Dewan in 1986, the same year Dewan became a partner in STATS.  In 1989 the hold would be featured in an article in Sports Illustrated, which doesn’t seem to be available online.  In response to the article, a long-suffering Cubs fan named Mike Hoffman would write the following letter (published in November 1989), pointing out the absurdity in the stat:

While I agree that the middle reliever is the most overlooked player in baseball, I question the qualifications suggested for awarding a “hold” (INSIDE BASEBALL, July 24). The July 25 Cubs-Cardinals game illustrates my point.

With Chicago ahead 3-1 going into the last of the seventh, Calvin Schiraldi was summoned to protect the lead—a perfect hold opportunity if ever there was one. Schiraldi walked the first batter; the second man up sent Cub right-fielder Andre Dawson to the wall for a fly ball; Schiraldi walked the next batter. Chicago manager Don Zimmer brought in Les Lancaster. He faced one hitter, who flied out. Zimmer called in Steve Wilson, who got a strikeout to end that inning but gave up a single in the eighth. Zimmer next brought in Mitch Williams, who finished and got the save.

Schiraldi, Lancaster and Wilson all met your criteria for a hold—they did not win, lose or save the game, nor did they blow the save. But surely Schiraldi’s performance was not worthy of a hold. Give the hold a clearer definition by adding some requirement of effective performance, and you’ll have a statistic that truly recognizes the middle reliever.

That was almost 20 years ago, and it detailed a situation rather similar to the one that came up in the Mets-Reds game, and yet in those 20 years the definition of a hold has remained the same.  It’s still just as ludicrous.

In case you were wondering how I knew about that letter to the editor…

In October of 1989 I was working with Hoffman, who in addition to his Cub fandom was an ardent Miami Hurricanes apologist.  One day while Mike was out of the office, presumably sticking needles in his Lou Holtz voodoo doll, a secretary informed me that my assistance was needed.  For what, I asked?  “There’s a telephone call for Mike,” she said.

I suggested she take a message, but she told me that it was someone from Sports Illustrated, and that it had something to do with a letter.  I remembered Mike talking about writing the letter (he hated Calvin Schiraldi), and thinking it was a waste of time, but here was Sports Illustrated on the phone.  Apparently if they couldn’t get his express permission to run the letter (SI needed his permission because the letter had to be edited for length), it wasn’t going to be in the magazine.  Now, I knew that Hoffman would love to have his letter printed in the mag, so I did what any upstanding citizen would do.

I impersonated him over the telephone.

It worked out great.  The caller from SI never questioned that I was Hoffman, and I assured them that any changes they made to the letter (other than basic content) would be fine.  Mike enjoyed the story when he got back, but enjoyed seeing his name in the magazine even more.  I know that may sound a bit strange, but back then Sports Illustrated was still relevant.  (He would get another letter printed in the magazine 12 years later, when he criticized SI choosing Chris Rock as its cover subject for a “tribute to fans” issue.)

Back to the stat.  The hold still isn’t an official statistic, thankfully, but you see it everywhere, including in the box scores for  I’m not sure why.  Personally, I think it should go the way of the game-winning RBI, but there are some people who still value the hold as a statistic.

I’m not one of them.