The best set-up men in MLB history

Profile Picture: Robert Criscola

June 24th, 2020

As the usage of bullpen arms continues to increase in MLB games, so has the value of the set-up man. The all-important bridge to the closer has to be reliable, but also flexible enough to enter at any time, even a save situation if the closer needs a night off.

With a firm reliance on MLB’s unofficial "Hold" statistic, let’s rank the five greatest set-up men of all-time. Relievers who accumulated over 100 career saves were excluded from consideration.

5. Joaquin Benoit

Joaquin Benoit, who retired in 2017 with a 3.83 career ERA, has the fourth-most holds of all-time (211).

After some uneven years in Texas, half of which he spent as a starter, Benoit bloomed in Detroit in 2011 at age 33. He often held down the fort in crucial situations before Jose Valverde came in to close the game. Benoit’s Tigers got as far as the World Series in 2012 but couldn’t get past the Giants.

Benoit became Detroit’s primary closer in 2013 (24 saves), but age caught up with him soon after that. He began bouncing around from team-to-team before finally calling it quits.

4. Arthur Rhodes

Arthur Rhodes is the all-time leader in holds (231), but he gets points off for his elevated career ERA of 4.08.

Rhodes began his career in Baltimore as a starter before transitioning to middle relief. He began appearing in more crucial roles for the Orioles from 1997-99, though never as the primary closer. He spent the next four seasons in Seattle, including the Mariners’ magical 116-win campaign in 2001 in which he went 8-0 with a 1.72 ERA in relief. Rhodes tallied 111 holds in Seattle alone.

Rhodes had moderate degrees of success as he made seven more stops along the way before hanging up his cleats in 2011.

3. Tyler Clippard

Tyler Clippard is third all-time in holds (215) and is still going strong at age 35 for the Twins.

Clippard was remarkably consistent for the Nationals from 2008 to 2014, leading the majors in holds (40) in his final year in Washington. From then on he began bouncing around the majors, suiting up for eight different clubs over the last five seasons. Clippard’s career ERA is a respectable 3.14.

2. Joe Smith

Sidearmer Joe Smith is fifth all-time in holds (210) and will have a chance to add to that figure at age 36 with the Astros this season.

Smith came up with the Mets in 2007 and finished 26 games over the next two seasons. He began seeing even more high-leverage work with the Indians and Angels, earning 30 saves between those two clubs from 2009-2016. His career ERA is a robust 2.98.

1. Tony Watson

Southpaw Tony Watson, who tied the record held by Joel Peralta for most holds in a season (41) in 2015, is second all-time in holds (217) and has a chance to eclipse Rhodes’ record in 2020.

Watson was at his peak in 2014, when he went 10-2 with a 1.63 ERA in relief and earned an All-Star game nomination, a rare honor for a non-closer. After being elevated to the closer’s role for parts of 2016 and 2017 in Pittsburgh, Watson was dealt to the Dodgers. He appeared in some high-leverage situations for L.A. during their World Series run in 2017, earning three holds along the way.

Watson has spent the last two seasons in San Francisco, where he’s amassed 57 holds. 

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