By NICK LECO
August 13, 2008
The role of the relief pitcher in Major League Baseball has certainly changed over the years. At one point in the game’s history, relievers were a fallback option in case the starting pitcher struggled; over time, relief pitching has transformed into a highly specialized occupation with strictly defined roles. Lee Smith entered the league during a time when the closer’s role was transitioning from what it once was - often times, a multi-inning affair - to what it is today - one and done in the ninth. Smith’s case for induction makes for one of the most interesting Hall of Fame debates ever because, as one of the very first one-inning closers to knock on Cooperstown’s door, there isn’t much precedent for voters to fall back on. Today we will try to untangle the mess that is Smith’s Hall of Fame candidacy.
LEE SMITH -
Innings: 1,289 1/3
Teams: Cubs (1980-1987), Red Sox (1988-1990), Cardinals (1990-1993), Yankees (1993), Orioles (1994), Angels (1995-1996), Reds (1996), Expos (1997)
Throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Smith was one of the most dominant and feared relief pitchers in baseball. The 6’ 6” pitcher was counted on to close out games by several different teams and when he retired in 1997, he was the all-time leader in saves with 478 - a record that would stand for 13 years until Trevor Hoffman topped it. Smith saved more than 20 games in 13 consecutive seasons from 1983 to 1995. He saved more than 30 games 10 times during that span- including six straight season from 1990 to 1995 - and more than 40 games three times. In total, he led the league in saves four times - three times in the National League and once in the American League.
Smith was a seven-time All-Star (1983, 1987, 1991-1995) and was named the Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year three times (National League 1991-1992; American League 1994). His best year was 1991, when he finished second in the N.L. Cy Young voting and saved a then-N.L. record 47 games to go along with a 2.34 ERA. Overall, Smith had four top-10 Cy Young award finishes, including three top-fives. He also received MVP votes in four seasons, placing as high as eighth (1991). Smith still holds the Major League record for most games finished (802) and ended his career third on the all-time list in most games pitched (he has since dropped to ninth).
While there is little precedent with which to compare Smith’s career as a true late-inning reliever in terms of Hall of Fame worthiness, he does have some similarities to the few relievers that are in. When compared to Dennis Eckersely, who played during the same era and is considered one of the best closers ever, Smith has a similar save percentage (82 percent versus 84 percent), and inherited more runners per appearance (.50 to .49) and recorded more outs per save than the Eck (3.72 to 3.33). The recent Hall of Fame inductions of relievers Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage helps Smith’s candidacy. Sutter’s N.L. single-season and career saves records were broken by Smith in 1991 and 1993, respectively. Smith finished his career with more than 170 more saves than the Goose.
The biggest strike against Smith is the fact that he was primarily a relief pitcher. There are only five members of the Baseball Hall of Fame who were primarily relievers. One of them, Eckersely, started more than 350 games in addition to his relief work, and two others, Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm, pitched in relief in a much different era, as evidenced by the fact that each finished their career with more than 100 victories and more than 1,700 innings pitched. Smith’s role as a one-inning closer was, by and large, a new phenomenon in the early ‘80s, and he is one of the first relievers of his kind whose career is being considered as possibly worthy of Hall of Fame induction. As a result, there are few Hall of Famers voters can legitimately compare Smith to, making him a test case of sorts.
A high number of saves is obviously the biggest thing Smith has going for him in his Hall of Fame bid, but many consider saves an overrated stat. Factor in the fact that Smith recorded many of his saves while pitching just one inning, and his impact on the game could be considered diminished. If Smith were to join the five relievers in the Hall, he will have pitched fewer innings than all but one - Sutter - but Smith also pitched in close to 400 more games than Sutter. Smith also failed to win a Cy Young, something Sutter did in 1979 and Eckersely did in 1991. Eckersely and Wilhelm also helped their causes by winning MVP awards, an honor Smith never seriously contended for.
While Smith finished his career as the saves leader for both the Cubs and Cardinals, he played for many teams during his career and failed to seriously align himself with one team. Smith played for six different teams in his last five years in the league. Smith also never had an impact in the postseason, playing on mostly average to poor teams. In the two postseasons Smith did participate in - 1984 with the Cubs and 1988 with the Red Sox - he posted a 8.44 ERA with two losses in four games.
Sutter’s election in 2006 and Gossage’s in 2008 clearly indicate that voters are starting to warm up more to the idea of relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame. However, Sutter didn’t get in until his 13th year of eligibility, and Gossage his eighth. Smith has been on the ballot only five times thus far, so he may have some waiting to do. Smith will get elected in a few years, after the celebrated careers of Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman are over. Their retirements and subsequent Hall of Fame eligibility will obviously lead to comparisons with the game’s all-time greatest closers, and Smith’s career will get a closer look and his Hall of Fame candidacy will gain momentum. Smith’s consistency was evident in his being one of the game’s best closers for more than a decade, and this in itself justifies his induction into the Hall of Fame.
Nick Leco’s Cooperstown Bound? column runs every Wednesday here on National Pastime.
Photo by Getty Images
Be sure to check out our previous Cooperstown Bound? columns: Roberto Alomar, Jack Morris, Omar Vizquel, Don Mattingly, Curt Schilling, Andre Dawson, Kenny Lofton, Fred McGriff, Alan Trammell, Mark McGwire, Bert Blyleven.