April 23, 2008

I'm late in saying it, but baseball is back, baby!

We’re three weeks into it, but the new baseball season is here.

Finally.

And, like a broken record, I was getting the same old advice about what to write about. Sure, “The Hall” has been dormant for a while (sorry, troops), but I don’t know that anyone has been paying attention to what I am writing when I hear comments like “you should make your predictions for the upcoming season” or “give me some tips as to who should I pick in my fantasy league”.

Fact of the matter is this…I make NO predictions (Red Sox over the Dodgers) and I’ve never legitimately finished first in any fantasy league I’ve take part in.

Ever.

So what to write about? Any knucklehead with a keyboard can bang out some reference to John Mayer doing play by play in Japan.

But I won’t.

Frank Thomas being released by the Blue Jays

Too easy…but it’s probably coming.

Me? I’m going the introspective route.

March 31 was the OFFICIAL beginning of Spring. It wasn’t March 21 like the calendars say. And it sure as Hell wasn’t when baseball trotted out its latest multi-cultural money maker last week. To me, those are both “Hallmark Holidays”.

For me, the minute that first pitch is thrown in Cincinnati marks the beginning of Spring.

Now, I realize that that might not be the most popular thing I’ve said (and for the record…this was), but along the way, I’ve been called plenty of names. Most of them are warranted…some not. Either way, everyone has a right to their opinion. But of all the names that have been hurled my way, there is one I don’t mind.

Contrarian.

Basically, a contrarian is a person who deliberately goes against the popular opinion. I’m not about to say I go against the grain on purpose…but there are definitely a few good examples of why people have hurled this moniker my way.

I’m a tried and true Star Wars dork, but I have ZERO desire to ever watch ANY of the Lord of the Rings movies.

I went to college in the 90s, yet loathe the Dave Matthews Band.

The kicker to most...I grew up in Illinois and I HATE the Chicago Cubs.

Wrigley Field, the little “c” on their hats, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and the fact that they call themselves the “Lovable Losers”…they all get my goat (reference intended). I do find it endearing, however, that while Boston overwhelmingly embraced the arrival of Daisuke Matsuzaka…the “Lovable Losers” have these shirts available just outside the “Friendly Confines” to celebrate Kosuke Fukudome.

Blarg.

There are some Cubs I HAVE liked however.

Nomar (naturally, but I would never consider him a “Cub”), Andre Dawson, Leon Durham and for some reason…Lee Arthur Smith.

I mean, here was a guy that when he entered the game…you knew it was over. Sure, he’d give you a heart attack every now and again, but ultimately, he’d pick up the save and Cub fans could rejoice as the “W” flag was hoisted high above Wrigleyville.

Recently, we’ve seen a handful of closers make their way to Cooperstown…so why shouldn’t that trend continue with Lee Smith? It’s almost like he’s the forgotten closer out there.

But I’m not sure why.

Right now, Trevor Hoffman is the all-time saves leader. Truth is, he was the first one to 500 and every time he nails down another…it gets mentioned on SportsCenter. But before Hoffman was the all-time leader…Smith was.

For 13 years.

Oh…and his 478 saves dwarfs the 310 and 300 that recent Hall inductees Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter notched.

But Smith must have been a one inning pitcher…guys like Goose consistently earned his saves by going two or more innings. I mean, that was what we heard last year when Gossage was knocking on the door of the Hall, right?

Well…so did Smith.

At the start of his career, Smith had a stretch of more than 830 innings pitched compared to 592 games played. That’s 83 or more innings pitched in eight of nine years. Three years in a row, he eclipsed 100 or more innings.


By comparison, a guy like Hoffman has seven years where he has pitched fewer innings than the number of games he’s appeared in. Actually, aside from Mariano Rivera…that seems to be the trend of many of the big name closers out there today.

Here’s a fun one for ya…raise your hand if you knew Lee Smith held the record for most games finished in his career.

No one?

Hoffman is second, nearly 70 behind Smith (737 to 802)…but after that, Rivera (664) and Billy Wagner (608) are the only two ACTIVE players within 200 games finished of Smith.

Speaking of closing out games (and getting back to saves), Smith had thirteen years where he tallied 25 or more saves. Hoffman did it 12 out of 13 years (he was injured for most of 2003). Gossage and Sutter each had seven seasons TOTAL with 25 or more.

It is relatively common now, but in 1987, Smith became only the second pitcher EVER (Dan Quisenberry was the first) to reach 30 or more saves in four consecutive seasons. When it came to closing out games in the early 90s…Smith and Dennis Eckersley were by far the most dependable and durable pair out there.

And we all know where Eckersley’s career ended up.

The big knock on Smith is his ERA. People will complain up and down that the big fella gave up WAY too many runs to be considered for the Hall of Fame. They’ll suggest that a Hall worthy closer needs to have a microscopic ERA before they’ll even consider them.
Sutter had a career ERA of 2.83, Rollie Fingers...2.90. Right ahead of Smith's career ERA of 3.03 is Gossage and his 3.01, so you can see that Lee isn't necessarily that far off the mark.


Another fun fact (thanks Wikipedia) that makes Smith a fun conversation piece is this...he is one of a small percentage of players (the list of pitchers is even smaller) to have their first big league hit be a home run. Also on that list…Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm. Smith hit his off of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro…no clue who surrendered the Wilhelm dinger. Suffice it to say, they were the only two longballs the pair managed.

So, here we have Smith…a seven time All-Star, three times a top five finisher in the Cy Young Award voting. Will he make the Hall? He looks like a longshot when compared to the guys who dominate the highlights on a nightly basis, but I don’t think you can discredit him.


Even by looking at the votes he's gotten, he's on pace with what Sutter and Gossage did before him. Sutter was on the ballot 13 years before he got in and in his first year of eligibility...he only garnered 23% of the vote. Gossage wasn't much better. Nine years on the ballot, he ranged from the initial 33% to the eventual 85% he got last year. Smith has been on six years and hit the ballot strong with a 36% showing. This past year, he climbed to his highest total...45%. Remember, it only takes three-fourths of the writers to vote for you to get in and Sutter eeked by at 76%.

Compared to his contemporaries (which is what you MUST do when discussing the Hall of Fame), Smith stacks up statistically…he belongs in the conversation. Hell, he belongs right there at the beginning of the discussion, but the problem is, Smith has been the victim of so many modern day players…through free agency, he lost his identity.

It is MUCH easier for the casual fan to embrace a player who toes the same rubber from year to year a la Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera. But then again…if you are going to spend eight years with the Cubs and only be part of ONE winning ballclub, you can’t blame a guy.

I mean…who REALLY wants to be known as a lifelong “Loveable Loser”?

***Note: Based on the "Is Lee Smith a Hall of Famer" poll that was on the page...70% of you think he is.***



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