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January 3, 2010

Hall of Fame 2010: Lee Smith

From now until the Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2010 is announced, The Hall is going to be breaking down each candidate. Some write ups will be lengthy...some will be the opposite. Some will be brand new pieces...some will be re-hashes of previous pieces.

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).

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? 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 with 591. Truth is, he was the first one to 500, 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 nine 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 once held the record for most games finished in his career.

No one?

Hoffman (now at 820) recently surpassed Smith’s total 802. After that, Rivera (773) and Billy Wagner (639) are the only two active players within 200 games finished of Smith.

Speaking of closing out games (and getting back to saves), Smith had 13 years where he tallied 25 or more saves. Hoffman did it 14 out of 15 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.

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”?

BallHype: hype it up!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't understand the knock on Lee Smith. The reason I see is that he was pitching during a transition period for relievers. While fireman such as Gossage and Fingers regularly went 2 or 3 innings, Smith was one of those in between players. This of course was not his fault. Along the way he managed to save a then record 478 games. ERA can be misleading. While the players you mentioned look like this on paper:
1. Sutter: 2.83
2. Fingers: 2.90
3. Gossage: 3.01
4. Smith: 3.03

The adjusted ERA taking into account the time period and ball parks, looks like this:

1. Sutter: 136
2. Smith: 132
3. Gossage: 126
4. Fingers: 120

Somehow the HOF does not like Smith for whatever reason it may be. He was a great player during his time. His control was somewhat questionable, but he threw hard and threw well. Hopefully people will recognize his accomplishments and give him a well-earned place in the Hall of Fame.