The Hall of Fame Case of Lee Smith
Hall of Fame ballots were due by December 27, and the results will be announced on January 6. A player must appear on 75 percent of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballots to be inducted. I’ll have more commentary on the entire ballot soon, but in this post, I’ll more closely examine the case of one former Cub: Lee Smith.
Closer Lee Smith retired in 1997 with the all-time record for career saves (478) and an impressive career that saw him lead the league in saves four times and finish in the top five a total of eleven times. A seven-time All Star, Smith had a reputation as a menacing figure on the mound (being 6’5” 220lbs always helps) and struck out nearly a batter an inning (8.7 SO/9) producing a career ERA of 3.03 and WHIP of 1.256. His career rWAR is 29.6, which currently places him 10th all-time among relievers, but five of those ahead of him (Eckersley, Gordon, Shantz, Swindell, and Marberry) accumulated a significant portion of their value as starters, placing Smith solidly within the top five pure relievers of all time.
Smith debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2003 with a solid 42.3%. His support remained fairly steady over time, peaking at 50.6% in 2012. Yet in 2014, with a packed ballot and a maximum of ten candidates per ballot making selection difficult for many voters, Smith dropped dramatically to just 29.9%. Grandfathered into the old rules with the change to a maximum of ten years on the ballot, Smith will be allowed to finish out his 15 years and thus have this year and two more remaining to gain support. Yet given his recent decrease in votes, the plethora of many worthy candidates on the ballot (with more to come), and the distance he would have to go to gain the 75% necessary for election, it looks as though Smith has no real chance to gain admission from the baseball writers. His case will be taken up by the Expansion Era Committee (likely in 2019 if the current 3-year schedule holds).
What makes the case of Smith perplexing is the different experiences of two seemingly similar relievers—Rich Gossage and Bruce Sutter. Gossage debuted on the ballot at 33.3% in 2000, lower than Smith, remained in the low 40s from 2001-2004, then jumped to 55.2% to 64.6% to 71.2% and to election with 85.8%. Sutter debuted at just 23.9% and never even got above 31.1% for his first six years. He then slowly started to gain momentum in year seven (38.5%) and crept slowly into the upper 50s (47.6 to 50.4 to 53.6 to 59.5). In his twelfth year, Sutter climbed to 66.7% and then gained admission with 76.9% of the vote in lucky year thirteen.
Supporters of Smith will point to these two closers as evidence that Smith too should be in the Hall. Gossage (310) and Sutter (300) had far fewer saves than Smith (478) and their rates stats, such as ERA, WHIP, and SO/9 are almost identical. Supporters will also point out that Sutter’s value (24.6 rWAR) was much lower than Smith’s (29.6), and Smith is also ahead of another Hall of Fame reliever: Rollie Fingers (26.1). And Fingers, it should be noted, debuted on the ballot with 65.7% of the vote and flew in the next year with 81.2% of support.
So why have Hall of Famers voters looked at three relievers, whose careers overlap significantly and who have very similar statistics, and come to drastically different views on their Hall of Fame worthiness?
I argue that the unique career trajectory of Smith, bridging the workhorse closers of old to the one-inning closers of new, has made him difficult for voters to categorize and assess. A sizeable number of voters likely see him as an old school closer with higher save totals than those already elected, thus warranting election himself. This has ensured a baseline level of support on the ballot from the time he debuted. Yet many other voters likely see Smith has a compiler of statistics and never truly a dominant reliever warranting inclusion, thus preventing him from gaining momentum and building towards election.
Smith had 234 saves from 1980-1989 where he was used often in multiple innings, like the closers of old. But during that 10-year stretch, he was just an All-Star twice and only received one Cy Young vote (leading to a 9th place finish in 1983). And he pitched in four post-season games, taking two losses with an ERA of 8.44. He just wasn't perceived as truly dominant during those years. During the decade of the 1980s, the following closers received Cy Young Votes:
1980: Gossage (3rd, and 3rd in MVP), Quisenberry (5th and 8th in MVP), McGraw (5th), Sambito (5th)
1981: Fingers (1st and 1st in MVP), Gossage (5th), Sutter (5th)
1982: Quisenberry (3rd and 9th in MVP), Caudil (7th), Stanley (7th), Sutter (3rd and 5th in MVP), Minton (6th and 8th in MVP), Garber (7th)
1983: Quisenberry (2nd and 6th in MVP), Orosco (3rd), Holland (6th)
1984: Hernandez (1st, and 1st in MVP), Quisenberry (2nd and 3rd in MVP), Sutter (3rd and 6th in MVP), Gossage (6th)
1985: Quisenberry (3rd), Moore (7th and 6th in MVP), Reardon (7th)
1986: Righetti (4th), Eichhorn (6th)
1987: Reardon (8th), Bedrosian (1st)
1988: Eckersley (2nd and 5th in MVP)
1989: Eckersley (6th and 5th in MVP), Olson (6th), Russell (9th), Davis (1st and 6th in MVP), Williams (9th)
So if you were a sportswriter in the 1980s, you would note the dominance of Fingers to start the decade, and Gossage, Sutter, and Quisenberry for the first half of it, then a couple year lull, and then the reign of Eck began in 1988. Smith was never perceived as being that dominant reliever. He was always among the top five or so, but there were a couple who were always well ahead of him, and then the flavor of the year (Willie Hernandez, Mark Davis) would jump ahead too.
Beginning in 1990, with his trade to the Cardinals, Smith was used almost exclusively as a one-inning reliever for the rest of his career (436 games, 456 innings). He added another 244 saves before he retired in 1997. The last couple of years were middle relief, so he basically had six seasons as a modern closer, saving 31, 47, 43, 46, 33, and 37 games. He made five All-Star teams during this period and received Cy Young votes in three years, finishing 2nd, 4th, and 5th.
But he was competing with a new generation of closers at this point. While Smith was racking up saves, others were doing so with far more dominant seasons. 1990-1991 were solid years for him, but in 1990 Eckersley had a 0.61 ERA and Thigpen had 57 saves. In 1991, Bryan Harvey had just one fewer save than Smith and an ERA of 1.60, 101 Ks in just 78 IP, and an ERA+ of 257! Then from 1992-1995, Smith’s ERA was well over 3.00 each year, and so while he was still getting saves, he was doing so far less dominantly than guys like Randy Myers, John Franco, Rod Beck, and even the likes of Duane Ward and Jose Mesa. Playing for seven teams from 1990-1997 certainly hurt Smith’s image as well.
So in the end, Smith is difficult for voters to categorize. I think if had he pitched from 1975-1989, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion and Smith would not have much Hall of Fame support. He was clearly not as dominant in his time as were Fingers, Gossage, Sutter, and Quisenberry; and he wouldn’t have had the easy, 1-inning saves, to pad his career totals at the end. (Quisenberry had just one appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot, receiving 3.8% of the vote). Similarly, if Smith had pitched from 1990-2005, we would probably see him as a John Franco, who got just 27 votes on his only year on the ballot and fell off with less than 5 percent, despite having the 2nd most saves when he retired.
Smith’s big career save totals combined with this perception that he was one of the old-school guys like Gossage and Sutter keep him in the discussion; but when many voters look into it, I don’t think they see him as dominant as those old-school guys or as dominant as the new school guys like Eck, Trevor Hoffman, and Marion Rivera. For this reason, I don’t see him gaining any support in the final three years on the ballot.
My own view is that Smith, despite a great career, should not be in the Hall of Fame, but that Sutter shouldn’t be either. Neither closer provided that much value to their teams over their careers. There is not much differentiating Sutter from Kent Tekulve, Dan Quisenberry, and several other closers of that era, not to mention modern guys like Billy Wagner and Joe Nathan who have been more valuable—none viewed by many as Hall of Fame worthy. Likewise, I wouldn’t lose any sleep if Fingers was not in the Hall either; but at least there I can better see the voters’ rationale given his role in pioneering the emergence of the closer in the early 1970s, strong support in award voting during his career, and notable post-season success. And I would also not support Trevor Hoffman. To me he is right there with Lee Smith, but on the outside looking in.
If you examine the careers of closers, I think there is stark line that separates one group from the rest, making them Hall of Famers. While rWAR is not perfect and shouldn’t be the only measure taken into consideration when examining a Hall of Fame case, it clearly shows Eckersley, Rivera, Wilhelm, and Gossage heads above the competition. While Eckersley accumulated much of his value as a starter (46.2) rather than a reliever (16.8, all from age 32 on), his combined career is spectacular (he is 46th all-time in pitcher rWAR). And Rivera (57.1), Wilhelm (47.3), and Gossage (42.0) are elite and well above the likes of Hoffman, Smith, Sutter, and Fingers who are in the mid to upper 20s. Gossage, at the low end of the quartet, is still worth about 1.5 times as much as those guys, and about twice as much as guys like Tug McGraw and Francisco Rodriguez.
With a specialized position like closers in particular, I am in favor of a smaller Hall of Fame that honors the very best of an era. Once you start getting into the top 3-4 of an era, I think their overall value starts to get too low and it also becomes difficult to separate them from many of their other contemporaries. So at this point, I think you give a nod to Fingers for pioneering the new era of closers and another to Sutter for introducing the forkball, and hold everyone else going forward to a higher, Gossage-level, standard. It will be interesting to see how the Expansion Era Committee handles this issue. With Rivera likely fresh on their minds will they be thinking about closers in a more modern context and perhaps keep Smith out, or will they look back and simply lump him with Sutter and Fingers and put him in?
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