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Hall of Fame case for Lee Smith

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On Monday, December 9, the Today’s Game committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which covers the years 1988-2018 — will vote on candidates for the 2019 induction class. Between now and then we will take a look at the ten candidates, one-by-one, to assess their Hall worthiness.

Next up: Lee Smith

The case for his induction:

Smith was one of the first of the single-inning closers, setting the standard for what we now think of as the best relievers in the game. He was big and intimidating. He threw hard. And when it was all said and done he held the all-time record for saves with 478 upon his 1998 retirement. He’s now third behind Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman in that category. He led the league in saves four times and led the league in games finished three times. He had six seasons in which he averaged more than ten strikeouts per nine innings which was a much greater feat in his day than it is today.

Smith was a contemporary of Dennis Eckersley, so claiming he was the best closer of his era is simply wrong in my view, but some people consider Eck to be a different beast since he began his career as a starter. So yes, even if it seems wrong to me, there are people who will say that Smith was the best closer of the 80s and early 90s. Take that for what it’s worth.

He was penalized a bit by straddling generations of closers, beginning his career as a multi-inning fireman and ending it as one of those one-inning closers. There’s an argument to be made that if he had been a one-inning guy his entire career his rate stats, which I discuss below, would’ve been better because he would be throwing harder for shorter outings and wouldn’t have been stretched in 2-3 inning appearances. Some people will give credit to players who straddle eras like this — he’s the pitching Fred McGriff in some ways — while others will not play the “what if?” game. How you judge that is your call.

The case against his induction:

While the saves total and his aura remain impressive, there is no rule that says someone who once led in a given statistical category have to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Harry Stovey was once the all-time home run leader and no one says he should be in Cooperstown. The standards for home run hitters became clear over time, just as the standards for closers have, and what once looked great looks less-great given the passage of time.

That aside — and the caveat about era-straddling notwithstanding — Smith was nowhere near as dominant a pitcher as his reputation suggests. Over an 18-year career spent with the Cubs, Red Sox, Cardinals and five other teams, he posted a 3.03 ERA (132 ERA+), 1.26 WHIP and, those handful of excellent seasons aside, struck out only 8.7 batters per nine innings for his career. Good, but not necessarily great, even when one adjusts for the era in which he pitched.

Ultimately, I think he falls a bit short of the standards that have developed regarding Hall of Fame relievers over the past decade or so. There aren’t a lot of them in yet, but I don’t think Smith is up to the level of those who are.

John Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley each had significant starting pitching experience, so their resumes are different. Same goes for Hoyt Wilhelm, who may as well be an alien compared to today’s relievers given how radically different his usage patterns were. Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter are all in, though they (a) leaned far more into the multi-inning fireman era; and (b) were nonetheless better at that than Smith was. Trevor Hoffman may be closest to Smith in overall quality, but he was better in my view. Mariano Rivera will get in this year easily, but he’s far and away the best of all time so a comparison to him is unfair.

Would I vote for him?

It’s a lot closer than a lot of players I’d say no to, but I still think I’d say no to Smith. I’m not one of those people who think that closers should be graded more harshly because of how often they pitch. It’s an established role and closers should be judged against other closers as far as I’m concerned. Even then, though, I think Smith falls short. He was good, but not great. He just happened to be in his prime at a time when not everyone had figured out what a great closer was. I would not consider it a miscarriage of justice if he were voted in, but I’d reserve my vote for others on this ballot.

Will the Committee vote for him? 

Smith was the last guy to go a full 15 years on the Hall of Fame ballot (players are now limited to ten) and the highest vote total he ever received was 50.6%. Toward the end of his run, he was in the 30s, finishing below 30% one year. There are a lot of things that go in to a candidate’s vote totals, but part of what went into Smith’s decline over the years was a growing understanding of what, exactly, a Hall of Fame closer looked like. While Smith seemed like one during his career and in earlier years on the ballot, over time his stock fell as a class of closers who were better than him emerged.

Part of me believes that the Today’s Game Committee will see it the same way and give Smith a pass, but another part of me wonders if he doesn’t have a better chance than that. There are a great many players who stayed on the writers’ ballot for 15 seasons and then, later, made it in via whatever version of the Veterans Committee existed. Two such players, Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, were voted in just last year. I suspect that there may be a bit more sympathy among such guys with the Today’s Game Committee than there is at large. As such, while I wouldn’t bet a large amount on Smith making the Hall of Fame this year, I would not be utterly shocked if he made it.

Marlins clinch 1st playoff berth since 2003, beat Yanks 4-3

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NEW YORK — Forced from the field by COVID-19, the Miami Marlins returned with enough force to reach the playoffs for the first time since their 2003 championship.

An NL-worst 57-105 a year ago, they sealed the improbable berth on the field of the team that Miami CEO Derek Jeter and manager Don Mattingly once captained.

“I think this is a good lesson for everyone. It really goes back to the players believing,” Mattingly said Friday night after a 4-3, 10-inning win over the New York Yankees.

Miami will start the playoffs on the road Wednesday, its first postseason game since winning the 2003 World Series as the Florida Marlins, capped by a Game 6 victory in the Bronx over Jeter and his New York teammates at the previous version of Yankee Stadium.

“We play loose. We got nothing to lose. We’re playing with house money.,” said Brandon Kintzler, who got DJ LeMahieu to ground into a game-ending double play with the bases loaded after Jesus Aguilar hit a sacrifice fly in the top of the 10th. “We are a dangerous team. And we really don’t care if anyone says we’re overachievers.”

Miami (30-28), second behind Atlanta in the NL East, became the first team to make the playoffs in the year following a 100-loss season. The Marlins achieved the feat despite being beset by a virus outbreak early this season that prevented them from playing for more than a week.

After the final out, Marlins players ran onto the field, formed a line and exchanged non socially-distant hugs, then posed for photos across the mound.

“I can’t contain the tears, because it’s a lot of grind, a lot of passion,” shortstop Miguel Rojas said. “It wasn’t just the virus. Last year we lost 100 games. But we came out this year with the hope everything was going to be better. When we had the outbreak, the guys who got an opportunity to help the organization, thank you for everything you did.”

Miami was one of baseball’s great doubts at the start of the most shortened season since 1878, forced off the field when 18 players tested positive for COVID-19 following the opening series in Philadelphia.

“Yeah, we’ve been through a lot. Other teams have been through a lot, too,” Mattingly said “This just not a been a great situation. It’s just good to be able to put the game back on the map.”

New York (32-26) had already wrapped up a playoff spot but has lost five of six following a 10-game winning streak and is assured of starting the playoffs on the road. Toronto clinched a berth by beating the Yankees on Thursday.

“I don’t like any time somebody celebrates on our field or if we’re at somebody else’s place and they celebrate on their field,” Yankees star Aaron Judge said. “I’m seeing that too much.”

Mattingly captained the Yankees from 1991-95 and is in his fifth season managing the Marlins, Jeter captained the Yankees from 2003-14 as part of a career that included five World Series titles in 20 seasons and is part of the group headed by Bruce Sherman that bought the Marlins in October 2017.

Garrett Cooper, traded to the Marlins by the Yankees after the 2017 season, hit a three-run homer in the first inning off J.A. Happ.

After the Yankees tied it on Aaron Hicks‘ two-run double off Sandy Alcantara in the third and Judge’s RBI single off Yimi Garcia in the eighth following an error by the pitcher on a pickoff throw, the Marlins regained the lead with an unearned run in the 10th against Chad Green (3-3).

Jon Berti sacrificed pinch-runner Monte Harrison to third and, with the infield in, Starling Marte grounded to shortstop. Gleyber Torres ran at Harrison and threw to the plate, and catcher Kyle Higashioka‘s throw to third hit Harrison in the back, giving the Yankees a four-error night for the second time in three games.

With runners at second and third, Aguilar hit a sacrifice fly.

Brad Boxberger (1-0) walked his leadoff batter in the ninth but got Luke Voit to ground into a double play, and Kintzler held on for his 12th save in 14 chances.

Miami ended the second-longest postseason drought in the majors – the Seattle Mariners have been absent since 2001.

Miami returned Aug. 4 following an eight-day layoff with reinforcements from its alternate training site, the trade market and the waiver wire to replace the 18 players on the injured list and won its first five games.

“We’re just starting,” said Alcantara, who handed a 3-2 lead to his bullpen in the eighth. “We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing.”

TOSSED

Yankees manager Aaron Boone was ejected for arguing from the dugout in the first inning. Plate umpire John Tumpane called out Judge on a full-count slider that appeared to drop well below the knees and Boone argued during the next pitch, to Hicks, then was ejected. Television microphones caught several of Boone’s profane shouts.

“Reacting to a terrible call and then following it up,” Boone said. “Obviously, we see Aaron get called a lot on some bad ones down.”

ODD

Pinch-runner Michael Tauchman stole second base in the eighth following a leadoff single by Gary Sanchez but was sent back to first because Tumpane interfered with the throw by catcher Chad Wallach. Clint Frazier struck out on the next pitch and snapped his bat over a leg.

SLOPPY

New York took the major league lead with 47 errors. Sanchez was called for catcher’s interference for the third time in five days and fourth time this month.

REMEMBERING

Mattingly thought of Jose Fernandez, the former Marlins All-Star pitcher who died four years earlier to the night at age 24 while piloting a boat that crashed. An investigation found he was legally drunk and had cocaine in his system. The night also marked the sixth anniversary of Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium.

UP NEXT

RHP Deivi Garcia (2-2, 4.88) starts Saturday for the Yankees and LHP Trevor Rogers (1-2, 6.84) for the Marlins. Garcia will be making the sixth start of his rookie season.