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.