The Case for Cooperstown: Lee Smith
With the release of the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot, Waiver Wire writer Greg Kaplan will explore the candidacy of numerous names on the ballot. Points for and against induction will be presented, and we’re forcing him to make a decision at the end of each post to decide if that player should be placed alongside the immortals that have played baseball throughout history.
Year(s) on ballot – 11th (received 50.6% of vote last year)
Credentials – 18 years in MLB (mostly with Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals), retired as the all-time saves leader with 478, seven-time All-Star, four-time league leader in saves.
The Case For:
The entire argument for Lee Smith being in the Hall of Fame or not really depends on your evaluation of the save. When Smith retired, he was the all-time leader with 478 saves and helped usher in the new generation of closers we currently see in the game today.
Even so, Smith was one of the last relievers that was more than just a one inning-type closer. From 1982-88, Smith pitched in 80+ innings each year despite only appearing in 70+ games once during that stretch (appeared in 72 in ’82, but threw a career-high 117.0 innings).
Smith also compiled a career ERA of 3.03 and struck out 1,251 hitters over his career, including a career K/9 of 8.7.
The Case Against:
Really, this is where my bias is going to show. Personally, I think that closers in baseball are the most overrated position in professional sports. However, that’s an argument for another day. Let’s just focus on the matter at hand.
Let’s look at the 10 closers who populate the all-time saves leaderboard. Of the 10, there are more pitchers who have been eligible for the Hall of Fame and fell off the ballot for lack of support (three, John Franco, Randy Myers and Jeff Reardon) than actual Hall of Famers (two, Dennis Eckersley and Rollie Fingers).
Of the rest on the list, one is a Cooperstown lock (Mariano Rivera, first all-time), one is worthy of a debate one day (Trevor Hoffman, second all-time), one will appear on ballots, but ultimately won’t get in (Billy Wagner, fifth all-time) and one will appear and fall off the ballot in the same year (Troy Percival, eight all-time).
To review, that means as of right now, only three of the top 10 saves leaders are Hall of Famers, with one being the most iconic player at his position in the history of the game (Rivera), another being one of only two pitchers with 150+ wins and 150+ saves (Eckersley) and one being a reliever who routinely threw 100+ innings and won both an MVP and Cy Young (Fingers).
Smith’s closest comparison of a current Hall of Famer is likely to be Goose Gossage. However, Gossage won 53 more games in his career, threw roughly 500 more innings, made more All-Star teams and finished in the top five of Cy Young voting more times. Gossage was also elected into the Hall in what was viewed as one of the weakest voting ballots in history (2008, and yes, Lee Smith was on the ballot that year, too).
All in all, Lee Smith was a perfectly fine closer who was at one time the all-time leader in saves. But, his career wasn’t distinguishable enough where he should be enshrined in Cooperstown. He just wasn’t that kind of player.