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Baseball Hall of Fame Case: Lee Smith

Lee Smith spent 18 seasons in the Major Leagues, enjoying a long stretch where he was one of the most dominant relievers in the game. He retired in 1997 with 478 saves, most all time. His stats can be found here. His candidacy brings up the inevitable debate: what criteria should we use for getting relief pitchers into the Hall of Fame?

Pros for Induction

Lee Smith’s biggest “pro” is his save total. His 478 saves were enough to hold the record for most career saves for 13 years (1993-2006). If any other player held a career record for that length of time – or really at all – they would be a shoe-in for the Hall.

During his career, Smith recorded 13 consecutive seasons with 20+ saves, 6 consecutive seasons with 30+ saves (and 10 overall) and 3 consecutive 40+ save seasons. Such numbers have been seen by very few relievers in the history of baseball.

Among his other achievements, Smith made 7 All-Star teams and was 2nd, 4th and 5th in Cy Young voting at various points in his career.

Cons Against Induction

Obviously, Lee Smith’s biggest con is that he was a relief pitcher. In the history of baseball, only 4 men have been inducted into the Hall of Fame primarily due to their relief pitching: Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and Bruce Sutter. Smith is certainly a viable candidate, but his election will likely depend more on emotional/gut votes than votes based on traditional standards.

In tests such as the Black Ink, Grey Ink and HOF Standards, Smith stacks up poorly. However, these tests are heavily biased against relievers, who have very few categories in which they can rack up points. On the HOF Monitor, which includes more categories, he does much better, scoring 135 points (a likely Hall-of-Famer is greater than 100).

Other arguments against his induction include those who believe that the saves statistic is overrated. Certainly, as with wins, one must look at other statistics when evaluating a player. However, a high total still should count for something in the eyes of the voters. Smith’s high save totals season-after-season show consistency & durability. He certainly was no flash-in-the-pan closer.

Finally, Smith’s perception as a “team-hopper” works against him. He played for 8 teams during his Major League career, including 5 teams in his last 5 years. Some of this was due to trades, some was due to leaving as a free agent. None of it will look good to voters who are looking for a reason not to vote him in.

The Verdict

Relief pitchers are vital to the game of baseball. As starters go less and less further into games, relievers and closers are getting more innings and more attention. It is inevitable that more of them will end up in the Hall of Fame as a result. Right now we are in a time period where some people are starting to realize this, and some are not. It is true that saves can be overrated, just as wins. However, the Hall-of-Fame would never not elect a guy who held the career wins record for so long, so saves should get that same respect. Even taking into account the fact that the use of relievers has changed only in the past couple of decades, there are still very few players who will be reaching Smith’s save total any time soon (Trevor Hoffman has already done it, of course, and Mariano Rivera will in a year or two). While some will argue that Rich Gossage should get in first, there is no reason why both men should not be in the Hall of Fame.

Will He Get In?

Someday. This year, no, barring a miracle. Smith has had decent support that has fluctuated in his 5 years of eligibility. He has received votes on 35-45% of the ballots in each election. He is assured of being on the ballot for a long time, but it remains to be seen if he will ever get enough support to get the needed 75%. This year could be a very important one. With a weak class to choose from, it is likely that Lee Smith will get more votes than he did last year when there were 2 sure guys to vote in (40%). If he gets a big boost, putting him above say, 50%, that will certainly help his chances in his remaining years.

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