Lee Smith has a Hall of Fame resume, but the timing of his career may keep him out
Closers before him are in and later than him will get in
Leading up to the announcement of the 2017 Baseball Hall of Fame class on Jan. 18, we're examining each of the 34 candidates on this year's BBWAA ballot. By way of reminder, a candidate must be named on at least 75 percent of submitted BBWAA ballots in order to be elected into the Hall of Fame.
We've already looked at the numerous candidates who are certain to fall off the ballot after only one year (candidates receiving less than five percent drop off the ballot). Now we're looking at those hopefuls who figure to have meaningful support and perhaps even earn induction at some point.
This here is Lee Smith's entry.
Third on the all-time saves list with 478 behind a pair of 600-Save Club members and future Hall of Famers, Smith is in his 15th and final year on the ballot. His peak on the ballot was 2012, when he got 50.6 percent of the vote. He dipped to 29.9 percent in 2014 as the ballot became pretty logjammed, though he rose to 34.1 percent last year.
Still, we aren't gonna see a jump of 41 percent, making this Smith's last go-round. Instead of breaking down his pros and cons as a candidate, I instead wanted to see if this is merely a case of bad timing.
Smith played from 1980 through 1997. When he first became closer in 1982, they were a different animal than the more recent incarnation. Closers worked multi-inning saves often. By the end of his career, the closer had been transformed into the one-inning machine we have seen the past few decades.
Caught right in the middle of the transition, Smith transitioned with the league. Here are his first five seasons as a closer compared to his last five seasons:
Note how many more innings per appearance Smith worked in the early stages of his career compared to later. An interesting nugget is that Smith led the league with 29 saves in 1983 while his 37 in a strike-shortened 1995 season were still nine off the pace.
So, we naturally have a divide here. Smith's latter part of his career was spent in the "rack up the saves" period and that's why he was able to get all the way to 478. As a result, he held the record for several years. On the flip side, when you get up into the high-save volume, others are likely to have lower ERAs, lower WHIPs and higher strike rates, because they weren't nearly as often tasked with multi-inning saves in their 20s as Smith was. A lower workload leads to higher velocity and more lower-leverage (e.g. three-run lead for one inning saves).
In looking at the relievers in the Hall of Fame, here's what we've got.
John Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley, whose cases were enhanced by significant starting pitching experience.
Hoyt Wilhelm, who was such a special case we don't even need to cover what he was (1872 1/3 innings in 1018 relief appearances, but also 20 complete games and five shutouts in 52 starts).
Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter, who were all part of the multi-inning incarnation of closer.
We'll soon add Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera, who are obviously from the one-inning save generation. Any other reliever moving forward who gets added will likely be the same, unless the Andrew Miller playoff revolution sweeps another change across baseball.
The fact remains, though, that none of the relievers from Lee Smith's era who went through the transition made the Hall of Fame (aside from Eckersley, who only threw 807 1/3 innings in relief, fewer than Billy Wagner).
The other top closers from this period in time (early-to-mid 80s until probably early-'90s) were names like John Franco (who is still fifth in career saves but fell off the ballot in his first try), Tom Henke, Randy Myers, Jeff Reardon, Jeff Montgomery, Gregg Olson, Todd Worrell, Bobby Thigpen and Dave Righetti.
Some names like Dan Quisenberry and Bob Stanley could be thrown in from slightly earlier.
Isn't Smith the top name in this bunch in terms of peak and longevity? Sure, some might have had a better peak, but most of those above had short peaks and all definitely had shorter runs of success than Smith.
This doesn't mean Smith has to be in the Hall of Fame. Just remember my thesis here that he was a victim of bad timing. In looking at Smith's career stats, the transition happened after the 1990 season when he pitched 83 innings in 64 appearances. In 1991, he had 73 innings pitched in 67 appearances.
From 1982-90, here is Smith versus that of Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, since he retired after the 1988 season.
This isn't to say Smith was definitely better than Sutter. Sutter's numbers above include a three-year decline phase while he had a Cy Young and led the league in saves five times compared to Smith's one (in this time frame that is, as he led four times overall).
The point being made is that Smith was on his way to possibly polishing a Cooperstown plaque had the transition to one-inning closers not changed the game.
I wonder if he needs to be credited with adapting his game or not, but that's probably a different discussion.
Sure, at the time this change vaulted Smith up to the record-holding 478 save total. By the time he got onto the ballot in 2003, though, Hoffman already had 352 saves through his age-34 season while fireballers like Rivera and Wagner were putting up sick numbers. By the time Smith peaked on the ballot in 2012, Rivera and Hoffman were widely considered the two best closers ever -- Smith now an afterthought -- and we had become accustomed to see minuscule ERA and WHIP totals with astronomical strikeout totals from closers.
For example, look at this chart. Smith finished second in Cy Young voting in 1991. Keep in mind 2012 was Smith's high vote percentage total. We'll use a Mystery Player from 2012.
When everything is viewed just through a stats lens, we can see why the closer position started to become devalued in Hall of Fame voting. The ballot becoming extra crowded hurt Smith more than anything, but I can't help but wonder about all the dominant closer seasons being put on the board while he was on the ballot had something to do with his voting total collapsing.
The mystery player is Fernando Rodney, by the way.
There has also been a more recent push to the realization that closers are generally overrated. That is, the better starting pitchers work 200-plus innings while even the best closers only grab about a third of that. And the save is a very flawed stat.
So if Smith retired maybe five years earlier, would he have gotten into the Hall? Probably not. He needed all but his last two to complete his resume. It's just that if we could take his whole career and move it five to 10 years earlier, he would have probably long ago been inducted into the Hall of Fame, right or wrong.
To me, that's fascinating. The ever-evolving game has seemingly endless discussion points.
As for Lee Arthur Smith, the discussion when it comes to the BBWAA Hall of Fame vote is decidedly not endless. This is it. He won't be in the Hall or on the ballot next year.