Lee Smith: Hall of Famer or not?
THE CASE FOR SMITH
When Smith retired, he was the leader in career saves with 478. He since has been passed by Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera but still ranks third. Smith reached that number by being exceptionally durable. His 12 straight seasons with at least 60 appearances still represent the longest streak in history by any closer. He's also still the only reliever in history to post 13 straight seasons of at least 25 saves. And when he retired, his 10 seasons with 30 or more saves also were the most ever. (Hoffman and Rivera have both passed him in that category, too.)
THE CASE AGAINST SMITHIf you look beyond the saves column, was Smith a truly dominant, game-over, thanks-for-coming kind of closer? I've had a tough time convincing myself he was. True, he averaged nearly a strikeout an inning. But that's what closers do. Among members of the 200-Save Club, he ranks only 13th in strikeout ratio, behind the likes of Ugueth Urbina and Randy Myers. And if we look at WHIP, Smith is even deeper on that list. He ranks 23rd among members of the 200-Save Club. In fact, he's not even the highest-ranking Smith in that group. The late Dave Smith, the former Astros closer, sits at No. 18. Finally, Smith had just one season -- out of 18 -- in which his ERA was less than 2.00. Rivera has had eight seasons with that distinction. Goose Gossage had four. Dennis Eckersley had three. And the group with two includes Jeff Russell, Gregg Olson and John Franco.
THE VERDICTIn my time as a Hall of Fame voter, there has only been one player I ever voted for once and then changed my mind about. That player was none other than Lee Smith. I've changed a few ''nos'' to ''yeses'' throughout the years. But he's the only "yes" who turned into a ''no.'' You can read more about my reasoning in my book, "The Stark Truth -- The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History." But as I wrote in that book, my initial inclination, when Smith first appeared on the ballot, was to vote for the all-time saves leader. A year later, after thinking about it in greater depth, I decided there was more to a Hall of Fame closer than just the number in his saves column. Want to try to talk me out of that judgment? That's what this chat is all about.
In That's Debatable!, we give you the topic, and then we'll have one of our writers stopping by to debate the issue with you. To suggest a topic for "That's Debatable," go here. Or check out the full archive.
Jayson Stark (1:02 PM)
Welcome to our Hall of Fame chats. We'll be doing this for the next few days leading up to the election. And debating Hall of Fame candidates is always fun and stimulating. So let's get started.
Jayson Stark (1:05 PM)
But before I start answering your comments and questions, I want to say something about Lee Smith. Just because I stopped voting for him doesn't mean I don't appreciate the skill and durability it took to accumulate those 478 saves. I always thought Lee Smith was an affable, entertaining guy. And there are lots of relievers who would fall behind him on my Who Would You Want To Close For Your Team list. It's no insult to say any player was "not quite" a Hall of Famer. You have to be a great player even to be in that group. But the Hall of Fame is for players who are in a class beyond great. I just don't think Lee Smith fits in that group. That's all.
Rob, Philadelphia, PA
Do you think its more important to be a dominant closer or a consistent closer? Lee Smith may never have put up the numbers Lidge and others put up this year, but is still regarded as one of the most consistent of all time.
Jayson Stark (1:08 PM)
I think that's the fundamental question in his case. Lee Smith was consistent. No doubt about that. And there's a place in the Hall for players who were so consistent for so long that the sum of their career numbers makes them Hall-worthy. But closers are harder to quantify. The modern save rule doesn't go back to 1876. I'm sure you noticed that. So I don't think we really know yet what it means to be the "all-time" saves leader. In other words, in Lee Smith's case, I don't think sheer consistency was enough. Somebody is going to have to make a case that he was more dominant than I think he was.
Bob Philadelphia PA
You say there is more to it than just a number in save column... I agree to a point, but you need to consider when the player played. Lee Smith was only ever asked to get the save because that is where he dominated. Before his time, relief pitches pitched more innings, there was no "Set up" guy. Now there are.... In his time it is arguable that Smith defined the closers of today. He was the best of his generation of closers and his career has now defined the position. Today it is basically 1 inning and thats it, a lot of times it is even less. We may not like the fact that closers have become just a number in the saves column, but that is how the game has evolved. Remember when starters used to finish games? Teams are now lucky to get 1 complete game a year! You may not like it, but that is the game. He did what he was asked and because of him, a lot has changed in regards to the position and the closers role. He was the KING and should be rightfully recognized for that.
Jayson Stark (1:09 PM)
This is a long, long post. I'll give you folks a minute to read it all.
Jayson Stark (1:11 PM)
OK, ready? Now I agree that Lee Smith was a product of his time. And his usage totals indicate that. He had five straight 90-inning seasons early in his career. Later on, he became the first reliever ever to save 30 games without even pitching 40 innings. So I recognize all that. But where's the dominance apart from those save totals? I mentioned earlier he only had one season with an ERA under 2.00. Heck, he only had five with an ERA under 3.00. Dennis Eckersley had five IN A ROW. Goose Gossage had 12. So I'll ask again: Where's the dominance?
J.B. (Dunmore, PA)
Quite honestly Mr. Stark, what closer really does belong in the HOF? We are rewarding guys who throw an inning at a time and who get credit for saving three run leads at times. Isn't this kind of like being a great pinch hitter?
Jayson Stark (1:14 PM)
Lots of Pennsylvanians in this chat! What's up with that? I'm with you to a point, J.B. In fact, I mentioned a funny story about that in my book. When I was trying to figure out whom to pick as the most overrated reliever of all time, I asked a retired starter which closer he'd pick. And he answered: "All of them." It was a funny line, but obviously, he didn't mean it. Mariano Rivera belongs in the HOF. Anybody doubt that? Goose Gossage belongs. Trevor Hoffman will belong. But the save IS the most overrated stat in baseball, so your point's otherwise well taken.
Adam, Evanston, IL
It seems these decisions often come down to how a guy is remembered. Sure, he was quite good, but did Lee Smith really strike fear into the opposition? I don't think so. I remember him as one of those guys you looked at and said, "Wow, he has a lot of saves." Looking at Lidge, Rivera, Wagner, or Nathan, you wonder whether anyone will even put the ball past the pitcher's mound.
Jayson Stark (1:15 PM)
I think there was a time early in his career -- the Cubs years, especially -- when Lee Smith was feared. He was big and gangly, and he dropped down on righthanded hitters, and they didn't like facing him one bit. But he lost that aura fairly quickly. Mariano has never lost it.
Josh, LIC, NY
I think Smith has earned his place. When you ask if he's a dominant, game-over closer, I think you're unfairly comparing him to Mo Rivera. Nobody will ever compare to Mo. It's too high a standard. Smith was one of the best closers throuh the 80's and into the 90's. It's too bad that Smith is not in yet and that Gossage had to wait as long as he did.
Jayson Stark (1:18 PM)
OK, let's leave Mariano Rivera out of this. Let's compare Lee Smith to, say, Doug Jones. Is there anyone in this audience who would argue Doug Jones was a HOF closer? Maybe Mrs. Jones, but that's about it. Well, let's take a look at one of the sabermetricians' favorite stats -- ERA-Plus. If a pitcher has a season with a 150 ERA-Plus, that means that when you adjust for ballpark and era, he was 50 percent better than an average pitcher. Well, Lee Smith only had four seasons with an ERA-Plus of 150 or better. Doug Jones had SEVEN. Does that tell you anything? It told me plenty.
Jimmie C. (Joint Base Balad, Iraq)
I agree with Bob in Philly...Lee Smith played in a baseball world that kept relief pitching on the back shelf. Lee Smith was a pioneer to the term "dominant closer", which most teams would die for in today's game. He is the reason the closers today (Fransico Rodriguez) and even set-up men make their millions for an inning pitched ever other game or so. I don't think he deserves to be a first-ballot hall of famer, but he does deserve to be in the hall due to his pioneer status and what he has done for today relievers.
Jayson Stark (1:21 PM)
Hi Jimmie. It means a lot to me that you took the time to check in on this chat from Iraq. All the best to you and everyone around you. But I respectfully disagree. I don't see Lee Smith as a pioneer. In fact, I think his predecessor in Chicago, Bruce Sutter was more of a pioneer, because he was the first reliever I can ever remember whose manager defined specific situations where he would and wouldn't be used. Maybe we just differ on what "pioneer" means, but I don't see what Lee Smith pioneered.
Isn't the real question whether or not the candidate was a great PITCHER? Then you should quantify the player's impact on the game... and closers CAN impact a game. At least the dominant ones can. So while Smith's other numbers don't add up to the HOF... do Trevor Hoffman's other stats put him there?
Jayson Stark (1:23 PM)
Boy, am I glad you asked that. I mentioned WHIP in the lede-in to this chat. Let's compare: Lee Smith 1.26 WHIP - 23rd in the 200-Save Club Hoffman 1.06 WHIP - 3rd (behind Billy Wagner and Rivera). So I'm going to ask again: Where's the dominance? Trevor Hoffman dominated. Lee Smith? Not so much.
Rob (Philadelphia, PA)
Is it important to consider that Lee Smith only appeared in the Playoffs twice (4 games), recorded 1 save and had an 8.44 career post season ERA giving up 5 earned runs?
Jayson Stark (1:26 PM)
It's such a small sample, I hesitate to use it as any kind of defining argument. I think there are people who will use Hoffman's postseason disappointments against him, too. In Mariano's case, he has logged so many dominating October innings that clearly, that's a major factor in his case. I don't think it's fair to use the postseason to judge players who barely got to play in October.
Let's put it this way...if your team was up by one run in the bottom of the ninth and you could pick any relief pitcher in their prime to close the game out, does Lee Smith even make your top 20? He doesn't to me, sorry.
Jayson Stark (1:28 PM)
That's a really interesting question. Are we looking at a guy's peak or his career as a whole? I think there were times in Lee Smith's career he'd have made that list easily. For his whole career? I'd say he still makes the top 20. But top 10? I don't know about that. It would be fun coming up with that list, though.
Jonathan Thousand Oaks CA
I disagree with Jimmie, why should a "trailblazer" be allowed to enter the hall because he changed the game for future generations. I mean why not allow Curt Flood into the HOF simply because he got the ball rolling towards free agency or how about Gil Hodges, no question the greatest player to not be in the HOF. The HOF is a place for the best to be enshrined with the best, and simply being a durable, and good closer does not mean you are or should be in the HOF. The HOF is reserved for the BEST not simply the good.
Jayson Stark (1:31 PM)
Another great debate topic. Curt Flood changed the game off the field, but obviously, that doesn't make him a Hall of Famer. Guys like Sutter and Eckersley changed the game, by redefining the meaning of their own position, on the field. I think that carries some weight, if there are enough credentials around that sort of trail-blazing.
If he makes the top 20 all time at his posistion,than why not the HOF.
Jayson Stark (1:33 PM)
Because -- let me say this again -- in the case of closers, "all time" doesn't take you back to the beginnings of baseball. We're not comparing Lee Smith or any reliever with Cy Young or Old Hoss Radbourne. We're talking about a position that basically didn't even exist until the last 35-40 years. So a guy should rank in the top six or eight or 10 to be considered a Hall of Famer, not just the top 20. Don't you think?
Chris, Irvine, CA
In my mind the HOF is for players who are dominant in their time period. I think Smith should be compared to his peers. As a 7-time All-Star and 3-time Rolaids Relief winner, he seems to stack up pretty well to his contemporaries - Worrell, Reardon, Dan Q, Righetti, etc.
Jayson Stark (1:36 PM)
All depends how you define his peer group. There isn't a Hall of Famer on that list, is there? Let's go back to ERA-Plus. Smith's career ERA-Plus is 131. That means he was 31 percent better than the average pitcher of his generation. But that ranks him behind John Hiller and Kent Tekulve. It ties him with Roberto Hernandez. So again, I don't see the dominance.
Aside from Hoffman and Rivera, do you think there are any active pitchers out there that have a shot at the HOF over someone like Lee Smith?
Jayson Stark (1:40 PM)
Yes. Absolutely. Billy Wagner is an interesting case. Look at his WHIP and strikeout rate and tell me he isn't seriously in this argument. I think Joe Nathan is on a Hall of Fame path. And KRod is worth watching. If Jonathan Papelbon maintains his pace for a decade, he's up there. Brad Lidge could inject himself in this discussion. Too many works in progress to say yes or no, but there are definitely closers who are pitching now whom we'll have to think about.
Dave (Tacoma, Wa.)
At the time of his retirement he was the career leader in saves and is still number 3 on that list, was a solid (if unspectacular closer) and had the durability to put up consistent numbers his entire career how can that not come into consideration? So let me get this right, he gets a "no" for doing what he was supposed to do year after year?
Jayson Stark (1:42 PM)
Dave, if you go back through my comments over this hour, you'll see I'm trying hard not to degrade what Lee Smith was. I'm just trying to point out what he wasn't. "Solid" and "dependable" are two important traits for any player. But they don't necessarily make you a Hall of Famer.
Jayson would your position change if in thirty years, Smith still sits at say number 5 on the all time saves list which may show his durability should be given more credit after a greater sample size is created? You did already change your mind once.
Jayson Stark (1:43 PM)
Hey, I always reserve the right to change my mind. I never go into Hall of Fame voting thinking I have all the answers, or the onlyanswers. I'm always willing to listen and reconsider and adjust perspectives when there's reason to adjust. The trouble is, in 30 years, he'll be off the ballot and it'll be too late!
Hoffman had 4 season ERA+ over 180 and one at 262. Rob Nen (though a short and more inconsistent career) had 3 over 200. Rivera's had 9. I'd say that that gives a point of comparison of "dominence". I also this Mo and Trevor get points for having the one great pitch (Cutter and Change up) Smith doesn't have that amazing pitch to associate.
Jayson Stark (1:44 PM)
You're making my case eloquently, Rob. Way to go.
Freddie Fairfax VA
I go with the old "If you have to think about if the player belongs, the answer is no" Everytime we let one of these in we lower the bar of the HOF, I dont even agrree that someone has to be elected every year, but I think that has to do with money more than anything else. I have a buddy that lives in the Cooperstown area and that whole area counts on that one weekend for the whole year.
Jayson Stark (1:48 PM)
Freddie, let me just say I disagree with that premise -- that if you have to think about it, it should be a no. I think every player on that ballot deserves the respect to have his career fully considered and weighed. I think too many voters make snapshot judgments of the candidates early on. And it's only when they see how many others are voting for those candidates that they take another look. Hall of Fame voting is meant to be taken seriously. And I would never judge any player on the ballot that quickly or simply. I'm not in favor of lowering the HOF bar, but drawing that line is much tougher than the outside world often thinks it is.
At what point do we have that "magic number" for closers? Many aruge the Niekro and Sutton don't belong in the Hall despite their 300 wins, however they are there. Do you see the number settling anytime soon, and if so could 450 be the mark considering how typically non-durable closers are?
Jayson Stark (1:49 PM)
I don't think there is, or should be, any magic number for closers. Why? Because saves are such an overrated, misleading stat in the first place. They can help guide us, but we should never judge any closer based on his save total. For anything!
Bill (Albany, NY)
So he is not a hall of famer, but a hitter like say Eddie Murray is? Eddie put up a huge number of HR in his career, but never had a huge year. He just was above average for a long long time. Smith was above average for a long time and when he retired he had the most saves of anyone ever. If Tim Wakefield pitches for another 20 years (he probably could as a knuckler) and ends up #3 all-time in wins he makes the hall of fame - even though his career was nothing 'dominant'. Smith was 'the' closer of the generation based on the number of saves he put up. Should be end of discussion.
Jayson Stark (1:54 PM)
You make a great point, Bill. It's always fascinating to me how some players sail in based on the accumulation of all those steady numbers, while others don't. In Eddie Murray's case, that accumulation carried him beyond two sacred magic HOF numbers -- 3,000 hits and 500 homers. In the case of Lee Smith and all closers, we don't have enough guideposts to make those automatic judgments. But it's a great analogy. As a voter, I think about these things all the time.
Oralondo (Huntsville, AL)
Lee Arthur was dominate for a long period of time with a lot of different teams. Does the fact that he piched for so many teams hurts him ala Bert Blyleven?
Jayson Stark (1:55 PM)
I don't personally use that in Smith's case. But I have to admit it's made me wonder about quite a few candidates in the past -- Blyleven among them.
Chris (Richmond, VA)
I think that someone cannot simply be put into the HOF for "doing what he was supposed to do year after year." That would make him good, not HOF material. But not only did Smith do what he was supposed to do, he did it effectively enough to put him atop the all-time saves list, and continue to stay up there as number 3 even with all the advances in baseball since his playing days. I believe he did help define the closer role and did a spectacular job doing so for a long time. I say he should be in.
Jayson Stark (1:57 PM)
I think he's right on that line where it's not clear-cut. Otherwise, I wouldn't have voted for him once. And otherwise, his vote totals wouldn't have yo-yoed the way they have. Up-down-up-down-up-down. That tells you something. This is a candidate who confuses the voters, myself included. He has a legitimate case, just not a compelling enough case for me. But that doesn't mean he wasn't a great player. It's no insult to just miss. I can't emphasize that enough.
Scott (Amherst, MA)
Dear Jason, Nice to see that you are talking about Lee Smith today for whether he belongs in the HOF. Mentioning others like Billy Wagner (good closer but has trouble closing the big games), K-Rod, Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon. But I want to give a shout out to the late Dan Quisenberry, an overlooked closer if I've ever seen one. He won multiple Rolaids Relief Man of the Year awards and was one of the first to define the position along with Smith. Just wanted to mention him to others who don't know.
Jayson Stark (1:59 PM)
I'm glad you brought him up, Scott. He made my book as one of the five most underrated relievers of all time. Quisenberry did something no other relief pitcher has ever done, you know -- make the top three in the Cy Young voting four years IN A ROW.
If you let in Lee Smith, why not John Franco? Where do we draw the line!
Jayson Stark (2:01 PM)
John Franco was one and done in his only year on the ballot. Jeff Reardon was gone faster than he used to get three outs. Lee Smith has stayed on the ballot for seven years and gotten as much as 45 percent of the vote. That tells you he's a cut above your average save-collector.
Jayson Stark (2:01 PM)
Well, it's about that time, unfortunately. Let's take one more.
Keith (NY, NY)
If we're going to award someone for "defining the role" of modern closer, shouldn't we enshrine Smith's manager? It's not like Smith walked into the clubhouse one day and announced he'd only pitch the ninth inning, and then only in a save situation.
Jayson Stark (2:04 PM)
Nah, that's not fair anymore. Once upon a time, that might have been true. But Lee Smith was always groomed to be a closer. So he never failed as a starter. He went 15 straight years without even starting a single game. So I'd like to ban that particular argument against him or any modern closer. But that doesn't change my feeling that the save is the most overrated stat ever invented.
Jayson Stark (2:05 PM)
Thanks to everybody who participated in this. Fun discussion! If you're interested, there's lots more talk about Smith's Hall qualifications -- and all of these issues in my "Stark Truth" book. That's one last shameless book plug before we move on to other stuff! Thanks again. We'll be back with another HOF debate Wednesday.