After 15 years hoping to accumulate enough votes to secure induction into Baseball’s Hall of Fame, Lee Smith has fallen off the ballot.
The Hall of Fame is an exclusive place that is extremely selective because of how it is chosen and the apparent biases in favor of some eras over others. In the end, Smith peaked at 50.6 percent of the vote in 2012, and that was as close as he ever came to making it.
But should he have come closer to achieving that dream?
Consider that at the time of his retirement, Smith, who spent the first eight years of his career in a Cubs uniform, recorded 478 saves – the most in baseball history. He logged 1,289 innings (1,252.1 as a reliever) and struck out 1,251 batters while pitching to a 3.02 ERA. Smith made six all-star teams, finished in the top-10 in Cy Young voting four times and received MVP votes in four seasons.
When it was all said and done, Smith was credited in the box score to contributing to his team’s success by either a win (71) or save (478) in 53.7 percent of his appearances.
Perhaps these are fringe Hall of Fame numbers that might lean more toward the Hall of Very Good. But it’s important to note that Smith was a different kind of closer for the majority of his big league career. He was a major league closer before the era where the term closer was synonymous with one-inning relief pitcher.
Smith led the league in saves four times, finished second four times and finished in the top-5 on three other occasions. He also led the league in games finished three times and ranked in the top five in this particular category eight more times.
But it’s not just the raw numbers in saves and games finish that should matter, it’s how he came to those numbers.
Smith logged 100 innings or more as a reliever three times, more than 90 innings another two more times, and then had three seasons where he tossed more than 80 relief innings. Since the year 2000, no reliever who led the league in saves has pitched 100 innings and only three pitchers who have picked up 30-save seasons have pitched 90 innings or more. Smith was a workhorse high-leverage reliever in an era where those guys pitched multiple innings of high importance. And he was one of the best at it.
Among the cases against Smith’s Hall of Fame candidacy are the lack of Hall of Famers in his field, as only Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter are listed as similar pitchers to Smith on his baseball-reference page. Whenever Trevor Hoffman makes it, that number will grow to three.
Smith was also hurt by his years on the ballot when a backlog of suspected PED users built up, and the artificial 10-name limit for ballots wound up spreading votes all around – it’s probably not a coincidence that Smith peaked in 2012, one year before Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa joined the ballot.
Maybe the voters didn’t miss the boat on putting Smith in the Hall, but the fact that he never made it any closer than 50 percent of the vote makes me feel as if enough voters missed out on how valuable of a reliever Smith was during his time on the mound.