By In Stuff

Ballot 18: Lee Smith

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Lee Smith

Played 18 years for eight teams

Seven-time all-star led the league in saves four times. 29.4 WAR, 13.8 WAA

Pro argument: Great reliever who for 13 years held the all-time saves record.

Con argument: Closers are specialists who pitch a fraction of innings that starters do.

Deserves to be in Hall?: Depends on your thought on relievers.

Will get elected this year?: No.

Will ever get elected?: 40%

* * *

Buck O’Neil  loved to tell the story about the first time he saw Lee Arthur Smith. He was sent to Northwest Louisiana to take a look at a high school prospect. Buck had become quite familiar with Northwest Louisiana because he had gone to Ruston several times to see a high school phenomenon named J.R. Richard.

Buck was sitting in the stands in Castor, La. — about 47 miles from Castor via a bunch of back roads — waiting for his player to come up. And then he saw this hulk take the mound; the kid couldn’t have been more than 15-years-old but already he had to be 6-foot-5.

“Lord,” Buck said to himself. “Who is this? Another J.R. Richard?”

And then the kid began to throw — and his fastballs were popping the glove. He had a slider too. He WAS another J.R. Richard. Buck sat in the stands, mesmerized. If you scout baseball long enough, you have one of those stories, one of those days when you go to see one player and then another one, a breathtaking talent you had never heard about, comes into your field of vision. It is WHY you become a baseball scout.

“Lord,” Buck said to himself after he watched Lee Arthur throw for the first time. “What do they put in the water down here?”

* * *

Lee Arthur — the only name he ever grew up hearing — played Major League Baseball as recently as 1997 and yet he grew up in a very different America. He was the son of a hog farmer and every morning he would wake up with the roosters and work the farm. Then  he would get on a bus and go the 50-plus miles to school in Ringgold — passing three other schools along the way because they were for whites only. On Saturdays, his father Willie Smith would load up the pickup truck, Lee Arthur would get in, and they would drive up into the woods and cut down pine trees to sell as pulpwood.

When Lee Arthur turned 11, a court order desegregated the school in Castor. He would walk three miles to school — a big improvement from those interminable bus rides — and enter his school through a line of picketers who screamed the vilest obscenities at him. “Some of my friends I see back home,” he would tell a reporter 25 years later, “were the same ones holding the picket signs. Hey, people change.”

He didn’t want to play baseball. Lee Arthur was a basketball player and a good one — good enough that Joe B. Hall at Kentucky took a look at him. Baseball was just a thing that came naturally. As he told it, his basketball coach (also the baseball coach) said to him one day, “Lee Arthur, you have long arms. Let’s see you throw that baseball.” He would always say the first time he ever pitched, he threw a no-hitter.

By the time Lee Arthur was a senior at Castor High, Buck O’Neil was not the only scout who knew about him. Everybody knew about him. But Buck was the one who had seen him first and loved him the most, and he convinced the Chicago Cubs to take Smith in the second round of the draft.

When Lee Arthur was told that he had been drafted — he would swear this is true — he said: “I didn’t think the country did that no more.”

* * *

Everybody marveled at how slowly Lee Smith walked to the pitchers’ mound. Well maybe “marveled” is the wrong word, but it was something to see. One reporter clocked him at 21 seconds from dugout to mound, roughly three times the normal time it took a pitcher to get out there.

“It looks like you’re walking to your execution,” a reporter told Smith.

“No,” Smith said. “I’m the executioner.”

He was that … for the better part of 18 years. I would argue — have argued — that if anyone represents the transformation of the modern closer, it is not Dennis Eckersley. It is Lee Smith. For the first eight full seasons of his career, Lee Smith was what you would call a fireman. He averaged pretty close to 100 innings a year, he would be brought in to the game in different innings, depending on when the team was in the most trouble, he would get 40-plus inherited runners a year to strand.

Then, at roughly the midway point of his career, Joe Torre bercame his manager with the St. Louis Cardinals. Torre turned Lee Smith into baseball’s first modern closer. Well, technically, the first modern closer was Bobby Thigpen, who in 1990 set the modern save record by with 57 with 41 of them being modern saves (start the ninth inning with a lead of three or less). Nobody had ever had that many one-inning saves. It was a whole new way ot using a reliever. But Thigpen’s success quickly faded.

Smith, meanwhile, embraced his new role. In 1991, he led the league with 47 saves — 34 of them were modern saves, most in baseball. In 1992, he led the league in saveswith 43 — and 36 of them were modern saves, again most in baseball (more even than Eckersley who had 51 total saves and won the Cy Young and MVP Award).

And those two years really changed the landscape. From that point on, every team wanted a modern closer. Often the one they wanted was, well, Lee Smith. He led the American League with 33 saves for Baltimore in 1994. He had 37 saves for the Angels in 1995. By then he was 38 years old and more or less done. But by then he had also set the career record for saves.

As for Smith, well, he didn’t particularly care how he was used. When he was first made a reliever (by former All-Star Randy Hundley, his manager in Class AA) he remembered saying, “I ain’t relieving for any other man,” and, as Smith told the story, he quit baseball for two weeks until Buck O’Neil and Billy Williams talked him into coming back.

That might be an exaggeration, but what is real is that once he accepted his role as a relief pitcher, he came to accept any part of the job. Lee Arthur figured his job was to pitch. They were paying him good money to do it. So when his role changed, when he got traded (he was traded four times), when a team decided to let him go elsewhere, well, he didn’t see any reason to complain about it. He’d worked the farm. He’d crossed furious picket lines. He’d cut down so many trees that the sawdust wouldn’t come out of his hair. Pitching baseballs seemed a pretty good life to him.

* * *

It looked at first like Lee Arthur would get elected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers. His first year on the ballot he got 42.3%, which is a very solid number, one that promises eventual election. There was quite a lot of enthusiasm for relievers on the Hall of Fame ballot at that point — Bruce Sutter was climbing as was Goose Gossage and both would eventually get elected. Smith, with his career saves record, seemed perfectly in line with them.

Then, a couple of things quickly happened. One, the voters seemed to decide in unison that Sutter and Gossage were both better Hall of Fame candidates than Smith. This is easier to understand with Gossage, who pitched 600 more innings than Smith and was more of an old-fashioned reliever, but it’s not quite as clear why Sutter was deemed better. I guess it came down to a couple of things: One Sutter already had a few years of momentum beind him. And two, Sutter got a lot of credit for popularizing the split-fingered fastball.

Whatever the reasons, over the next two years Sutter and Gossage moved well ahead while Lee Smith’s vote total stayed stagnant. There was a traffic jam of relief pitchers and Smith found himself blocked out.

Then in 2006, Sutter was elected, Goosage moved to the cusp, it seemed ike Smith would finally get his time. He jumped back up to 45% and seemed ready to begin the climb … only that very year, 2006, Trevor Hoffman passed Smith on the all-time saves list. The one thing about borderline Hall of Fame candidates is that they usually need one thing, an elevator pitch, in order to get to 75%. For Jim Rice, it was being “the most feared hitter.” For Sutter, it was that split-fingered fastball. For Gossage it was, “an old-time reliever.”

Lee Smith’s elevator pitch had been that he was the all-time saves leader.

And he wasn’t anymore.

After Gossage was elected in 2008, Smith’s numbers did climb slowly, peaking at 50.6% in 2012. But by then, Hoffman and Mariano Rivera had left his record in the dust. Other closers with a lot of saves like Todd Jones and Troy Percival and John Franco had come on the ballot to absolutely no fanfaire or enthusiasm, and the whole idea of putting in a pitcher into the Hall of Fame for saves lost significant appeal. It’s hard to justify putting a pitcher with fewer than 1,500 innings pitched into the Hall of Fame. You need momentum. Lee Smith just couldn’t get any.

And so Lee Smith was the reliever stuck between Hall of Fame reliever gold rushes. Before him, Rollie Finger, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage got in. After him, Trevor Hoffman will get in, Billy Wagner could build momentum, and Mariano Rivera is on the horizon. Like Artie Fufkin, Smith had no timing.

I do think Lee Smith will have a very good chance of getting elected by the Hall of Fame veteran’s committee, whatever that committee happens to look like when it’s his time.

 

 

 

 

 

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33 Responses to Ballot 18: Lee Smith

  1. JB says:

    I can’t get behind relief pitchers in the HOF. The Texas Rangers proved the last two years that you can take some failed starter off the scrap heap and he can get more than 30 saves. I don’t see the value for most of the relievers. Rivera seems different, but to me still a borderline guy and just barely in (not the no brain 100% of the vote guy Yankee maniacs suggest).

  2. Rob Smith says:

    I personally don’t get bothered about relievers getting in, as long as they have the credentials. If you’re at the top of the heap, then you should get consideration. The precedent has already been set with other relievers. The question is whether Lee Smith measures up. I haven’t researched him carefully and looked at comps, but I think you’d have to squint pretty hard at his numbers to come up with a “for sure” HOF case.

    His #1 comp is Jeff Reardon. Their numbers line up pretty well. His #2 comp is Trevor Hoffman. But I think that comp more puts Hoffman’s HOF credentials into question that it elevates Smith.

    Other comps include John Franco, Roberto Hernandez, Doug Jones, Rollie Fingers, Todd Jones, Joe Nathan, Bruce Sutter and Francisco Rodriguez. A mixed bag, for sure.

    • SDG says:

      The problem with relievers is there are so few to compare them with. We can agree “saves” are a junk stat, so we have to take into account ERA+ and WHIP and all the other normal pitching stuff. Recognizing that pitching 2 or 3 innings is different from pitching 1, that RISP is different from bases empty. Unlike the steroids clusterfuck, I think you can do this statistically, you just need clear benchmarks.

      Personally I think the fireman usage makes way more sense than the modern closer. This is what happens when you use dumb stats. People play to them.

  3. jpdg says:

    It’s fascinating how closers are viewed by the Hall electorate. Like Joe says, Hoffman figures to cruise into Hall while Billy Wagner likely faces a long uphill climb. Yet by any reasonable measurement…

    ERA/FIP/xFIP

    Wagner – 2.31/2.73/2.76
    Hoffman – 2.87/3.08/3.79

    ERA-/FIP- (lower is better)

    Wagner – 54/63
    Hoffman – 71/73

    K%/BB%/K-BB%

    Wagner – 33.2/8.3/24.9
    Hoffman – 25.8/7.0/18.8

    Innings

    Wagner – 903
    Hoffman – 1089

    Saves

    Wagner – 422
    Hoffman – 601

    Wagner wasn’t just a better pitcher, he was much better across the board. Hoffman’s only edges are saves and longevity. But even then, if you look, Hoffman hung around had a good year sandwiched by a bad one and dreadful one in his last three years. Wagner was probably the best closer in the NL when he retired after his age 38 season. Yet with all that said, history remembers Hoffman as the supior pitcher and the closest thing the NL had to Mariano Rivera. So despite the electorate’s awakening regarding saves, that narrative and the gaudy saves total, will likely propel Hoffman into the Hall with relative ease. Yet Wagner, whose numbers on a rate basis are as good and in some cases even better than Rivera’s, will likely struggle. It’s weird and fascinating at the same time.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Wagner’s last year he was with the Braves. When they signed him, I was pretty meh on the idea. But he was really good. His FIP was 2.10 and his WHIP was .865. His LIFETIME WHIP was .998.

      Rivera WHIP 1.000 FIP 2.76, ERA+ 205 WAR 56.6
      Wagner WHIP .998 FIP 2.73 ERA+ 187 WAR 27.7

      The Braves wanted him back for another year. He just said no thanks and moved on with his life.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        As I recall, he got hurt in the 2010 playoff series against the Giants and was not available the next night. I always felt the Braves might have won that series if Wagner had been healthy.

    • MikeN says:

      Thanks. I was going to post the comment, ‘Billy Wagner, really?’ but it looks like it’s Trevor Hoffman that is severely overrated.

  4. Pat says:

    Great story, as ever, Joe, and if Smith gets in I won’t complain a bit.

    However. This is why I love modern stats, especially WAR. If you want to know how much less, say, DH contributes than a second baseman due to not playing defense, WAR gives you at least a way to approximate it. If you want to know whether this pitcher really helped his teams more than that slugger—well,that’s a tough question, but WAR at least lets you start.

    It’s also a pretty good benchmark for the Hall. Absent special circumstances (say, Satchel Paige), 60+ WAR starts to put a pitcher or hitter in the conversation for the Hal, and 70+ WAR basically means he’s in.

    So do relievers really belong in the Hall? It’s not unthinkable as a proposition, but how much do high-leverage innings really stack up to greater innings totals?

    Well, let’s take the greatest reliever, whom everyone acknowledges as a no-doubt HOFer. How many more Wins Above Replacement does Mariano Rivera have over a marginal case—another limited-purpose player—like David Ortiz?

    One win. 56.6 to 55.4.

    Lee Smith has almost 30 WAR. That’s not nothing! Hoffman’s got less; Sutter’s got less; Rollie Fingers’s got less. A thirty-win career is a very fine thing, and if my three wishes from the genie resulted in that, I’d be g.d. thrilled and never regret a thing.

    But MAN is it not close to the value starting pitchers had to give their teams in order to get to the Hall of Fame. Different rules, different roles… but it’s just so far apart, the standards for starters and for relievers.

    • SDG says:

      So essentially, relievers have to be the best of the best to get in, while the margin is much greater for starters?

      The thing is, in the future, the starter will be obsolete. There will be 4-5 pitchers taking a few innings each. So they’ll all be relievers without the bottom-of-the-ninth drama. What then?

      It’s like comparing Walter Johnson (who completed games regularly) to Pedro Martinez (who didn’t). It obscures certain things like ERA+ but it’s doable. Relievers are just an extension of that trend.

      • MikeN says:

        Then probably none get in. If you have a ten man rotation of this, then you are looking at 162 IP per pitcher. I guess there will be a few who manage to separate themselves and produce 200+ innings.

  5. Patrick says:

    I have looked at Smith closely, many times. I don’t believe it depends at all on how you view relief pitchers. If you comp him to other relievers during his career he stands out not at all during his Fireman days, and fares no better as a closer. He differs only in longevity, which I’ve always found to be a non starter as a HOF argument. I don’t care how long you played if you were never really great for an extended period, and Smith was only great for a very few seasons with a generous reading.

  6. Aaron Beshears says:

    Relievers are a strange lot to figure out. Do you weigh the 9th inning more than say the 3rd? Does more weight go into a save that is only two outs, but came in a one run game with the bases loaded as opposed to a 1+ inning save with no one on and a three run lead?

    I think you need to do a bit of the eye test for relievers, which won’t sit well with some. When the previously mentioned Bobby Thigpen saved 57, I don’t think he was putting the fear of God into anyone, and it did in fact prove to be short lived.

    When guys like Sutter, Gossage, Rivera, and yes, Lee Smith came into a game, you knew it was all but over. You knew it would take an incredible effort to change the outcome of the game. Only a handful of closers/firemen did it better than Smith. It didn’t matter if he was pitching two + innings or less than one as he often did later in his career. Smith excelled in his role and was one of the best ever to do what he did. That’s why he should be in the HOF.

    • Mike says:

      “When guys like Sutter, Gossage, Rivera, and yes, Lee Smith came into a game, you knew it was all but over.”

      Not really – Smith converted 82% of his save opportunities, meaning he blew 18% of them. Sutter converted 75% of his; Gossage only converted 73% of his. Rivera did convert 89% of his, which is among the higher percentages of all-time.

      • kehnn13 says:

        I think that Mariano was amazing. That said, I’m not so sure that you are giving credit /accounting for the different type of saves that Smith, Sutter and Gossage represented. Is it fair to compare the flat % for 1 inning saves with the multiple inning saves that Smith, and especially Sutter and Gossage often pitched?

      • Marc Schneider says:

        That’s the reason why it generally makes no sense, I think, for teams to invest huge amounts of money in a closer. At least during the regular season, the difference between a great closer and just a good closer isn’t that much. Even the best blow a few games. You could argue that the post-season is different, but the Giants managed to win 3 WS without a “dominant” closer.

    • Mark Daniel says:

      Yes, more weight is given to the 9th inning. Not sure exactly why, but I’m guessing either the emotional toll of blowing multiple 9th inning leads has a negative effect on team performance, or blowing multiple 9th inning leads brings too much heat from the media and fans on the manager and GM, so they upgrade the closer.

      It’s probably a combo of both.

      • Rick Rodstrom says:

        At a risk of stating the obvious, the last inning is the only inning where the score counts. Every other inning gives you a chance to fix your mistakes, to get back into the game. If you make a mistake in the last inning so that you end up one run behind, the game is over. Which is why the standards used to measure pitchers who work the last inning are not that they be good, but that they be perfect.

    • SDG says:

      I don’t weigh the 9th inning more than the third, which is why the modern closer usage doesn’t make sense. It’s the 7th, game is tied, men are on. If you have sense, you put your best reliever in that situation. While in the ninth, you’re up, bases are empty, the need isn’t so acute. The only argument for closers is a character one, that some players are selfish chokers who wilt under pressure and some are tough, gritty, gamers who have the heart of a champion.

      • invitro says:

        Pitching well in the 9th isn’t by itself more important than pitching well in the 3rd. But pitching well when the lead is (say) two or less, and when runners are on base, IS more important. Relievers should get more credit if they enter the game more often than usual in these situations (and less credit, if they’re used for mop-up). And I believe they do, in bb-ref WAR, if I remember something I saw there recently.

        So no, “character” isn’t at all the only argument for closers; many of them really do pitch in a higher fraction of important innings than starters do. The question is how many extra wins that’s worth…

  7. Mike says:

    I hadn’t really remembered that Smith walked REALLY slowly to the mound, but man, after reading that, it came back to me. I can picture it in my mind right now. The slow walk, his head down, serious look on his face.

    The other thing I remember is that — and I think this was a result of federal legislation — EVERY announcer referred to him as “Big Lee Smith” or “Fireballing Lee Smith.” I don’t think I ever heard him called simply “Lee Smith.”

    As a Mets fan, I was terrified of him. If he came in to the game, it was all-but over.

  8. Ian says:

    Nice story, Joe. Really enjoyed reading about his early life.

  9. Keith Schweer says:

    Bb

  10. Donald A. Coffin says:

    Playing around in BBRef, I find 28 relief pitchers (I might have missed someone) with a (Win Probability Added)/(Leverge Index > 10. Here are the top 15 (with their raw WPA as well):

    Player………WPA/LI….WPA
    Rivera………33.6……56.6
    Wilhelm……..27.6……31.1
    Eckersley……25.8……20.8
    Hoffman……..19.5……34.1
    Wagner………18.0……29.0
    Nathan………15.7……30.6
    Fingers……..15.2……16.2
    Gossage……..15.0……32.5
    Gordon………14.7……21.3
    Henke……….14.1……21.5
    McGraw………13.4……21,5
    Papelbon…….13.3……28.3
    Orosco………13.1……12.9
    Miller………13.0……12.9
    Smith……….12.9……21.3

    Lee Arthur looks a lot better on raw WPA than leverage-adjusted. On these metrics, I don’t see much difference from Tom Henke down to Lee Smith. And there’s a substantial gap between Billy Wagner at #5 and Joe Nathan at #6.

    I have no idea whether these are the best–or even good–metrics, but they’re probably better than saves. (Incidentally, just making my >10 cutoff was Don Mossi.)

  11. Kevin says:

    One of my favorite Lee Smith memories is the way Cards announcer Mike Shannon described Smith’s scowl as he looked in for the sign: He looks like you just told him his mother in-law was moving in.

  12. invitro says:

    One question I’d ask when comparing HoF candidates who had different roles/positions is this: how hard was it to get a player this good at this position? How hard was it to get a reliever as good as Lee Smith? A catcher as good as Posada? A right fielder as good as Ordonez? WAR is a good start, but that tells you how hard it is to get a replacement player at a position. I’m guessing that getting a catcher with 5.0 WAR is harder than getting a RF’er with 5.0 WAR, and that getting a catcher as good as Posada is a lot harder than a RF’er as good as Ordonez. A lot of people say that getting a reliever as good as Lee Smith isn’t all that hard — you could probably just put your third starting pitcher out there and he’d do it. Well, I don’t know, but I’ll bet that getting a Lee Smith on your team is a lot easier than getting an Ordonez or Posada.

  13. invitro says:

    “On Saturdays, his father Willie Smith would load up the pickup truck, Lee Arthur would get in, and they would drive up into the woods and cut down pine trees to sell as pulpwood.” — It’s funny. This is exactly how I spent my Saturdays when I was a teenager, for a few years. (I didn’t have anything else in common with Lee’s childhood.)

  14. Frank Evans says:

    I was a beer vendor at Kauffman Stadium when Lee Smith was with the Angels, and looked forward to seeing one of my favorites in action (I’m a lifelong Cubs fan) when the Angels came to town. I saw him twice in one game, but not on the mound. I was on my way to the commissary for another case when I came upon Big Lee, in full uniform, standing next to a pay phone in the lowest concourse. “Hey buddy!” he said. “Help me out with a quarter?” Of course I did. A few innings later, I passed that same pay phone and there he was again. “Got any more of those quarters?” Of course I did.

  15. Tracy says:

    I recall a writer in Chicago comparing Big Lee’s entrance to Clarence Clemons – highly anticipated and rarely a disappointment.

  16. Ian Irwin says:

    Was curious where that baseball card image at the top of the story came from. I thought Smith’s first Topps card was in ’82 and wasn’t aware of him having a card in the ’80 set.

  17. Stephen says:

    Another terrific article, thanks!

    Just a quibble about Gossage and Sutter. It’s certainly conventional wisdom that Gossage was (in your words) more of an “old-fashioned rwliever” than Sutter was, by which people generally mean that Sutter was more likely to pitch just one inning while Gossage was frequently sent into the game in the seventh or the eighth.

    Trouble is, the difference doesn’t really hold up. It LOOKS like it does at first glance: Gossage pitched 1809 innings in his career spread over 1002 games, which is 1.81 innings per game. Compared to Sutter’s 1042 IP in 661 games, for a ratio of 1.58, Gossage does look much more impressive.

    But there’s a twist. in 1976 the Sox converted Gossage to a starter. He started 29 games and relieved just twice that year, and nearly all of Gossage’s innings per game edge over Sutter is attributable to that year. Take out his 31 games and 224 innings in ’76 and the new figure is 1.63–essentially the same as Sutter’s.

    As for the other point, that Gossage’s career included many more innings than either Smith or Sutter, that’s absolutely true, and he should get credit for that. But the “more of an old-fashioned releiver” claim is a lot less true than generally believed.

  18. steve says:

    I’d say Lee Smith passes the HoF “I can actually remember him” test. For numbers 19 and higher on Joe’s list. . . in five more years and who is going to remember anything about any of them (other than possibly the guy lucky enough to play on TV in a bunch of World Series with the Yankees)? So for Lee Smith, oh yeah, a really great closer way back when. Maybe not HoF, but I knew my team was doomed when Smith took the mound.

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