Despite being the one-time saves king, Lee Smith's Hall of Fame case isn't particularly strong as he approaches his penultimate year on the writers' ballot.
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2016 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
Over the course of his 18-year career, Lee Smith was one of the game’s top closers. The physically intimidating (6'5", 220 pounds) righty pitched for eight teams, earned All-Star honors seven times, led his league in saves four times (and finished as runner-up in four other seasons) and finished as high as second in the Cy Young voting. When he retired in 1998, he held the all-time record for saves with 478, a mark he owned from '93 to 2006.
When Smith retired, just two relievers had been elected to the Hall of Fame: Hoyt Wilhelm in 1985 and Rollie Fingers in '92. Since then—and since I debuted the system that became JAWS in the winter of 2003–04—that number has more than doubled via the elections of Dennis Eckersley ('04), Bruce Sutter ('06) and Rich Gossage ('08). In theory, the larger group made it at least somewhat easier to sketch out a standard for relievers, but within the stathead community, debate continues to rage over how to properly value reliever contributions.
In particular, the focus has fallen on whether or not to incorporate win expectancy and leverage—the quantitatively greater impact on winning and losing that a reliever has at the end of the ballgame than a starter does earlier—into valuation metrics. Smart minds have come down on all sides of the issue, and as they have, the JAWS methodology for examining relievers has evolved more frequently than any other part of the system in an attempt to keep pace. The baseball-reference.com version of Wins Above Replacement does contain a leverage adjustment, but it also measures relievers against a higher replacement level than starters since they tend to allow fewer runs per nine innings.
Relievers also throw far fewer innings, so the result is that even among the elite, single-season WAR totals are lower than for even average starters, particularly as the job of closer has evolved into a one-inning role. Mariano Rivera, who now holds the all-time lead in saves, finished with a career WAR of 57.1, which ranks second among relievers behind Eckersley (who spent much of his career as a starter) but would place 76th among starting pitchers, between Dave Stieb and Orel Hershiser. Former all-time saves leader and 2016 Hall of Fame ballot debutante Trevor Hoffman, who had 51 fewer saves than Rivera, was almost exactly half as valuable: His career WAR of 28.4 ranks 310th among starters, in the general vicinity of Mike Moore, Jarrod Washburn and Jack McDowell—nobody you'd elect to the Hall of Fame. The peak scores of Rivera and Hoffmann stack up even less impressively if measured against starters: tied for 248th for the former and tied for 488th for the latter.
With the ongoing changes to JAWS, my verdict on Smith has changed as well. Since his retirement, Hoffman and Rivera have both surpassed his all-time saves record, and Smith’s progress toward Cooperstown, while substantial, has stalled. He's been on the BBWAA ballot for 13 years, debuting at 42.3% in 2003 and climbing as high as 50.6 in '12, but he's lost considerable ground since. In each of the past two cycles, he’s polled around 30%, squeezed out by a flood of worthy starting pitchers. Even having been grandfathered in by the 2014 rule change that reduced candidates’ BBWAA ballot eligibility from 15 years to 10, he doesn’t figure to regain all that lost ground over his final two election cycles.
|Avg. HOF RP||40.6||28.2||34.4|
A native of Jamestown, La., Smith was discovered by Negro Leagues legend Buck O'Neil, who spent decades as a scout for the Cubs. Chicago chose Smith in the second round of the 1975 draft and spent the first four years of his minor league career trying him as a starter, but control problems, including walk rates exceeding 7.0 per nine in some years, led the team to change course. By September 1980, Smith's command had improved enough for the Cubs to bring him to the majors, and they kept him busy, using him 18 times in their final 34 games, though rarely in the same game as then-closer Sutter, who was traded to the Cardinals in December.
Smith spent the entirety of the strike-shortened 1981 season with the Cubs, and after a brief five-game stint as a starter in June 1982, Chicago moved him into the closer's role, where he converted all 15 of his save opportunities from July 23 onward. In '83, Smith earned All-Star honors for the first time, leading the National League with 29 saves and pitching to a 1.65 ERA in 103 1/3 innings—the type of performance that would unfortunately become nearly obsolete by the end of the decade with the Eckersley-driven move to the one-inning closer. Four of Smith's saves were of three innings or more, 14 were of at least two innings and 19 were longer than one inning, and his 4.8 WAR—a career high that he would never again come close to matching—ranked sixth in the league among all pitchers.
Over the next four years, Smith compiled a 3.25 ERA and averaged 33 saves, finishing in the NL's top five in each season and helping the Cubs to their first postseason berth in 39 years in 1984. Alas, he surrendered a walk-off homer to the Padres' Steve Garvey in Game 4 of the NLCS, evening the series at two games apiece; San Diego would win in five. That blip aside, from 1983 to '87, Smith was the majors' second-most valuable reliever in terms of WAR, with his 14.8 trailing only Royas closer Dan Quisenberry's 16.5.
In December 1987, the Cubs traded Smith to the Red Sox for Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. He pitched reasonably well in Boston, though he again struggled in the postseason, taking the loss in Game 2 of the 1988 ALCS against the Athletics. His workload continued to wane as the industry model moved toward a one-inning closer: In 1989, he threw just 70 2/3 innings, the sixth season out of seven that he had pitched fewer innings than the year before.
Despite that fact, Smith actually received an increased number of save opportunities. Traded to the Cardinals early in the 1990 season, he broke Sutter's NL saves record the following year with 47 in 53 attempts—the first of four straight years he would top 50 save chances. Accompanied by a 2.34 ERA, he finished second in the 1991 NL Cy Young balloting behind Braves ace Tom Glavine. He led the league in saves again with 43 in 1992, and in '93, he put together a 46-save season that made him the first man to reach 400 career saves, taking over the all-time lead in the category from Jeff Reardon (357 saves) along the way.
Save No. 400 came on Sept. 17, 1993 as a member of the Yankees, to whom the 35-year-old Smith had been traded on Aug. 31. That move began a particularly peripatetic phase, as he passed through Baltimore (1994, with a league-high 33 saves), Anaheim ('95 and '96), Cincinnati ('96) and Montreal ('97). The innings had taken their toll, and his managers limited his usage to about 50 innings per year, one at a time, to keep him effective, but he spent much of his final two seasons in a setup role with diminishing returns. In mid-July of 1997, he walked away from the Expos and abruptly announced his retirement, though he made a bid to crack the Royals' roster the following spring, then struggled in a stint with the Astros’ Triple A team.
From a traditional standpoint, Smith's case for Cooperstown starts with his No. 3 ranking on the all-time saves list behind Hoffman (who broke his record in 2006) and Rivera (who took the crown in '11). That pair both topped 600 saves, but the vast majority of them needed no more than three outs. In the 478 games in which he notched a save, Smith threw a total of 593 innings, just nine fewer than Hoffman did in the games in which he tallied his 601 saves. Smith’s total of 169 long saves—those of at least four outs—rank fourth behind Fingers (201), Gossage (193) and Sutter (188). His 1,022 games pitched ranked third when he retired, behind only Wilhelm and Kent Tekulve, but he is now in a tie for 12th.
Beyond that are Smith's seven All-Star selections and an amazing string of consistency that followed him to virtually every stop on his 18-year ride. Until his abbreviated final season, his ERA+ was always better than league average and was 32% better for his career. On the down side, his teams never went farther than the League Championship Series, and he was bombed for an 8.44 ERA in four postseason appearances, taking two losses.
In terms of JAWS, the five closers in the Hall of Fame are strewn among the top 26 relievers, with Fingers ranking the lowest among that Cooperstown quintet. That ranking is at least somewhat skewed by pitchers' value as starters—Eckersley, for instance, made 361 career starts—but Smith, who made six starts and none after 1982, nevertheless ranks 14th in JAWS. Because of the way Eckersley's WAR total skews the standards, it's perhaps more instructive to note that relative to the others who are enshrined, Smith tops only Fingers (26.1) and Sutter (24.6) in career WAR and only Fingers (19.2) in peak WAR, and he falls short of the averages of the non-Eckersley quartet (35.0 career, 25.7 peak, 30.4 JAWS) on all three fronts. Given the small sample size of relievers in the Hall, it's fair to suggest that the voters are still in the process of fleshing out the standard, but the potential inclusions of both Hoffman and Rivera (eligible in 2019) would push Smith even further below the non-Eckersley standards (37.6 career, 25.2 peak, 31.4 JAWS).
While the version of WAR that’s used in JAWS features a leverage adjustment to help account for the degree of difficulty, it’s not the only way to measure reliever value. Win Probability Added (WPA) is a context-sensitive measure that accounts for the incremental increase (or decrease) in chances of winning produced in each plate appearance given the inning, score and base/out situation. For a reliever, a single-season WPA scales similarly to a single-season WAR, which is to say that it’s rare that one is worth more than three wins in a single year, by either measure. During the span of Smith’s 18 seasons, major league relievers combined to notch 110 seasons with at least 3.0 WAR and 103 seasons with at least 3.0 WPA. Alas, Smith’s 21.3 WPA (14th all-time) doesn’t help his case any more than his WAR total does, as it ranks behind all of the enshrined relievers save for Sutter (18.2) and Fingers (16.2), with Gossage, Wilhelm and Eckersley all above 30.0 and Rivera (56.6) and Hoffman (34.1) first and second, respectively.
Likewise, when WPA is adjusted using a pitcher’s average leverage index (LI) for a stat variably called situational wins or context-neutral wins (referred to as WPA/LI), again Smith ranks modestly (12.9, 17th all-time)—still significantly below every enshrined reliever but Sutter (11.9), with Rivera (33.7) again first and Hoffman (19.5) fourth. I’ll go deeper into WPA-based reliever measures in the context of Hoffman’s review, because they make a much stronger case for him than they do for Smith.
By either my standard JAWS methodology or by more context-sensitive measures, it's difficult to conclude that Smith belongs in Cooperstown. With just one election cycle remaining for him after this and so many worthy candidates to choose from, it seems quite likely he'll fall short of 75%. That said, I do think that his voting history will work in his favor in front of a future Expansion Era Committee that’s likely to be more focused on saves than WAR or WPA. All but two candidates who reached 50% on the writers’ ballot—with the exception of those still eligible, for whom the jury is still out—has eventually been elected by either the BBWAA or the Veterans Committee and its successors: longtime Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman Gil Hodges, and former Tigers and Twins ace Jack Morris, the latter of whom only aged off the writers’ ballot two years ago. Expect Smith’s case to pick up in extra innings starting in 2020.