Lee Smith established himself as one of MLB’s most dominating closers over his 18-year, 8-team career. Smith converted an astonishing 478 saves (3rd all time), had 7 All-Star game appearances, and was the all-time saves leader in major league baseball history until dethroned by Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman in 2006. Smith will not make it to the Hall of Fame but his legacy should not be tarnished for that fact. Despite the opinions of the voters Smith was worthy of the honor. Smith is the perfect indication of a flawed system when rating what a relievers true impact can be.
A native of Jamestown, La., Smith was discovered by Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil, who spent decades as a scout for the Cubs. While dealing with control issues early on in his career Smith was converted into a reliever by the Cubbies and found immediate success. Making his debut in 1980 Smith had fixed his control issues and become a cornerstone in the bullpen. When Closer Bruce Sutter was traded to the Cardinals in December of 1980 Smith assumed the role of closer after the strike shortened season of 1981. Now in the closers role Smith showed that he had what it took to be a dominant reliever earning his first All- Star appearance in 83′, 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 (A point that will come up later). Smith continued his model of consistency placing top five in the national league in saves as well as ERA over the next four seasons. A trade to the Boston Red Sox in 1987 was a blip his career, most notably taking the loss in Game 2 of the ALCS against the Athletics. It was a trade to the St. Louis Cardinals at the beginning of the 1990 season that put his career back on track.
The Cardinals gave Smith a stellar opportunity to close, allowing him to cement himself in closer allure. Raking up saves like dirt on Craig Biggio’s helmet, Smith put together three of the most impressive seasons any reliever has ever put on, breaking Bruce Sutter’s NL saves record with 47 in 1991, followed by three straight 40+ save seasons. Smith was so great during the 91′ season he finished second in the NL Cy Young voting behind Tom Glavine. Smith took over the career saves record in 1993 passing then leader Jeff Reardon. Smith spent the rest of his career as a bit of a journey men, moving around from team to team. His effectiveness didn’t end though as he collected 33 saves with Baltimore in 1994 and 37 saves with California in 1995. Smith spent his final years in a setup role before calling it quits in 1997, retiring as the all-time saves leader in professional baseball, but at the time only two career relievers, Hoyt Whilhelm ’85 and Rollie Fingers ’92 had gotten the call of immortality into the baseball Hall of Fame. Smith had a tough hill to climb.
There were multiple reasons why he should have been a Hall of Famer:
1.) Third All-Time in MLB saves behind Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.
2.)7-time All Star
3.) Smith’s 169 long saves (four outs or more) ranks fourth behind Rollie Fingers (201), Goose Gossage (193) and Bruce Sutter (188), all of whom began their major league careers several years earlier. Smith’s 1,022 total appearances ranked third when he retired, behind only Wilhelm and Kent Tekluve, but he is now tied for 12th.
4.) First pitcher in history to 400 career saves.
5.) Four straight 40 save seasons
The biggest reason why Smith should be in the Hall of Fame cannot be broken down by sabermetrics. Smith was the model of consistency at a position that at the time was not a one inning relief role. For ten years Smith was the standard of what to look for in a relief pitcher. While the late 90’s and early 2000’s Rivera and Hoffman became the highest ceiling of a reliever, they were both looking up to the standards that were set by Lee Smith. He consistency and bulldog approach were the things that made him great sadly those are not the standards we vote by anymore. Smith never lead a team to the World Series, he was constantly on the move during his career. He was not a dominant WAR player, he was just the best of his time for 5+ years. It’s a shame he is not in the Hall of Fame.