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The Cooperstown case for Lee Smith


Welcome to the seventh edition of “The Cooperstown case”.

Each Sunday we look at a former Cardinals player and see if their career is worthy of induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Using extensive research and their history (or lack thereof) on the ballot, we see why they aren’t inducted, and encourage you to voice your own opinions on the player featured.

Today, we will take a look at the case for one of the all-time saves leaders: Lee Smith.

First of all, it should be noted Smith has frequently been on the ballot, yet has never received enough votes.

Let’s find out why, and see if his career is deserving enough.

Smith made his debut in Major League Baseball on September 1st, 1980 for the Chicago Cubs. In his debut, he pitched one inning, giving up no hits, striking out one and walking two batters. During his early years with the Chicago Cubs, Smith was primarily a middle-inning reliever but did share closer duties with fellow pitchers Willie Hernandez and Bill Campbell.

Despite the Cubs’ struggles during the 1980’s, Smith was a constant positive for the team.

Overall, in his eight-year career with the Cubs, Smith had a record of 40-51, an ERA of 2.92, striking out 644 batters and notching 180 total saves.

The Boston Red Sox then signed the reliever in 1988 after years of having a struggling bullpen. Although he gave up a game-winning home run in his 1988 opening day debut at Fenway, Smith posted his best ERA in five years. However, the team would clinch Smith’s second and last trip to the postseason that season.

In Game 2 of the 1988 ALCS against the Oakland Athletics, Smith gave up three singles, including Walt Weiss’ game-winning RBI single, in the ninth inning of a tied game. Boston had a 0–2 series deficit going to Oakland. After Boston lost Game 3, Smith surrendered two insurance runs after entering Game 4 with the score 2–1 to complete the four-game sweep.

As the decade neared the end, Smith was making a case for himself as the league’s best closer, but he had competition in Jeff Reardon. Smith had four consecutive 30-save seasons; Reardon finished the decade with five consecutive. Smith saved 234 games by the end of 1989, and Reardon had 266.

Unlike Smith, however, Reardon was a member of the 1987 World Series winning Minnesota Twins.

Finally in 1990 the Red Sox traded Smith to the St. Louis Cardinals. Traded in the middle of the season, Smith finished the partial year with the last-place Cardinals with a 2.10 ERA and 27 saves. Despite the struggles the overall franchise faced, he was one of the high points.

He set the single-season National League record for saves in 1991 and almost broke his own record in 1992. However, he fell four short  which was broken the following year by Rod Beck. In 1992, Smith’s former teammate, Reardon, broke the career saves record held for over a decade by Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers. 

In 1993, he passed Reardon with career save number 358.

During his four-year stint with the Cardinals, he went 15-20, an ERA of 2.90 to go along with 246 strikeouts and 160 saves.

After 18 years, Smith had a combined record of 71-92, an ERA of 3.03, 1251 strikeouts and 478 career saves.

So should he be in Cooperstown?

Well, in 2003, the first year he was eligible, Smith drew 42.3 percent of the votes, and over the next few years consistently floated around that range.

However, despite not being inducted, he feels honored.

“Just to be mentioned for the Hall, alongside guys like Lou Brock, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson and so many others … man, that’s incredible,” Smith said.

He held the record for most saves from 1993 until being passed by Trevor Hoffman, which occurred three years after Smith had first landed on the ballot. During Smith’s candidacy, relievers have gotten marginally more attention, such as Dennis Eckersley (in ’04), Bruce Sutter (’06) and Goose Gossage (’08).

As relievers are getting more and more recognition, though Smith’s time on the ballot is getting thinner and thinner, the time may come where he will get inducted.

That is, if he deserves it.

Only time will tell.

Be sure to check back next Sunday as we look at yet another player on “The Cooperstown case”.

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