Smith's stagnant Hall support

January, 6, 2009
As Fred Mitchell writes, Lee Smith can't figure out why he's not getting more love from Hall of Fame voters:

    "They're holding out on me," Smith said from his home in Castor, La. "I have, like, 200 more saves than two or three guys who are in there. Dennis Eckersley (390 saves, 197 wins) is the only Hall of Famer who has a better save opportunity than I do (84 to Smith's 82). I don't understand, man.

    "And Eck had unbelievable numbers as a starter," Smith added, referring to Eckersley becoming the first pitcher with 20-win and 50-save seasons. "The man has 100 complete games. I have no problem with him. But Goose and Sutter … they were on the ballot for a long time."

    Gossage (310 saves) and Sutter (300) have campaigned publicly for the inclusion of Smith. The late Hoyt Wilhelm had 227 saves, and he's in the Hall of Fame. Hoffman now has 554 and Mariano Rivera is second with 482.

    "When I retired, nobody seemed to know I was the all-time saves leader for almost 15 years," Smith said. "Until Trevor Hoffman broke my record, half the people thought Eckersley was the all-time leader."

Well, yeah. That's the problem, right? Actually, the problem isn't that nobody knew Lee Smith was the all-time saves leader. I'm sure that nearly all of the voters knew that. The problem is that nobody seemed to think that Lee Smith was a great pitcher.

Well, not nobody. Six years ago, when Smith appeared on the ballot for the first time, 210 of the 496 voters thought he was great enough to deserve their support. At 42.3 percent, that's not bad for a first-time candidate. Would you believe he got one vote more than Gossage? And 65 more than Bert Blyleven?

A lot has changed since 2003. Gossage is in. And a year ago, Smith got 235 votes while Blyleven got 336. It's hard to understand exactly why one candidate's support jumps dramatically while another's hardly moves at all. But while it's not easy to explain voting patterns, it's simple to make a good case that Gossage was the more valuable pitcher. Gossage didn't save nearly as many games as Smith, but then again Smith didn't win nearly as many games as Gossage.

And here's the killer, Gossage was more feared than Smith. That's probably the best explanation, more than Gossage's huge edge in innings pitched. Because Smith pitched a lot more innings than Bruce Sutter.

I wouldn't vote for Lee Smith, because I believe the bar for relievers should be exceptionally high. Given that, there are at this moment probably dozens of starters who could put together Hall of Fame careers as relievers, if given the chance.

Still, you can't blame Smith for wondering why he's still stuck below 43 percent. The guy does have a point.


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