Lee Smith: Hall of Famer or not?

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Welcome to The Show! On Tuesday, ESPN.com MLB senior writer Jayson Stark will drop by at 1 p.m. ET for another installment of "That's Debatable," a feature in which we break down a hot topic.

Tuesday's question: Is Lee Smith a Hall of Famer or not?


When Smith retired, he was the leader in career saves with 478. He since has been passed by Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera but still ranks third. Smith reached that number by being exceptionally durable. His 12 straight seasons with at least 60 appearances still represent the longest streak in history by any closer. He's also still the only reliever in history to post 13 straight seasons of at least 25 saves. And when he retired, his 10 seasons with 30 or more saves also were the most ever. (Hoffman and Rivera have both passed him in that category, too.)


If you look beyond the saves column, was Smith a truly dominant, game-over, thanks-for-coming kind of closer? I've had a tough time convincing myself he was. True, he averaged nearly a strikeout an inning. But that's what closers do. Among members of the 200-Save Club, he ranks only 13th in strikeout ratio, behind the likes of Ugueth Urbina and Randy Myers. And if we look at WHIP, Smith is even deeper on that list. He ranks 23rd among members of the 200-Save Club. In fact, he's not even the highest-ranking Smith in that group. The late Dave Smith, the former Astros closer, sits at No. 18. Finally, Smith had just one season -- out of 18 -- in which his ERA was less than 2.00. Rivera has had eight seasons with that distinction. Goose Gossage had four. Dennis Eckersley had three. And the group with two includes Jeff Russell, Gregg Olson and John Franco.


In my time as a Hall of Fame voter, there has only been one player I ever voted for once and then changed my mind about. That player was none other than Lee Smith. I've changed a few ''nos'' to ''yeses'' throughout the years. But he's the only "yes" who turned into a ''no.'' You can read more about my reasoning in my book, "The Stark Truth -- The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History." But as I wrote in that book, my initial inclination, when Smith first appeared on the ballot, was to vote for the all-time saves leader. A year later, after thinking about it in greater depth, I decided there was more to a Hall of Fame closer than just the number in his saves column. Want to try to talk me out of that judgment? That's what this chat is all about.

In That's Debatable!, we give you the topic, and then we'll have one of our writers stopping by to debate the issue with you. To suggest a topic for "That's Debatable," go here. Or check out the full archive.

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