I want to consider Lee Smith's Hall of Fame question fairly. But I keep returning to what I think is the obvious question: Would you really rather have Lee Smith on your team than Barry Larkin or Alan Trammell or Edgar Martinez or Tim Raines or Bernie Williams or Larry Walker or Jack Morris or Jeff Bagwell or Dale Murphy or Fred McGriff?
You really think if the Chicago Cubs had called up the Montreal Expos or Atlanta Braves in 1983 -- when Smith was at his most dominant -- and said, "Hey, we'll give you Smith for Raines or Murphy" that those teams would have said yes? In 1991, when Smith finished second in the NL Cy Young vote, do you think the Padres would have traded McGriff for him?
Isn't the answer clear?
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Smith was taken in the second round of the 1975 draft by the Chicago Cubs, discovered in his small Louisiana hometown by the legendary Buck O'Neil. He was big, he threw gas and he had no idea what he was doing. In 1978, pitching as a starter for Double-A Midland, he threw 155 innings, walked 128 and struck out 71. His ERA was 5.98. He nearly quit baseball at the time, but Billy Williams convinced him to return. The odds that he’d become a Hall of Fame candidate at the point? I’d say less than the Cubs’ chances of winning the 2012 World Series.
Smith, of course, converted to a relief pitcher and became one of baseball's most intimidating closers, sauntering in slowly from the Wrigley Field bullpen, his cap sitting loosely atop his head, throwing smoke from the late-afternoon shadows. It's that slow walk that I most remember Smith for; indeed, near the end of his career he became notorious for napping in the clubhouse during the game and not heading out to the bullpen until the seventh inning.
What I don't remember is ever thinking of Smith as baseball's best closer. But memories are hazy. Let us check some of Smith's best seasons.
1983: 4-10, 1.65 ERA, 29 saves, 103.1 IP, 70 H, 41 BB, 91 SO
In Smith's only season with an ERA under 2.00, he led the NL in saves and ranked fourth in the majors. You can make a case he was the second-best reliever in baseball that year behind Dan Quisenberry (45 saves, 139 innings, 1.94 ERA), although Jesse Orosco was also pretty dominant (1.47 ERA in 110 innings) and Orosco went 13-7 rather than 4-10.
1984: 9-7, 3.65 ERA, 33 saves, 101 IP, 98 hits, 35 BB, 86 SO
The Cubs won the division title and Smith ranked second to Bruce Sutter in the NL in saves, but didn't have a particularly dominant season. Sutter, Quisenberry, Willie Hernandez (AL Cy Young and MVP), Goose Gossage and Bill Caudill, for example, all clearly had better seasons. In fact, 77 pitchers with at least 100 innings had a lower ERA that year. In the NLCS, he also served up the game-losing gopherball to Steve Garvey in Game 4.
1988: 4-5, 2.80 ERA, 29 saves, 83.2 IP, 72 H, 37 BB, 96 SO
Now with the Red Sox -- he was considered so valuable the Cubs gave him up for Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi -- Smith got his ERA under 3.00 for the first time since 1983 and the Red Sox won the AL East. Smith was 29-for-37 in save opportunities that year, a 78 percent success ratio. He ranked ninth in the majors in saves and among those with at least 25 saves, he ranked ninth in ERA, sixth in innings, second in strikeouts and tied for 13th in save percentage. I don't think you say he was one of the best three or four closers that year.
1990: 5-5, 2.06 ERA, 31 saves, 83 IP, 71 H, 28 BB, 87 SO
For some reason, the Red Sox had signed Jeff Reardon in the offseason, so in early May they traded Smith to the Cardinals for Tom Brunansky. Smith was 31 for 37 in save chances. But it was a good year for closers: Dennis Eckersley had a 0.61 ERA, Bobby Thigpen saved 57 games with a 1.83 ERA, Randy Myers and Tom Henke were just as dominant as Smith. A good year, but Smith clearly ranks behind Eck and Thigpen and no better than even with Myers and Henke.
1991: 6-3, 2.34 ERA, 47 saves, 73 IP, 70 IP, 13 BB, 67 SO
You'll notice that Smith's innings are slowly dropping as closers became more and more protected. Once a 100-inning reliever, he's now in the low 70s. That didn't prevent Smith from finishing second in the Cy Young vote, as he led the majors in saves. He had a good year, although Bryan Harvey was the most dominant closer that year -- 46 saves, 1.65 ERA, 101/17 strikeout/walk ratio. I'd argue that Eckersley, Rick Aguilera and Henke were also as effective or more so than Smith. He did convert 89 percent of his save chances -- the third-highest ratio of his career.
1992: 4-9, 3.12 ERA, 46 saves, 75 IP, 62 H, 26 BB, 60 SO
Smith led the NL in saves, but with nine losses and eight blown saves, it was hardly a stellar season. Among the 12 relievers with at least 30 saves, Smith ranked 10th in ERA, sixth in innings, sixth in strikeouts and seventh in OPS allowed. And somehow finished fourth in the Cy Young vote. (Thirteen NL starters pitched 200 innings with a lower ERA than Smith that year.)
1994: 1-4, 3.29 ERA, 33 saves, 38.1 IP, 34 H, 11 BB, 42 SO
Still going strong at 36, Smith was now the ultimate one-inning reliever -- actually, not even that. He pitched in 39 games so he averaged just less than an inning per outing. He led the majors in saves in the strike-shortened season, but let's be serious -- this was not a great season. Among the 10 closers with 20 saves, he had the fewest innings, ranked sixth in ERA and seventh in OPS allowed. Here's another way to look at the end of Smith's career: From 1992 through 1995 he led the majors with 159 saves, nine more than Myers. But he was really a dominant reliever in that span? Among the 15 pitchers with at least 50 saves over those years, Smith's 3.43 ERA ranks 12th and his OPS allowed 11th. He got saves because he wasn't terrible and had the easiest job in baseball: Come in with the bases empty and get two or three outs.
So what are we left with? Yes, he retired as baseball's all-time saves leader with 478, although he has since been lapped by Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera. He does still rank third and the closest active closer is Francisco Cordero with 327.
In the end I see Smith as a very good reliever, but also the ultimate compiler. Considering the coddled nature of the position, to even consider a closer you need to at least be the man for a period of years, and Smith never had a run of dominance like Rivera or Goose Gossage or Billy Wagner or Joe Nathan. On his first year on the ballot, Smith received 42.3 percent of the vote; nine years later, he hadn't budged much, with 45.3 percent. The line has been drawn on Lee Smith, as strong as the line on steroids users. He had a great career, he filled his role at a position where a lot of guys burn out quickly. But I say again: You can't vote for Smith when there are so many more valuable, viable candidates to vote for.