P1ay1ng Wi7h Numb3r5

I like playing with numbers sometimes, so let me run these past you to chew on:

  • 3rd all-time in the most measurable category for his position (saves), sandwiched between future & current Hall of Famers.
  • 4 times, he finished in the top 25 in MVP voting, including a top ten finish
  • 7-time All-Star
  • Set a then NL record with 47 saves in 1991
  • Finished 2nd in the 1991 Cy Young award voting, behind Tom Glavine
  • 3-time Rolaids Releif Man of the Year (NL twice, AL once)
Since 1964, only 5 men have held the career saves record for longer than one year. Two are in the HOF (Hoyt Wilhelm & Rollie Fingers). You’ve probably heard of the three that aren’t: Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera, and Lee Smith. If you’re like me, as soon as you read that you thought, “Wait a minute, Mo & The (other) Hoff are sure-fire Hall of Famers.”
Lee Smith pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1990 to 1993
So, why isn’t Lee Smith as “sure fire” as the others?

Scouted by one of the top 100 (by nearly everyone’s count) baseball men of all time, Buck O’Neil, Smith’s career as a top closer is strewn with accolades that are sure to impress anyone. Anyone, apparently, except for at least 331 members of the BBWAA who have HOF voting privileges. Lee received just 45.3% of the votes last year, falling short of the 75% required for HOF induction. 2012 will mark his 10th year of eligibility on the ballot.Facts surrounding the career Lee Arthur Smith:

  • He held the career saves record from 1993 to 2006, when HOFfman passed him (see what I did there?)
  • From 1983 to 1995 (13 seasons), he saved fewer than 29 games exactly once (1989)
  • From 1985 to 1990 (6 straight seasons), he averaged >1K/IP (HOF Gossage’s max, 4)
  • He recorded his first save in 1981, at the time the MLB record for career saves was 272
  • He recorded his last save in 1997, at which time the record was his, at 478
  • Since his departure from the game, Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers, and Bruce Sutter have all been elected to the Hall of Fame

Current Hall of Famer closers include: Gossage, Fingers, Sutter, Wilhelm, and Eckersley. For the sake of argument, I’ll toss Hoffman and Rivera into the mix of guys with whom I’ll compare Lee’s numbers.

Career Saves:

  1. Rivera (603, and counting),
  2. Hoffman (601)
  3. Smith (478)
  4. Eckersley (390)
  5. Fingers (341)
  6. Gossage (310)
  7. Sutter (300)
  8. Wilhelm (227, ten behind Ugueth Urbina)

Career Games Finished:

  1. Rivera (883)
  2. Hoffman (856)
  3. Smith (802)
  4. Fingers (709)
  5. Gossage (681)
  6. Wilhelm (651)
  7. Eckersley (577)
  8. Sutter (512)

Obviously, the numbers I’ve put before you today don’t tell the whole story. We all know that you can usually present numbers in such a way to make them tell the story you want them to tell. You have to dig a little deeper to get the entire story. Consider that the very role of closer is something that’s relatively new, in terms of comparing to other “positions” like shortstop or left fielder. That’s a factor in comparing these men to each other.

Does the fact that Sutter needed only 512 games finished to collect 300 saves (.586) speak to how lights-out he must’ve been when taking the mound? It certainly tells part of that story. Isn’t it interesting that Hoyt Wilhelm finished 651 games, but complied only 237 career saves (.364)? If that doesn’t make you think a little bit, I’m not sure what would–he’s in Cooperstown, for crying out loud! Check out some of the rankings and compare career numbers of closers, and I assure you you’ll find some very interesting things!

My point is that if you don’t think Lee Smith belongs in the Hall of Fame, maybe you’re looking at a different set of numbers than I am. And just so it doesn’t go unsaid, Lee Smith was absolutely among the most dominant men at his position for a sustained period of time during his era. (I know some folks out there, that’s a big factor for HOF consideration.)

The question should not be, “Does Lee Smith belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame?”. After spending time with the cubs, Red Sox, Cardinals, Yankees, Orioles, Angels, Reds, and Expos, the only question should be, “Which hat will he be wearing in his plaque?”.

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