With the recent Hall of Fame induction of Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage, it might suggest Hall of Fame voters are beginning to give more respect for closers than they did before. Does this suggest Lee Smith finally has been given enough respect to enter the Hall of Fame? The former career saves leader has never garnered more than 47.3% of the Hall of Fame vote. I’ve always felt that Lee Smith wasn’t worthy of the Hall of Fame, however I wanted to take a look at his career numbers along side Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage to get an idea about his Hall of Fame credentials.
Lets first look at the career numbers of Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage. Lee Smith has a career 71-92 record, 478 saves, 3.03 ERA, 132 ERA+, and 1.256 WHIP. Bruce Sutter has a career 68-71 record, 300 saves, 2.83 ERA, 136 ERA+, and 1.140 WHIP. Goose Gossage has a career 124-107 record, 310 saves, 3.01 ERA, and 1.232 WHIP.
So from just looking at the career numbers overall, it appears Lee Smith was slightly less dominant than Bruce Sutter, but quite comparable to Goose Gossage. However, looking at the career numbers may not be a fair analysis. Bruce Sutter retired at 35 while Lee Smith and Goose Gossage retired at 39 and 42 respectively. So the numbers of Lee Smith and Goose Gossage may be weighed down as they stayed in baseball longer.
Another issue in this comparison may be how closers were used differently between generations of ballplayers. Closers like Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage, and Rollie Fingers were used in long relief and generally pitched more innings over their career. As a reliever, Rollie Fingers pitched over a 100 innings an amazing 11 times. Bruce Sutter pitched over 100 innings 5 times, 90-100 innings once, and 80-90 innings 4 other times. Goose Gossage threw over 100 innings 4 times, and reached 90-100 innings 2 times, and 80-90 innings 2 times when he was used as a reliever. Later, closers became specialists, often pitching for only one inning to get a save. After Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersly converted to a fulltime reliever, he pitched over one hundred innings only once. He hit the 80 inning mark one other time in his 12 seasons as a reliever. That’s quite a sharp contrast compared to the other Hall of Fame closers.
So was Lee Smith an old-school closer or a more modern specialist closer? It ends up Lee Smith is a bit of an oddity. He began his career when closers pitched more innings, but ended his career as a more modern specialist closer. He threw over 100 innings 3 times, 90-100 innings 2 times, and 80-90 innings 3 times. However, all of this occurred from 1982-1990. After 1990, Lee Smith never threw more than 80 innings again.
So let’s look at Lee Smith’s career as an old-school closer and his career as a modern closer. From 1982-1988, Lee Smith never pitched fever than 84 innings, and averaged 97 innings per year. In that span he had a 39-50 record, 2.85 ERA, 208 saves, 139 ERA+, and 1.243 WHIP. How does that compare to Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage’s best career runs of being an old-school closer? From 1977 to 1984, Bruce Sutter had a 52-57 record, 2.52 ERA, 154 ERA+, and 1.107 WHIP. From 1977-1984 Goose Gossage had a 62-43 record, 2.12 ERA, 180 ERA+, and 1.056 WHIP. Those numbers are quite different and quite superior compared to the numbers from Lee Smith. It stands to reason that Lee Smith may not have numbers worthy of Hall of Fame consideration when you look at his career as a long inning closer.
So how does Lee Smith stand out as a modern day closer? Lets compare Lee Smith’s career as a modern day closer to Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersly and future Hall of Fame candidates Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera. From 1989-1995, Lee Smith had a 24-31 record, 3.02 ERA, 134 ERA+, and 1.198 WHIP. From 1988-1997, Dennis Eckersly had a 36-34 record, 2.84 ERA, 140 ERA+, and 0.976 WHIP. From 1997-2009, Mariano Rivera had a 58-46 record, 2.04 ERA, 221 ERA+, and 0.979 WHIP. From 1995-2009, Trevor Hoffman had a 51-58 record, 2.62 ERA, 153 ERA+, and 1.012 WHIP. These numbers are quite telling. Compared to the other best modern day closers, Lee Smith can’t stand toe to toe with them either.
There’s no question that Lee Smith was a very good player for a very long time, which allowed him to hold the all time saves record for quite a lengthy amount of time. However, it appears that he doesn’t have the credentials to enter the Hall of Fame. When you actually compare head to head against different generations of closers, he just doesn’t stand amongst the elite.
Various, “Baseball Hall of Fame balloting, 2011”, Wikipedia
“Baseball-Reference.com – Major League Baseball Statistics and History”, Baseball-Reference
Various, “Baseball Hall of Fame Balloting 2010”, Wikipedia