Lee Smith’s Hall Omission Hard to Figure by thad mumau

The all-time major league saves leader is not in the Hall of Fame. That is only because his mandatory five-year waiting period since retirement is not complete. But you can be sure Mariano Rivera’s plaque is in the back room at Cooperstown.

The greatest reliever ever will be eligible next year, and his 2019 induction is about as certain as tomorrow’s daybreak. The New York Yankees’ closer will lead the voting for the new class. Heck, he might even be a unanimous selection.

Trevor Hoffman, No. 2 in career saves, is already in the Hall, having joined Chipper Jones and four others in the large group of inductees this past summer.

Rivera finished with 652 saves, Hoffman with 601.

There probably aren’t many folks, other than hard-core followers of baseball, who can name the No. 3 saves guy. (without Google, I mean.) He’s Lee Smith, who amassed 478 saves over an 18-year career that saw him pitch for eight teams.

Dennis Eckersley’s plaque is on the wall at Cooperstown, and he had 390 saves. Of course, he also put up pretty good numbers as a starting pitcher before becoming a beast of the bullpen. His first five full seasons as a closer were almost otherworldly.

Rollie Fingers (341 saves) is in the Hall of Fame as well, and so are Goose Gossage (310) and Bruce Sutter (300).

So, once again, we ask why and why not? Obviously, the objective statistical measuring stick is not the sole criterion. Based on total number of saves, Smith should be in.

The best thing to do is compare his overall numbers with those of Fingers, Gossage and Sutter – three Hall of Fame closers who have fewer career saves than Smith. Here goes:

 

                    W-L             ERA  Saves Games         Gms Fshed  Innings          SO

Smith           71-92           3.03   478    1,016           802 (78.9)   1,209.1          1,251

Fingers        114-118       2.90   341       907           709 (78.2)   1,701.1          1,299

Gossage       124-107       3.01   310       965           681 (70.6)   1,809.1          1,502

Sutter           68-71           2.83   300       661           512 (77.5)   1.042              861

(It should be noted that “games” include relief appearances only. Sutter is the only one of this quartet who never made a major league start.)

Okay, you can see Smith’s earned run average was higher than Fingers’, Gossage’s (barely) and Sutter’s, and he lost 21 more games than he won. The latter is not a biggie among closers. Saves is, and Smith holds a decided advantage there.

He also finished a higher percentage of the games in which he appeared (seven-tenths of a percentage point better than Fingers), while averaging more than a strikeout for each inning pitched – something none of the other three managed.

There is no attempt here to diminish the status of Fingers, Gossage or Sutter. But it’s hard to justify their places in the Hall of F

 

ame without admitting Smith.

Unless … unless a disproportionate weight is placed on post-season performance. And while October heroics certainly help a player’s chances, they cannot be the main factor since some Hall of Famers never play in a World Series, or perhaps even a playoff  game.

Fingers pitched in 30 postseason games, saving nine, with a 2.35 ERA. He shined in the World Series, with six saves and a 1.35 ERA. Gossage appeared in 19 postseason games, all with the New York Yankees, and finished 17 of them with eight saves. He finished all eight of his World Series games, saving two with a 2.63 ERA. Sutter’s postseason included six games, four in the World Series. He finished all four, saving two, with a 4.70 ERA.

Smith’s postseason was brief and bad. He was tagged with the loss in both games in which he pitched, with an 8.44 ERA.

Surely, that can’t be the reason there isn’t a Lee Smith plaque in Cooperstown. But just as surely, 478 saves aren’t reason enough to mount one on those hallowed walls.

Go figure.

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