Sunday, December 04, 2005

December 4th, 1957

Lee Smith Born

Among counting statistics, most people can tell you leaders of the prominent ones. Most home runs? Hank Aaron. Most hits? Pete Rose. Most wins? Cy Young. Most strikeouts? Nolan Ryan. Perhaps the only stat whose leader is not a household name is one of the newer ones, saves. The all-time leader is today's birthday boy, Lee Smith who accumulated 478 over the course of an eighteen year career. (Although if Trevor Hoffman matches his 2005 save total next year, he will pass Smith by one.) Besides not being a household name, Smith is also the only leader of a prominent counting stat who is eligible for the Hall of Fame, but not in it. In fact, in three years of trying, Smith has never even come close to the requisite seventy-five percent to gain induction; he topped forty in his first year but hasn't since. And, quite frankly, Smith doesn't belong in.

That's not to re-raise the debate about closers, which I've twice discussed, but rather about Smith himself. Although he had some good years, posting a 231 ERA+ for the Cubs in 1983 and a 188 for the Red Sox and Cards in 1990, Smith's major talent was longevity and consistency. He never posted an ERA below league average until his final year and saved between thirty and fifty games ten times over his career. He served as the primary closer at one point or another for the Cubs, Red Sox, Cardinals, Orioles and Angels. Smith's career ERA is 3.03 (132 ERA+) which compares unfavorably with active leaders Hoffman (2.76, 146), Troy Percival (3.10, 150) and of course, likely the only closer who will be elected to the Hall of Fame Mariano Rivera (2.33, 197).

Smith was by no means a bad player and will make a fine addition to the Hall of Very Good (joining those I've previously inducted, Rube Marquard and Juan Gonzalez) but despite his flashy saves total, the Hall of Fame's doors are correct to stay closed to him.

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