Hall of Fame Ballot Spotlight: Lee Smith

By Matt Heckler
Wrigley Field Chicago Cubs
Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since 1996, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) didn’t elect a single eligible player to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Although longtime Houston Astros star Craig Biggio received 68.2% of the vote on his first ballot and is almost guaranteed to make it in on his second, there are a lot of great players that didn’t do as well as they should. One of them is Lee Smith.

Smith, longtime Chicago Cubs pitcher, was one of the most dominant closers in baseball history. He pitched from 1980 to 1987 for the Cubs before spending the rest of his career going from team to team every few years, including three year spans with the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. Lee Smith was the all time leader in saves in MLB history when he retired, and still holds third place, behind New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and San Diego Padres’ star reliever Trevor Hoffman.

To go along with his 478 career saves, Lee Smith had a very good career ERA of 3.03, and had a higher career save pecentage than Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, and Bruce Sutter. Despite averages that compare to his Hall of Fame peers, many criticize the fact that Lee Smith finished his career with fewer than 1300 innings, primarily due to the time of his career. Before Smith’s era, and even in his early years, the majority of closers were expected to pitch multiple innings to earn a save. Smith pitched during the transitional period, which has ended with single inning closers becoming the standard.

Although it is easy to see that Lee Smith’s overall numbers will eventually land him in the Hall of Fame, whether by traditional balloting or through election by the veteran’s committee, it is a bit confusing as to why he has to wait. Bruce Sutter and Smith were comparably dominant, but Smith had more overall saves and a better percentage. Single season awards are nice, but they shouldn’t overshadow solid achievement over a long period of time.

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