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Lee Smith

Lee Smith

Position(s):
P
Born:
December 4, 1957
Bats:
Right
Throws:
Right
Height:
6' 5"
Weight:
220 lbs
Major League Debut:
9-01-1980 with CHN
Allstar Selections:
1991 RR, 1992 RR, 1994 RR

The intimidating, 6'6" 265-lb Smith recorded at least 29 saves each year from 1983 to 1988 with a menacing glare and a 95-mph fastball. When he retired, he stood alone as the all-time saves leader with 478 and also ranked first in games finished (802) and third all-time in appearances (1022).

Originally, Smith resisted a move to the bullpen. "When [Double-A Manager] Randy Hundley tried to make me a reliever,'' Smith told the San Jose Mercury-News in 2000, "I took it to mean that I was not good enough to start.'' For a brief period he quit baseball to play basketball at Northwestern Louisiana State until a visit from Cubs great Billy Williams convinced him to return to the mound.

Notorious for his slow gait coming in from the bullpen, Smith shared closing duties with future AL MVP Willie Hernandez in 1982 (inheriting the job from Dick Tidrow) and led the NL in saves for the first time for the Cubs in 1983. Smith then strung together four straight seasons with 30 or more -- at the time, Dan Quisenberry had been the only other pitcher to accomplish that feat.

Smith won the 1987 All-Star Game for the NL with three shutout innings, but amid rumors that his bulk was beginning to affect his knees, the Cubs' all-time saves leader was traded to the Red Sox for Calvin Schiraldi and Al Nipper in the off-season. In his Fenway Park debut he blew a lead and surrendered a game-winning home run, but he recovered to post 29 saves and 96 strikeouts in 83.2 innings as well as his best ERA (2.80) since 1983 as Boston won the AL East.

Smith was 6-1 with a 3.57 ERA and 25 saves for the Red Sox in 1989, but was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals at the beginning of the 1990 season for outfielder Tom Brunansky. He returned to his dominant self with the Cardinals, recording a miniscule ERA of 2.06 in 1990 and then reeling off three straight 40-plus save seasons. Smith's 1991 save total of 47 was a career best and his 15 saves in June of 1993 set a major-league record.

Towards the end of the 1993 season, Smith was dealt to the Yankees for pitcher Rich Batchelor and proved his worth as a key member of the Bombers bullpen during the stretch drive. Smith made eight appearances and recorded 3 saves in pinstripes, but filed for free agency in October and signed a one-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles in January. He continued to master opposing batters, saving 33 games with the Orioles before filing again for free agency at the end of the year. Smith signed with the California Angels for 1995 and nailed down 37 saves in what would be his last productive year.

At the opening of the 1996 season Smith was traded to the Cincinnati Reds where he was primarily used as a setup man. Adjusting to the unfamiliar role led to a shaky season. In '97 he inked with the Expos, but by July it became obvious that age had finally taken its toll. After announcing his retirement on July 15, 1997, Smith refused to answer questions from the media.

In 1998, Smith was invited to spring training by the Royals as a non-roster player, but was released when he refused to start the season for their Triple-A affiliate. Smith signed a minor league deal with the Houston Astros later that year but soon retired again. Within three years he was back in baseball as a coach in the Giants' organization.

Hall of Fame candidacy

In 1995, Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Jim Murray selected Lee Smith as the active player most likely to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, describing him as "the best one-inning pitcher the game ever saw," and "the best at smuggling a game into the clubhouse in history." Since his retirement two years later, much speculation has centered on Smith's specific chances of becoming a member of the Hall of Fame as well as the criteria for relief pitchers and closers in general. Only Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage, and Bruce Sutter have been inducted into the Hall of Fame based primarily on their relief pitching, and only Sutter has been inducted with fewer innings or starting appearances than Smith. In addition, Fingers and Eckersley – the only two to be elected in fewer than eight tries – won MVP awards, and Sutter captured a Cy Young Award, but Smith was rarely a serious contender for either trophy. He pitched in a transitional era, when closers began to be expected to pitch only a single inning; although Smith and Goose Gossage each pitched in slightly over 1,000 games, Gossage ended his career with over 500 more innings. Sutter was the first pitcher ever elected to the Hall with less than 1,700 innings pitched; Smith, who pitched fewer innings every year from 1982 through 1989 and never pitched more than 75 innings after 1990, ended his career with less than 1,300. In 2005, statistician Alan Schwarz described Smith as a long shot for election despite the career record, and used Retrosheet data to compare the saves of several top relievers including Smith, Eckersley, Fingers, Gossage and Sutter. While Smith's save percentage (82%), outs per save (3.72) and average of inherited runners per game (.50) compared well with Eckersley's marks (84%, 3.33, .49), his figures in the last two categories sharply trailed those of the others; Fingers, Gossage and Sutter all averaged between 4.72 and 4.82 outs per save, with Sutter inheriting .67 runners per game and the other two .86, suggesting their saves were harder to achieve.

At Sutter's July 2006 induction to the Hall, Smith talked with reporters about his chances for election. Like many others, he commented that he was puzzled that he had not yet been selected. "This confuses the hell out of me. But I've always been baffled by it," he said. Smith's candidacy may have been hampered by the number of outstanding relievers on the ballot; Sutter had earned increasing vote totals for nine years before Smith appeared on the ballot, and Gossage—who first appeared on the ballot three years before Smith—has received greater support in each year from 2004 until his induction in 2008.

To be eligible for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a candidate needs to receive votes on 75 percent of the total ballots cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America. However, if the candidate receives less than 5 percent, he is no longer eligible for future Hall of Fame consideration by the BBWAA. Smith was first eligible for the ballot five years after he retired, and is allowed to be on the ballot through 2017 if he continues to meet the minimum vote threshold. Should he fail to be elected by the BBWAA, he will remain eligible for consideration by the Veterans Committee; under current rules, his first chance for consideration by that body would be in 2019 for the induction class of 2020. In his first year of eligibility, 2003, Smith received 210 votes, or 42 percent of the 496 total ballots cast.] The following year, Smith only received 185 votes, or 37 percent of the 506 total ballots cast. In 2005, Smith improved from the previous year's results, and received a total of 200 votes, or 39 percent of the 516 total cast.[64] Smith came closer to joining the Hall of Fame in 2006 by receiving 45 percent of the ballots cast, or 234 votes. In 2007, Smith's received only 217 votes, just 40 percent of the 545 total ballots cast. Smith increased his total in 2008, with 235 votes, 43.3% of the total ballots cast. He received 44.5% of the vote in 2009 and 47.3% of the vote in 2010. In 2011, he received 45.3% of the vote.

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