Lee Smith and the Hall of Fame

Yes, I admit it. That’s a pretty neutral headline. Doesn’t tell you whether I think Lee Smith is worthy of the Hall of Fame.

Because I don’t really know.

Smith appears to be more qualified than Bruce Sutter, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, the eleventh year his name appeared on the ballot. But Sutter doesn’t really match up to Hall of Fame standards. So what to do about Smith?

Sutter is one of three players in the Hall who spent the majority — if not the entirety — of their playing days as a closer. The other two are Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage. Dennis Eckersley pitched for 24 seasons, twelve as a starter and twelve as a closer.

Eckersley was elected on the the first ballot in 2004, and justifiably so. He pitched 3285.1 innings, with a career K/BB rate of 3.25 and career ERA- of 86. He won 197 games, lost 171 and saved 361. His career WAR is 67.1. The only pitchers with higher WAR during Eckersley’s career (1975-1998) are Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux and Bert Blyleven.

Fingers was the first true closer elected to the Hall, and that fact alone appears to have substantially helped his candidacy. From 1969-1985, Fingers pitched 1,701 innings with a 2.90 ERA, an ERA- of 83, and a 1.16 WHIP. His K/BB rate was a solid 2.64. At the time he retired in 1985, he was the all-time saves leader with 341 and still holds the record for saves of more than three outs (201). He won the MVP and Cy Young Awards in 1981 and was a seven-time All Star. He was elected to the Hall on the first ballot in 1992.

But Fingers’ career WAR is only 19.7. Granted, FanGraphs calculates WAR from the 1975 season forward, thus missing six seasons of Fingers’ career. Baseball-Reference calculates Fingers’ career bWAR as 24.4. By contrast, Eckersley’s career bWAR is 58.7.

Gossage pitched 23 seasons, from 1972-1994. He totaled 1,809 career innings and 310 saves. His career rate numbers are less impressive than Fingers’, with a 3.01 ERA (although a lower ERA- of 80), 1.23 WHIP and 2.05 K/BB rate. But his career WAR is substantially higher at 32.7 (again with no WAR calculated for 1972-1974). Gossage’s bWAR, which accounts for all seasons he pitched, is 40, compared to Fingers’ 24.4.

Sutter pitched for thirteen seasons, from 1976-1988. In 1,042 innings pitched, he amassed 300 saves, with a 2.83 ERA, ERA- of 75, 1.14 WHIP and 2.79 K/BB ratio. He won the Cy Young award in 1979 and was a six-time All Star.

Sutter’s career WAR is 22.3, significantly less than Gossage’s, with ten fewer seasons pitched. But Sutter amassed 15.4 WAR in his first four seasons alone, garnering only 6.9 WAR the remaining nine seasons. He was dominant in the early part of his career, but did not sustain that dominance over the final nine seasons he pitched.

By contrast, Gossage’s peak was longer. He accumulated 30.4 WAR in eleven seasons or 2.8 WAR/season from 1975-1985, while amassing  just 2.3 WAR in 1974, and 1986-1994 combined.

Which brings us to Smith. He pitched for eighteen seasons, from 1980-1997, totaling 1,289 innings and 478 saves. When he retired, he was the saves leader, until Trevor Hoffman eclipsed that number in 2006. He was a six-time All Star and came in second in Cy Young voting in 1991, but otherwise never came close to either a Cy Young or MVP award.

Smith’s ERA- of 76 is just a hair higher than Sutter’s, and better than that of Gossage and Fingers. His K/BB is better than Gossage’s at 2.57, but lower than Sutter’s and Fingers’. He has the highest WHIP of the four closers, at 1.26.

Smith amassed 29 WAR in his eighteen seasons, better than Sutter’s 22.3, who pitched five fewer seasons. Sutter’s peak (1976-1979) was higher (15.4 WAR in four seasons or 3.85 WAR/season) but Smith’s peak (1982-1991) was longer (24 WAR in 10 seasons or 2.4 WAR/season).

Smith’s career mirrors Gossage’s more than Sutter’s in terms of longevity, but Smith doesn’t quite match Gossage’s peak performance. Comparing Smith to Gossage, I think Smith falls just short.

Smith compares favorably to Sutter in rate stats and WAR and had 178 more saves in only 247 more innings pitched. But Sutter is a marginal Hall-of-Famer, at best, making it difficult to justify Smith’s Hall of Fame candidacy on that basis.

In his tenth year on the Hall of Fame ballot, Smith broke the fifty-percent threshold for the first time, garnering 50.6% of the vote, as announced yesterday by the BBWAA. He has five more seasons to move from 50.6% to 75.1%. Given the strength (and controversy) of the Hall class in 2013 — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling and Sammy Sosa — Smith may very well get lost in the shuffle.

That would probably be all right with me.

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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

40 Responses to “Lee Smith and the Hall of Fame”

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  1. Terry Boers says:

    I wouldn’t turn in a ballot next year.

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  2. Mark says:

    I can understand why you would compare Lee Smith to previously inducted closers, but I certainly wouldn’t use that comparison to argue for Smith’s induction. Clearly, some of those elections were pretty loose. The line needs to be drawn somewhere. If you induct Smith, you’re going to end up with a bunch of other closers in the HoF in the next 10 years (Rivera belongs, but also Hoffman and Wagner as well). I’m okay with maybe 1 closer per 20 years in the HoF, but we’re already past that number.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      This. “So-and-so is similar to so-and-so, who’s in the Hall” means you’re continually diluting the standard.

      A huge part of the reason Fingers (and to a lesser extent, Gossage) got in is was because he pioneered the closer role. Gossage was consistently great for a long long time, a la Mariano Rivera. I think inducting Sutter was a mistake, but he had a great peak and was important for introducing the splitter.

      Which is why I don’t think you should let Lee Smith in just based on comparable numbers. He was neither a pioneer nor does he have eye-popping numbers like Rivera. If you let him in, in a few years, you’re gonna have a lot of guys with careers very similar to him.

      Also, Wendy, you missed a closer/reliever in the HoF: Hoyt Wilhelm.

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      • baty says:

        Yeah, i think it makes sense to induct a pioneer here and there, even if it’s just by chance. Beyond that, the criteria needs to tighten back up. They can’t keep lowering the standard to represent a balance of player positions/roles. Some roles, by nature, just don’t produce Hall of Fame quality players, at least at the same rate as others do.

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      • Jamie says:

        If you don’t compare the eligible players to players who are already in how does one decide who should be in and who should be out? It doesn’t necessarily mean you dilute the standards unless though who have chosen the past players have diluted the standard. But these days it seems like the writers themselves are determined to dilute, or at least confuse the standards. With the elections of Jim Rice and Andre Dawson both occurring recently the writers clearly set them as a baseline for an outfielder seeking induction to the HoF. It doesn’t matter really what we think about it, that is clearly now the standard. With pitchers the bar has been set very high, generally, but may be lowered with the likely election of Jack Morris who’s career value is remarkably similar to Dennis Martinez, Jon Matlack and Al Leiter and less than no chance pitchers Dwight Gooden, Jimmy Key and Mark Langston.
        But how would one define a HoFer without looking at the group already included?

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      • baty says:

        Sure, but the million dollar question, is where do you compare? If i’m looking to determine a relief pitcher’s worthiness, I’ll always take a look at the available starting pitchers first. Relief pitchers are still bench players that are called to perform a very specific task. There’s a bunch of reasons for why pitching prospects do become great closers, but it’s never because an organization wants to minimize a once in a decade type talent to only 70 innings a year.

        If Lee Smith is in because of a role he played really really well within his era, then you have to let Jack Morris in as well.

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  3. Jess says:

    I really enjoyed the article. Nice work!

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  4. Brian says:

    I’m pretty much at a loss for how to value the contemporary closer. WAR doesn’t seem to do justice to what Mariano Rivera has brought to the game. But I don’t know a better way to calculate his “true value” either. Sigh.

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    • Corvelay says:

      John Lackey 2011: 6.41 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 1.5 WAR
      Jose Valverde 2011: 2.24 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 49 saves with 0 blown, 1 WAR

      So I’m going to have to agree that fangraph’s WAR is not particularly useful for comparing pitchers.

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      • Wendy Thurm says:

        But it is useful when comparing relievers to relievers, who are judged by the same WAR inputs. That’s why I confined my analysis to the closers already in the HOF.

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      • Bryz says:

        So then just go ahead and use bWAR, which Wendy did in the article. Lackey’s bWar was -1.2, while Valverde’s was 2.7.

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      • Detroit Michael says:

        I’m going to have to point out that you don’t seem to understand fangraph’s WAR.

        It is based on FIP, not ERA, so John Lackey’s 2011 season is considered better than his actual ERA.

        It also is based on IP so that if Lackey is a bit better than replacement in many innings and Valverde is much better than replacement in few innings, then Lackey very well might have a higher WAR.

        Lastly, I’ll point out if you judge a statistic by its most extreme example, you can make virtually any statitic look silly.

        Apologies to everyone else if I’m feeding a troll.

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      • AdamM says:

        I don’t know how valid it is to compare old relievers to the modern-day 9th inning specialists. Gossage, Fingers and Sutter each pitched several 100 inning seasons. By contrast, Mariano Rivera has never pitched as many as 81 innings in a season once he became the yankee closer.

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      • baty says:

        @ Wendy

        Are you saying that closers should be evaluated differently/separately from other relief pitchers and starting pitchers?

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      • Brian says:

        But Detroit Michael,

        It still seems to fly in the face of reason that a mediocre starting pitcher could be more valuable than a closer like Mariano, yet, these are precisely the types of pitcher value that WAR gives. Don’t you think that seems kind of off? I’m not suggesting there’s a better objective way… just that maybe this isn’t a good way either, or at the very least extremely counter-intuitive.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        WAR is a counting stat. It is heavily based on playing time.

        A mediocre pitcher may get 150 IP.

        A great closer may get 70 IP.

        That’s where a 3rd starter can have more WAR than the best reliever.

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    • Cidron says:

      compare them to their peers.. not to the overall group we call pitchers. limit it to only closers. thats about the only way i can see it. if you outperform your peers over and over, year in, year out, over years, then, you are on a short list for consideration of elite. if you routinely outperform the elite, then, you are HoF worthy (of discussion at least). but, as always, measure against your peers, otherwise, its apples and oranges.

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  5. jim says:

    why does fangraphs not calculate pitcher WAR prior to 1973?

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Leverage index (which is part of the equation for relievers) only goes back that far.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      I also have my doubts that FIP has any merit that far back. League K rates have increased 1.5x times in the last 30 years. I’ve never seen any studies regarding FIP in prior eras, though.

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      • Tom says:

        This is a real good question… yes there is a constant in FIP which does some of the adjustment but if their is a significant change in one of the 3 true outcomes are the weighting factors in FIP adjusted for them according?

        How often are the 2,3,12 (or is it 13?) weightings evaluated and are they ever changed?

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      • jim says:

        paging mr. tango, mr. tom tango….

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  6. Travis L says:

    Seems like throwing in a career WAR graph would have made a lot more sense than writing out the conclusions.

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  7. Robbie G. says:

    It seems that HOF voters, and baseball writers/talkers/thinkers, in general, now recognize that high save totals are not all that meaningful, that a guy pitching one inning every other game is not all that valuable, that nearly every team has a closer who is racking up fairly large single-season save totals. This is a fairly recent realization, as closers used to actually win the Cy Young Award fairly often and would occasionally get inducted into the Hall of Fame.

    In my opinion, Mariano Rivera is going to be the last closer to get in, unless another Mariano Rivera-caliber closer comes along and sustains Mariano Rivera-caliber greatness over a very, very long time (like Rivera has done). I don’t think Lee Smith gets in, I don’t think Trevor Hoffman gets in, I don’t think Billy Wagner gets in. I think it’s Rivera and that’s all she wrote. I think Rivera has set the new standard for closers, for HOF closers, and it’s a ridiculously high standard.

    I don’t think there’s any real question that had Lee Smith’s name popped up on the ballot around the time that Bruce Sutter’s name was popping up on the ballot, or even just a few years later, Smith would be heading to the Hall of Fame.

    I, too, am totally fine with this development. I’m actually pretty surprised that Smith is getting this much support.

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    • Ian R. says:

      Lee Smith was on the ballot in 2006 when Bruce Sutter was elected, so I’m not sure how well that argument holds. In fact, Smith got much more support his first year on the ballot than Sutter did. He’ll appear on five more ballots, so there’s a chance he’ll make it over the hump of outstanding players coming up and get in in his last year or two of eligibility. Not terribly likely, but possible.

      I’ll be very surprised if Trevor Hoffman doesn’t get in, although he may have to wait a few ballots. Wagner has a shot, but not a good one. I don’t think, though, that Rivera is the new standard for Hall of Fame closers. Hoffman will probably be closer to the baseline for future players.

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  8. baty says:

    I think if you have anymore than a relief pitcher per generation of players, however you define that, otherwise you’re overvaluing their worthiness. If you’re willing to twist reality a bit, there are probably a handful of starting pitchers every year that would have made reasonable candidates for relief pitcher of the century if that were the way their organization chose to use them… instead they make up your decent underachievers in a starting rotation because it is that much more valuable a space to fill.

    Go ahead and let Lee Smith in if you want, but how much should we really open the door to a type of role player that is so limited. It’s crazy to think about the attention/votes these guys may continue stealing from some starting pitchers that have clearly had more important careers. Mariano is probably the true Hall of Fame relief pitcher… Beyond that, I just can’t see it.

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  9. John DiFool says:

    “He has the highest WHIP of the four closers, at 1.26.”

    That’s almost entirely a product of the ballparks he pitched in, which for his prime consisted of the two biggest hitter’s parks (specifically in terms of batting average, the relevant element here) in Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. It is quite possible that if Smitty threw in Oakland or Dodger Stadium in his prime he would have had stellar ERA’s and an unquestioned reputation for being a shut-down closer. Instead he’s seen as that guy who stranded a lot of baserunners and thus often made the 9th inning “exciting.”

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  10. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    I think guys should be elected based on their role. In other words, each player should be inducted by position. A closers hall of fame, a Loogy hall of fame, a SS hall of fame, etc.

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  11. Undocorkscrew says:

    If Billy Wagner isn’t considered a Hall of Fame caliber closer, Smith shouldn’t either. I know Smith threw around 400 more innings than Wagner, but their save totals are somewhat comparable and Wagner’s peripherals blow Smith out of the water and Wagner was consistent from day one to his last appearance with the braves(ok, he sucked in limited action in 2000).

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  12. bstar says:

    Yeah, it’s such a shame to me Wagner didnt stick around longer; perhaps if he’d pitched til 41 or 42 his save totals would have been high enough to get him in. Not only that, but with 97 more innings he would qualify for the all-time adjusted ERA+ title. Any guesses as to where he would rank?

    1. Mariano Rivera 206
    2. Billy Wagner 187
    3. Pedro Martinez 154

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  13. dc says:

    All these WAR #s are great and are useful tools, but so is the eye test. If you had to save a game to save your season would you take Sutter or Smith? I like Lee Smith but c’mon it’s Sutter and not even close.

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    • Cidron says:

      if we are doin “eye test”, gimme Gossage.. dude looked like he would rip your head off if you even swung at one of his pitches.. cant hit that game winnin homer off him if you are paralyzed by his fearsome looks, and even more fearsome fastball

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