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.