For Lee Smith, Relief May Finally Come via Today’s Game Ballot

This post is part of a series concerning the 2019 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot, covering executives, managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas on December 9. Use the tool above to read the introduction and other installments. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com and Baseball Prospectus. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2019 Today’s Game Candidate: Lee Smith
Pitcher Career Peak JAWS WPA WPA/LI IP SV ERA ERA+
Lee Smith 29.0 20.9 24.9 21.3 12.8 1289.1 478 3.48 112
Avg HOF RP 38.1 26.5 32.3 27.7 19.2
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Over the course of his 18-year career, Lee Arthur Smith was consistently considered to be one of the game’s top relievers. Physically intimidating — officially listed at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds but reported as big as 6-foot-6, 269 pounds — and mellifluously middle-named, Smith pitched for eight teams, earned All-Star honors seven times, led his league in saves four times (and finished as runner-up in four other seasons), and placed as high as second in the Cy Young voting. He passed Jeff Reardon on April 13, 1993, to grab the all-time saves record and held it at 478 until September 24, 2006, when Trevor Hoffman finally surpassed him.

When Smith retired in 1998, just two relievers had been elected to the Hall of Fame: Hoyt Wilhelm (1985) and Rollie Fingers (1992). Since then, that number has tripled via the elections of Dennis Eckersley (2004), Bruce Sutter (2006), Rich Gossage (2008), and Hoffman (2018), with Mariano Rivera poised to join them via the 2019 BBWAA ballot. Smith appeared to be on track to join that company, debuting on the 2003 ballot at 42.3% and inching his way to 50.6% by 2012, his 10th year of eligibility. But over his final five years of eligibility, he got lost in a deluge of polarizing, high-profile candidates whose continued presence on the ballot made it tough to find room for Smith. By 2014, his share of the vote was down to 29.9%, and he never got back to 35%.

Still, the 42.3% debut and the 50.6% peak are both significant. With the elections of a slew of holdover candidates over the past few years, the former is currently the highest first-year share of any candidate since 1966 who has yet to be elected, either by the writers or a small committee. As for the latter, every candidate who’s topped 50% has eventually been elected save for Gil Hodges, Smith, and five candidates still eligible via the upcoming BBWAA ballot.

While the growing group of enshrined relievers should make it somewhat easier to sketch out a standard now relative to when I debuted the system that became JAWS in the winter of 2003-2004, the stathead community continues to grapple with the proper way to value reliever contributions. In particular, the focus has fallen on whether or not to incorporate win expectancy and leverage — the quantitatively greater impact on winning and losing that a reliever has at the end of the ballgame than a starter does earlier — into valuation metrics. Smart minds have come down on all sides of the issue, and as they have, my methodology for examining relievers has evolved more frequently than any other part of my system. Quite frankly, JAWS isn’t enough, not that I’ve ever advocated for it to be used in the absence of other information, including traditional statistics, postseason performance, awards, and historical perspective. Even with the Baseball-Reference version of WAR containing a leverage adjustment, I’ve found it more useful to incorporate Win Probability Added and Context Neutral Wins (WPA/LI) into my evaluations as well.

On a comparatively weak ballot where none of the other five players ever received more than 11.2% of the BBWAA vote, and where only one of the four non-players (Lou Piniella) received more than five votes from a previous 16-member committee, Smith’s past level of support stands out. That’s particularly so given that — as I noted at the outset of the series — Jack Morris was elected via last year’s Modern Baseball Era Committee after peaking at 67.7% on the writers’ ballot. Like Morris, Smith’s top selling point, a big counting stat whose currency has been devalued in stathead circles, is likely to play better in front of a panel where writers and historians generally constitute just a quarter of the electorate, with executives and Hall of Fame players and managers making up the other three-quarters. This may be the best shot he’ll ever get at a plaque in Cooperstown.

A native of Jamestown, Louisiana, Smith was discovered by Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil, whose decades-long stint scouting for the Cubs also included the signing or drafting of Hall of Famer Lou Brock, fellow 2019 Today’s Game candidate Joe Carter, and Oscar Gamble. After Chicago drafted Smith in the second round in 1975 and signed him for a $50,000 bonus, the big righty spent the first four years of his minor league career as a starter, but control problems, including walk rates exceeding 7.0 per nine innings in some years, led to a shift to the bullpen. By late 1980, the 22-year-old Smith’s command had improved enough for a major-league promotion. In his September 1, 1980 debut, he pitched a scoreless inning against the Braves that began with him retiring All-Star Dale Murphy on a groundout.

The Cubs kept Smith busy, using him 18 times in their final 34 games, though rarely in the same game as then-closer Sutter, who was traded to the Cardinals in December. Smith spent the entirety of the strike-shortened 1981 season in the majors, and after a brief five-game stint as a starter in June 1982, he moved into the closer’s role, where he converted all 15 of his save opportunities from July 23 onward. In 1983, Smith earned All-Star honors for the first time, leading the National League with 29 saves and pitching to a 1.65 ERA and 2.84 FIP in 103.1 innings, the type of performance that would become nearly obsolete by the end of the decade with the Eckersley-driven move to the one-inning closer. Four of Smith’s saves were of three innings or more, 14 were of at least two innings, and 19 were longer than one inning. His 4.8 WAR — a career high that he would never again come close to matching — ranked sixth in the league among all pitchers.

Over the next four years, Smith compiled a 3.24 ERA and 2.74 FIP while averaging 33 saves, finishing in the NL’s top five in each season and helping the Cubs to their first postseason berth in 39 years in 1984. Alas, after saving Game Two of the NLCS against the Padres, he surrendered a walk-off homer to Steve Garvey in Game Four, evening the series at two games apiece; San Diego would win in five.

Smith continued to hum along nonetheless. In 1985, he struck out a career-high 112 hitters in 97.2 innings, the last time he would be pushed so hard; manager Gene Michael, who took over from Jim Frey in mid-1986, preferred to keep him available more frequently via shorter stints, saying, “Three-inning stints kill a good reliever. Power pitchers, especially.” In 1987, Smith became the second reliever to save at least 30 games in four consecutive seasons (after Royals closer Dan Quisenberry) and made his second All-Star team (he struck out four in three scoreless innings and got the win in the NL’s extra-inning victory), though he did blow an alarming 12 saves and drew boos at Wrigley Field. That blip aside, from 1982-1987, Smith was the majors’ second-most valuable reliever in terms of WAR, with his 17.9 trailing only Quisenberry’s 19.9.

With the Cubs amid a regime change in the 1987-1988 offseason — Frey took over from Dallas Green as general manager, while Don Zimmer joined as manager — and increasingly concerned about the effect of Smith’s weight on his knees, the 30-year-old closer was traded to the Red Sox for young pitchers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi, a deal considered among the worst in team history as neither hurler panned out. Smith pitched reasonably well in Boston, though he again struggled in the postseason, taking the loss in Game Two of the 1988 ALCS against the A’s, and getting roughed up in Game Four as well. His workload continued to wane as the industry model moved toward a one-inning closer. In 1989, he threw just 70.2 innings, the sixth season out of seven that his total declined from the year before.

Despite that, Smith actually received an increased number of save opportunities. Traded to the Cardinals early in the 1990 season, he broke Sutter’s NL saves record the following year with 47 in 53 attempts, the first of four straight years he would top 50 save chances. Accompanied by a 2.34 ERA and 2.45 FIP, he finished second in the 1991 NL Cy Young balloting behind Braves ace Tom Glavine. That year, he began a string of five straight All-Star selections, and his 46th save of the season pushed him past Sutter for the NL single-season record.

Smith led the NL in saves again with 43 in 1992, and in 1993, his 46 saves not only pushed him past Reardon (357 saves) as the all-time saves leader but made him the first to reach 400.

Save number 400 came on September 17, 1993, as a member of the Yankees, to whom the 35-year-old Smith had been traded on August 31. That move began a particularly peripatetic phase, as he passed through Baltimore (1994, with a league-high 33 saves), Anaheim (1995-1996), Cincinnati (1996), and Montreal (1997). The innings had taken their toll, and his managers limited his usage to about 50 innings per year, one at a time, to keep him effective, but he spent much of his final two seasons in a setup role with diminishing returns. In mid-July of 1997, he walked away from the Expos and abruptly announced his retirement, though he made a comeback bid the following year, spending spring training with the Royals and then struggling in a stint with the Astros’ top two minor-league affiliates.

From a traditional standpoint, Smith’s case for Cooperstown starts with his third-place ranking on the all-time saves list behind Hoffman and Rivera, who broke the record with his 602nd save on September 19, 2011. Smith worked harder in his pursuit, throwing a total of 593 innings in the games where he recorded his saves, just nine fewer than Hoffman did in the 601 games he saved. Smith’s 169 long saves (four outs or more) ranks fourth behind Fingers (201), Gossage (193) and Sutter (188), all of whom began their major league careers several years earlier. Smith’s 1,022 total appearances ranked ranked third when he retired, behind only Wilhelm and Kent Tekulve, but he is now tied for 12th.

Beyond that are Smith’s seven All-Star selections and an amazing string of consistency that followed him to virtually every stop on his 18-year ride. Until his abbreviated final season, his ERA+ was always better than league average and was 32% better for his career. On the down side, his teams never went further than the League Championship Series, and he was rocked for an 8.44 ERA in four postseason appearances, taking two losses.

Via JAWS, the six enshrined closers are spread among the top 27 relievers, with Fingers bringing up the rear. Admittedly, the rankings are somewhat skewed by pitchers’ values as starters. First-ranked Eckersley made 361 career starts, nine of the 15 pitchers above Smith — including recent ones such as Tom Gordon, Greg Swindell, and Kerry Wood — made at least 100 starts, and all of those above him exceeded his six career starts. Because of the way Eckersley’s WAR total skews the standards, it’s somewhat more instructive to compare Smith to the standards set by the other five enshrinees, but even then he’s a few wins short on all three fronts, with 29.0 career WAR/20.9 peak WAR/24.9 JAWS versus 33.3/24.3/28.8. The imminent election of Rivera will only increase the gap.

As noted above, the version of WAR that’s used in JAWS features a leverage adjustment to help account for the degree of difficulty, but it’s not the only way to measure reliever value. The context-sensitive Win Probability Added (WPA) accounts for the incremental increase (or decrease) in chances of winning produced in each plate appearance given the inning, score, and base/out situation. For a reliever, a single-season WPA scales similarly to a single-season WAR, which is to say that it’s rare that one is worth more than three wins in a single year, by either measure. During the span of Smith’s 18 seasons, major-league relievers combined to notch 109 seasons with at least 3.0 WAR and 102 seasons with at least 3.0 WPA, with Smith accounting for three apiece within those totals.

Alas, his career 21.3 WPA doesn’t stand out particularly more than his WAR total does, ranking 14th, with Rivera (56.6) the runaway leader and Hoffman, Gossage, Eckersley, and Wilhelm rounding out the top five; only Sutter (27th at 18.2) and Fingers (31st at 16.2) are below. The verdict via a related measure variably called situational wins or context-neutral wins, which incorporates leverage index as well and is generally abbreviated WPA/LI, is similar, with Smith ranked 17th at 12.8, ahead of only Sutter (23rd at 11.9) among those enshrined, with the top eight consisting of Rivera, Wilhelm, Eckersley, Hoffman, current BBWAA candidate Billy Wagner, Joe Nathan, and then Fingers and Gossage.

Let’s try putting WAR, WPA, and WPA/LI into a composite measure in an attempt to make sense of all this:

Top Relievers by Combined WAR, WPA, and WPA/LI
Rank Player WAR WPA WPA/LI Avg
1 Mariano Rivera 56.2 56.6 33.6 48.8
2 Dennis Eckersley 62.4 30.8 25.7 39.7
3 Hoyt Wilhelm 47.1 30.8 27.0 35.0
4 Rich Gossage 41.4 32.5 14.9 29.6
5 Trevor Hoffman 28.0 34.2 19.3 27.2
6 Billy Wagner 27.7 29.1 17.9 24.9
7 Joe Nathan 26.7 30.6 15.7 24.3
8 Tom Gordon 34.9 21.3 14.6 23.6
9 Jonathan Papelbon 23.5 28.3 13.4 21.7
10 Ellis Kinder 28.7 23.6 11.6 21.3
11 Lee Smith 29.0 21.3 12.8 21.0
12 Francisco Rodriguez 24.0 24.4 14.7 21.0
13 Stu Miller 27.0 20.2 13.0 20.1
14 Tom Henke 23.0 21.3 14.0 19.4
15 Dan Quisenberry 24.9 20.7 12.4 19.3
16 Rollie Fingers 25.7 16.2 15.2 19.0
17 Craig Kimbrel 20.2 24.3 12.3 18.9
18 Tug McGraw 21.9 21.5 13.2 18.9
19 Bruce Sutter 24.2 18.2 11.9 18.1
20 Kent Tekulve 25.6 14.2 14.0 17.9
Hall avg w/Eck 37.8 27.7 19.2 28.2
Hall avg w/o Eck 32.8 27.0 17.9 25.9
Hall avg, w/ Mo 40.4 31.8 21.3 31.2
Hall avg, w/ Mo, w/o Eck 36.7 32.0 20.5 29.7
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

No matter how you slice it, with or without Eckersley and Rivera in the mix, Smith is similarly far from the averages as he is when sticking with WAR and JAWS, though here he’s ahead of just two of the six enshrined instead of three.

By either my standard JAWS methodology or by more context-sensitive measures, it’s difficult to conclude that Smith is a must-have for Cooperstown. With that said, I don’t think he’d be terribly out of place if he were among the small handful of those enshrined. He’s of historical importance in that he did set multiple records in saves at a time when doing so was a more labor-intensive endeavor than today, and when measuring the impact of relievers was far simpler; for more than a decade, his career was the standard to which other relievers were compared. What’s more, he did rate as more valuable than any “pure” reliever besides Gossage and John Hiller (both of whom made 37 career starts) for the 1968-1998 stretch, a span that contained the entire careers of Smith, Eckersley, Gossage, Fingers, and Sutter. He’s the best of the player candidates on this ballot, more easy to justify voting for than Hershiser given that there are simply aren’t better ones from his era — no David Cones, Bret Saberhagens, or Dave Stiebs with stronger claims (if not necessarily strong claims) on Cooperstown — outside the Hall. I’ve waffled on his candidacy throughout his eligibility, but this time around, I’m leaning yes.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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fordhamflash
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fordhamflash

Smith getting elected wouldn’t be as egregious as someone like Carter or Baines, but he’s not a Hall of Famer in my opinion