I recently received a request for a Keltner List for Lee Smith, as he has drawn some support in BBFHOF voting recently. I plan to add lists for Chief Bender, Kiki Cuyler, Leon Day, Cal McVey, and Vic Willis before December 21, the end of the current BBFHOF voting cycle.
While looking over the data for Lee Smith, I discovered that the period where he performed the best was not the period when he received the most recognition for his pitching, and tried to figure out why this was the case.
Smith led NL relievers in win shares in 1985, with 17 - but that was only good enough for fifth among major league relief pitchers. His best finish among MLB's relief pitchers was in 1990, when he tied for third with 17 win shares. He was tied for fourth in 1983, 1986, and 1991.
Smith won three Rolaids Relief awards: 1991, 1992, and 1994. In each of those three years, led the league in saves. However, he had 15 win shares in 1991, 12 in 1992, and just 8 in 1994. While he had 19 win shares in 1983, and 17 win shares in 1985, 1986, and 1990, he finished ninth in the Cy Young voting in 1983, and didn't gain any votes in those other three years. It's very odd that he didn't do that well in awards voting and All-Star appearances during his best seasons, and only started gained a lot of recognition while in his decline phase.
His other numbers in those years indicate why he won all that recognition. In 1991, he pitched 73 innings in 67 games, gathering 47 saves in 61 finishes; his W-L record was 6-3. In 1992, with 75 IP and 55 games finished in 70 games, he ended up with 43 saves and a 4-9 W-L record. Then, in 1994, he piitched in 41 games, gathering 33 saves in just 38.3 innings pitched. However, his W-L record that year was 1-4.
In those seasons, and in 1994 in particular, Smith was reserved for one-inning save situations, while most of the top closers weren't reserved for those situations. On the other hand, during the 1980s, Smith was being used as a lot of other top relievers were: when the game was close, with a comparatively large number of two-inning perfermances.
Smith didn't impress a lot of people in the 1980s. However, when his usage pattern changed in 1991, he gained a lot of recognition, mainly because a lot of people just looked at his high save totals and thought he must be a great relief pitcher.
Case to Consider: SMITH, Lee
1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
2. Was he the best player on his team?
This question does not work too well with relief pitchers. We can compare position players to each other, and starting pitchers to each other, but a baseball team typically has just one relief ace.
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
Smith led all NL relievers in win shares in 1985, but was just fifth among major league relief pitchers that season. The only season he appeared in the top three among ML relievers in win shares was 1990, when he tied for third place.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
Not really. While the Red Sox won their division by just one game in 1988, Smith had a bad year, gathering just 12 win shares. He did not do very well in the postseason, either.
5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?
Smith was still a closer at the age of 37, so I would answer yes.
6. Is he the very best baseball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?
By similarity scores: Jeff Reardon, John Franco, Roberto Hernandez, Trevor Hoffman, Doug Jones, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Rick Aguilera, Mariano Rivera, and Kent Tekulve. There are two Hall of Famers, and two members of the BBFHOF, in this list, but the scarcity of honored relievers makes this list problematic.
Career win shares, relief pitchers: Goose Gossage 223, SMITH 198, Rollie Fingers 188, John Franco 182, Bruce Sutter 168. This is a pretty good sign for Smith.
Best three seasons, RP: Rollie Fingers 59, Kent Tekulve 57, Sparky Lyle 54, SMITH 53, Tug McGraw 53, John Franco 51. Except for Fingers, these players are not in the BBFHOF.
Best five consecutive seasons, RP: John Hiller 89, Hoyt Wilhelm 85, Mike Marshall 83, SMITH 83, John Franco 76. This is not a good sign for Smith, either.
8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
There are no recognized standards for relief pitchers, and the ink tests are geared more towards starters, so the information is not relevant in Smithís case. Smith is not in Cooperstown, nor is he in the Hall of Merit.
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
During the 1980s, he was used like other relievers of the period. Smith was put in when the score was close, and would pitch two innings on many occasions. Starting late in 1990, Smith was used in a new manner: for one inning when his team had the lead. Since he was reserved for save occasions, while most other top relievers of the early 1990s werenít, Smith was able to obtain very high save totals compared to other relievers.
Smith didnít gain much recognition until the early 1990s. Again, when he was used like other relievers, he didnít gather many honors. When his usage pattern changed, allowing him to rack up high save totals despite lowered win share totals, Smith received most of his All-Star team nominations and Cy Young votes.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?
If you go purely by career win share totals, Smith is the best reliever outside the BBFHOF. But, since I consider other aspects when judging a player, I see Quisenberry and Sutter as better relievers.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
Smith was eighth in MVP voting in 1991, his only top ten finish. He was second in the Cy Young vote that year, the only time he finished with at least 5% of all possible votes. While Smith led all NL relievers in win shares in 1985, he didnít figure in the voting that season.
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star games go into the Hall of Fame?
Smith was named to seven All-Star teams, which is good for a pitcher. However, he had only four seasons when he finished among the top three relievers in his league in win shares, and that is not a good sign.
Smith earned three Rolaids Relief awards, but only the first (1991) came when he finished among the top three in win shares among his league's relievers.
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
This question does not seem very relevant for relief pitchers.
14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
Smith holds the major league record for games finished in relief, and is second in career save totals.
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
As far as I can tell.
CONCLUSION: The statistical analysis indicates that Smith may have been pretty good for a while, but being pretty good does not put one in the Hall of Fame.
Smith was at his best from 1983 to 1990, but he did not gain much recognition during his first decade in the majors. He wasnít regarded as a great reliever until the early 1990s, when he was declining in value; the acclaim was due to his high save totals, and those totals are a result of Smith being reserved almost exclusively for one-inning save situations while other top relievers generally continued to be used in the pattern common in the 1980s. When one compares Smithís win share totals to those of other relievers of the early 1990s, one can see that Smith didnít deserve most of the honors given to him then. He received them because voters looked at the save totals, and didnít consider the usage patterns behind them.
If Smith had been able to reach greatness at some point in his career, then his career length might be able to help him. However, Smith never came closer than 4 win shares to the major league lead in win shares among relief pitchers, despite the fact that the leaders in those seasons finished with between 19 and 21 win shares.
I have to conclude that Lee Smith was another player who, though good for a long time, doesnít have the peak necessary to make my queue for the BBFHOF.