Posted December 20, 2012

JAWS and the 2013 Hall of Fame Ballot: Lee Smith

Hall of Fame, JAWS, Lee Smith
Lee Smith retired as the career saves leader and has since fallen to third on that list. (Getty Images)

Lee Smith retired as the career saves leader and has since fallen to third on that list. (Getty Images)

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2013 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here.

When I first cobbled together the system that became JAWS, just two relievers had been elected to the Hall of Fame: Hoyt Wilhelm in 1985 and Rollie Fingers in 1992. Since then, that number has more than doubled via the elections of Dennis Eckersley (2004), Bruce Sutter (2006) and Rich Gossage (2008). In theory, the larger group made it at least somewhat easier to sketch out a standard for relievers, but within the stathead community, a debate raged over how to properly value reliever contributions.

In particular, the focus has fallen on the concept of incorporating 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 both sides of the issue, and as they have, the JAWS methodology for examining relievers has evolved even more frequently than any other part of the system in an attempt to keep pace. Baseball Prospectus’ Colin Wyers argued against the use of leverage and win expectancy to measure reliever contributions, objecting on the grounds that it was rewarding a player for things that were out of his control before he showed up (kind of like using RBIs to measure value). The version of WAR does contain a leverage adjustment, but it also measures relievers against a higher replacement level than starters, since they tend to allow fewer runs per nine innings.

They also throw far fewer innings, so the result is that even among elite relievers, WAR totals are much lower than for even average starters, particularly as the job of closer has evolved into a one-and-done night. Mariano Rivera, who holds the all-time lead in saves, has a career WAR of 52.7, a number that would tie him with Orel Hershiser and Frank Tanana for 74th all-time among starting pitchers. Trevor Hoffman, who has just seven fewer saves than Rivera, has been roughly half as valuable, with a career WAR of 27.0, which would rank 286th among starters, a hair lower than Livan Hernandez, Jason Schmidt and Johnny Podres — nobody you’d elect to the Hall of Fame. The peak scores of Rivera and Hoffman would stack up even less impressively if measured against starters, tied for 232nd for the former, and tied for 468th for the latter.

With the ongoing changes to JAWS, my verdict on Lee Smith, the top reliever on this year’s ballot, has changed several times. Over the course of an 18-year career, the physically intimidating 6-foot-5, 220 pounder spent time closing for eight teams and earned All-Star honors seven times. He’s been on the BBWAA ballot for 10 years, and has drawn a fairly consistent amount of support, debuting at 42.3 percent and staying within six percentage points of that in either direction before rising to 50.6 percent of the vote last year.

Pitcher Career Peak JAWS  S ERA  ERA+
Lee Smith 27.6 19.7 23.7 71 92 478 3.03 132
Avg HOF RP 38.6 27.1 32.8

A native of Jamestown, La., Smith was discovered by Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil, who spent decades as a scout for the Cubs. Chicago chose Smith in the second round of the 1975 draft, and spent the first four years of his minor league career trying him as a starter, but control problems, including walk rates exceeding 7.0 per nine in some years, led the team to change course. By September 1980, Smith’s control had improved enough for the Cubs to bring him to the majors, and he spent the entirety of the strike-shortened 1981 season with the team. The Cubs briefly tried him as a starter in June 1982, then moved him into the closer role in the second half of the season. He converted all 15 save opportunities that came his way from July 23 onward.

The next year, Smith earned All-Star honors and led the NL with 29 saves while pitching to a 1.65 ERA in 103 1/3 innings, the type of performance that would alas become nearly obsolete with the Eckersley-driven move to the one-inning closer by the end of the decade. 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 4.7 WAR set a career high that he would never come close to matching, and ranked fifth in the league among all pitchers.

Over the next four years, Smith compiled a 3.25 ERA and averaged 33 saves, finishing in the NL’s top five in each year, and helping the Cubs to their first postseason berth in 39 years in 1984. Alas, he surrendered a walkoff homer to the Padres’ Steve Garvey in Game 4 of the NLCS, thereby evening the series at two games apiece; San Diego would win in five. That blip aside, from 1983-1987 Smith was the majors’ second-most valuable reliever in terms of WAR, with his 14.3 trailing only Dan Quisenberry.

In December 1987, the Cubs traded Smith to the Red Sox for Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. He pitched reasonably well in Boston, though again he struggled in the postseason, taking the loss in Game 2 of the 1988 ALCS against the A’s. His workload continued to wane as the industry model moved toward a one-inning closer; in 1989 he threw just 70 2/3 innings, the sixth season out of seven he had thrown fewer than the year before.

Early in the 1990 season, Smith was traded to the Cardinals, and the next year, he broke Sutter’s NL saves record with 47. Accompanied by a 2.34 ERA, he finished second in the Cy Young balloting behind Tom Glavine. He led the league in saves again with 43 in 1992, and in 1993 he put together a 46-save season that made him the first man to reach 400 career saves, taking over the all-time lead in the category from Jeff Reardon along the way.

He had been traded to the Yankees that August and moved on to Baltimore for the 1994 season and later made stops in Anaheim, Cincinnati and Montreal. The innings began to take their toll, and his managers limited his usage to about 50 frames a year, one inning at a time, to keep him effective. He spent his last two seasons, 1996 and ’97, in a set-up role, with diminishing returns, finally retiring in 1998 after being released by the Royals in the spring.

From a traditional standpoint, Smith’s case starts with his status as the number three guy on the all-time saves list; Hoffman broke his record in 2006, and Rivera took the crown in 2011. His 169 long saves — those of at least four outs — ranks fourth behind Fingers (201), Gossage (193) and Sutter (188). His 1,022 games pitched ranked third when he retired, behind only Wilhelm and Kent Tekulve, but he has since been bumped down to 11th.

Beyond that are Smith’s seven All-Star selections and 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 percent better for his career. On the down side, his teams never went further than the League Championship Series, and he was bombed for an 8.44 ERA in four post-season appearances, taking two losses.

In terms of JAWS, the five closers in the Hall of Fame are strewn among the top 28 relievers, with Fingers ranking the lowest among that Cooperstown quintet. That ranking is at least somewhat skewed by pitchers’ value as starters — Eckersley, for instance, made 361 career starts — but Smith, who made six starts and none after 1982, nevertheless ranks 16th in JAWS. Because of the way Eckersley’s WAR total skews the standards, it’s perhaps more instructive to note that Smith tops only two of the five enshrined relievers in career WAR and only one in peak WAR:

Rk Pitcher Career Peak JAWS
1 Dennis Eckersley 58.4 35.7 47.1
3 Rich Gossage 39.4 31 35.2
4 Hoyt Wilhelm 44.4 24.6 34.5
18 Bruce Sutter 23.1 23.7 23.4
28 Rollie Fingers 24.0 18.3 21.1
Lee Smith 27.6 19.7 23.7

Even if one excludes Eck’s numbers in calculating a standard, Smith would fall short of the averages of the other four (32.7 career, 24.4 peak, 28.6 JAWS) — a different result than I’ve gotten in the past, when Sutter was the low man on the totem pole and Smith fit behind Gossage and ahead of Wilhelm and Fingers. While it’s fair to suggest that given the small sample size of relievers in the Hall, the voters are still in the process of fleshing out the standard, even if one imagines the inclusions of both Rivera and Hoffman in the not-too-distant future (the latter becomes eligible in 2016), Smith gets no closer to a standard that excludes Eckersley’s numbers.

Via this year’s methodology, it’s difficult to conclude that Smith belongs in Cooperstown. Given the crowd on the ballot, I suspect he’ll have trouble holding onto the last year’s gain. Including this ballot, he still has five voting cycles left, but as writers start having to choose among more worthy candidates than the 10 slots allowed on the ballot, his candidacy could stall.


First off, this is a GREAT series, Jay.


Relievers seem to pose the biggest challenge for HOF judging given that the role has evolved over eras (per Michael10's point) - making Saves an unreliable benchmark - and WAR doesn't feel as suited for judging relievers.


Case in point, here's a Rivera vs. Wagner comparison:

IP - 1,219 vs. 903

ERA+ - 206 vs. 187


Clearly both were dominant relievers and Rivera's edge in IP and ERA+ feels like it should net out to something like 50% more value for Rivera (33% more IP + 10% better ERA+ = 1.33*1.1=49%).  Yet Rivera's WAR is nearly double Wagner's (52.7 to 26.9).


Here's a list of relievers with 700+IP who pitched the vast majoirty of IP post-1980 (IP/ERA+):


Rivera - 1219/206

Wagner - 903/187

K-Rod - 720/159

Henke - 789/157

Nathan - 794/153

Wetteland - 765/148

Quiz - 1043/146

Percival - 708/146

Hoffman - 1089/141

Foulke - 786/140

Benitez - 779/140

Nen - 715/139

Franco - 1245/138

F-Cord - 824/135

Montgomery - 868/135

Nelson - 784/133

SMITH - 1289/132


While it's clear that there are a lot more entries here for post-Eck relievers, it's hard to see how Smith stands out in any way except for IP.  But the ERA difference - and the endless supply of okay relievers - easily nullifies this advantage.  If you took Tom Henke and added 500 IPs at a 92 ERA+, you get Lee Smith.  Quizenberry and Franco pitched comparable IP at a better ERA+. 


Other than Rivera, the only pitcher on this list who stands out for HOF-consideration is Billy Wagner given his significant ERA+ difference vs. contemporaries.  Hoffman had longevity but never had the same dominance as Rivera and Wagner.



In watching WGN with regularity back in the 80s, when the Cubs were experiencing a re-birth of sorts with the likes of Lee Smith, Sandberg, Durham, Sutcliffe and Cey, announcers Harry Caray or Steve Stone, can't remember who, once said about Lee (I paraphrase here): 'It's always an adventure when Lee comes in.'  Mr. Smith often did close-it-out for the Cubs, but it wasn't a pretty thing to watch, like, say with Sutter, Gossage or Eckersley (with the Cubs as starter in '84).  He had to labor at it.  But Lee got the job done, most often, and maybe that's what counts most.


With the open-door policy promoted today by Cooperstown, voters and affiliates, maybe Lee should get the call.


This write-up by Jaffee just buttresses my views that relievers should be held out of the Hall period. Really, the only closers worthy of the Hall are Wilhelm, Eckersley and Rivera. Jaffee's point that even elite relievers tend to end up with WAR numbers lower than an average starter just shows you why relievers need to stay out of the Hall period.


Relief pitchers, perhaps more than any other position, have to be considered in the context of their era.  You suggest excluding Eckersley from the very tiny sample (and rightfully so, as he earn 70% of his career value as a starter), but Wilhelm and Gossage skew the average, too.  Not only because they each started 40-50 games (as much as 20-25% of Wilhelm's career and peak numbers), but because of the way relievers were used at the time. 


In each season from 1980-1988 (excluding the strike year), at least ten pitchers notched 20 saves (this jumped to ten 30-save men by 1989 and ten 40-save men by 2002).  Prior to these shifts in the importance of a daily go-to closer, "firemen" were used much differently.  Hoyt averaged 1.84 innings per relief appearance, Fingers 1.66, and Gossage 1.61 (this was not an anomaly; non-HOF relievers like Tug McGraw, Mike Marshall, Lindy McDaniel and John Hiller averaged between 1.66 and 1.92).  The point here, of course, is that before relief arms became a protected commodity, more innings were accumulated and thus more WAR-based value. With the decline of old-school holdouts like Sutter and Quisenberry in the early 80's, the average closer dipped much nearer the one inning/outing mark -- Eck 1.14, Franco 1.11, Rivera 1.12, Hoffman 1.05, Wagner 1.05, Papelbon 1.04 (K-Rod once saved 62 games in 76 appearances for a total of 68 innings!)  So, it's not a stretch to suggest that relievers prior the era guys like Lee Smith pitched in had as much as 60-70% more opportunity to accumulate WAR-based value.


Of all the guys to come and go since Sutter (who owns the highest all-time leverage index of 1.971, for what it's worth), only Rivera has a better case than Smith (Hoffman is close, but pitched in a save-inflated era and often feasted on diluted expansion-level talent in pitcher-friendly San Diego rather than Wrigley or Fenway).  Inning for inning, he produced as much value as HOFers Sutter and Gossage and more than Wilhelm, Eckersley or Fingers -- and over no small sample size.  He held the career save record for nearly 14 years -- as long as Brock held the stolen base record (and like Henderson, he surpassed the previous mark by more than 50%). 


And like Brock, he should have been in the Hall years before anyone else got close...judged in the context of those that played with and before him.  Of the 23 players to reach 300 saves, 19 followed Lee Smith -- the first three are in the Hall.


The problem here is that ERA, while not to the extent of Wins or RBI, is not nearly as useful a statistic as it was once considered -- especially in the context of relief pitching. In the closer role, situational hits/walks/strikeouts are much more important stats. Modern closers are very rarely left in to deal with their own mistakes -- often the game is over as soon as a run or two is given up at the expense of the last pitcher. One or two out saves are common, as are miniscule ERAs from one inning specialists (as far as I know, ERA+ is not adjusted for leverage). The two inning save is an anomaly -- that is, closers rarely clean up someone else's mess (or blow it) and then remain on the hook for another inning or so.


Here’s a quick perspective on ERA+. For reference, I’ll use 1969-1992 (’69 being Fingers’ rookie season and the year the mound was lowered) and 1993-2012 (’93 being Hoffman’s rookie season and the start of the most recent expansion era). Considering the kind of guys we’re talking about here, I used 700 IP as a qualifier. In that first stretch – nearly a quarter century – the top 5 guys averaged 138 and the top 10 averaged 135 (Smith was tied for 3rd with Sutter – well above Fingers and Gossage). Thirteen of the top 20 had 1000+ innings.


But even the leader for that first 24-year period (Quisenberry) would have been bested by the top 5 guys of the current era (1993-2012) who AVERAGED an ERA+ of 170. The top ten averaged 155, and only 4 of the top 20 reach 1000 innings. If you drop the threshold to 500 IP, the current era has produced far more closers with an ERA+ above 150 (6-2), 140 (13-4) or 135 (19-10). Because of the shift in usage patterns and the extent of specialization, ERA or ERA+ just doesn’t get the job done when comparing relievers from different eras.


One stat you list here is very important -- the one you suggest isn't. Despite the shift in reliever usage since 1980, Smith racked up more relief innings than anyone else in the past 30+ years -- and quality innings at that. In an era where closers like Eck, Franco, Hoffman and Wagner were almost uniformly turning in one-inning outings, Smith still functioned as something of a workhorse (as much as an inning-and-a-quarter per appearance can be considered such). A quarter inning doesn't sound like much, but it's 20% more durability than many of his peers.


And Smith wasn't exactly pulling mop-up duty -- his aLI (average leverage index) ranks 9th all-time among ALL pitchers with at least 400 IP (5th if you raise the threshhold to 900 IP). He not only maintained that level of excellence in high leverage situations against more batters per outing, but did it for 18 years. You have to drop down the aLI rankings to Fingers (30th) and Gossage (36th) to find pitchers with as many high leverage innings -- simply put, no one has pitched as many high pressure innings as Lee Smith. When you suggest tacking another 500 IP onto another closer with a similar ERA, you are talking about another 50-75% of a career. If these 700-1000 inning guys could have pitched another 5-8 years at the level expected of an elite closer, they would have, but that's a bit like saying if McGwire had another 2000 AB, he would have passed Ruth and Aaron.


Relievers, perhaps more than any other players, have to be considered in context of their era -- and on a case by case basis. Hoyt was the grandfather; Goose and Fingers were the first true all-purpose "firemen." Sutter revolutionized the closer role (and the split-finger fastball); Eck's in on the strength of two careers. And no reliever this side of that first trio has racked up quality high-leverage relief innings, strikeouts or saves like Lee Smith (not even Sutter or Eck). Not for a generation, not 'til Mariano Rivera, and that's a special case, too.


 @jsbach I guess you were not yet born, too young to watch or were out of the country in the late 70s - 1980s because if you had watched you'd have not left Bruce Sutter off of your Scroogie-short list.  Bruce didn't pile up the numbers kids go ga-ga over today but when he came in to close with the Cubs, Cards & Braves, it was lights outs with that split-finger curve.  He revolutionized the art of relief-pitching, the game itself and was the tipping-point in the '82 WS. 


 @Michael10 Agreed that it's difficult to compare pre vs. post-Eck relievers given their role change.  Here are him vs. some peers:


Smith - 1289 IP, 1.26 IP/G, 1.8 gmLI, 27.9 WAR, 132 ERA+, 8.7 K/9

Franco - 1245 IP, 1.12 IP/G, 1.7 gmLI, 22.4 WAR, 138 ERA+, 7.0 K/9

Reardon - 1132 IP , 1.28 IP/G, 1.8 gmLI, 18.0 WAR, 122 ERA+, 7.0 K/9

Quiz - 1043IP, 1.55 IP/G, 1.6 gmLI, 23.9 WAR, 146 ERA+, 3.3 K/9


His IP/G aren't that different from either of these guys (Franco came up 4 years after Smith in 1984 which is the main reason for his lower IP/G).  Quiz put up a better ERA+ and IP/G.


While I'd agree that Lee Smith was the most valuable of the closers who premiered during this era, I just don't think he separates himself enough from his peers to warrant HOF inclusion.


 @StevenKeys  Sutter was good, but he didn't last as long as the other  3. That's why I left him off my scrooge-short list. 


StevenKeys, since you were a fan in the 70s, I want to ask this question....why was Rollie Fingers a slam dunk Hall of Famer. A couple nice seasons, an oddball MVP season, but nothing amazing. Can you explain?


This is the problem when using either algorithm-based or pure counting stats.  People who did not have first-hand knowledge of players/eras want to use these numbers not to start the conversation, but to end it...


I definitely count Quiz with Sutter as the last of the truly old-school guys (he was done 7 years before Smith) and Franco always seemed to fit better with the new guys (he pitched as many years after the strike as before -- 8 years beyond Smith).  Franco's got an ERA edge owing largely to a better HR% compared to league average -- he wasn't pitching Wrigley or Fenway -- but Smith has the edge everywhere else, including 25% more WAR in similar IP.  And we can't totally overlook the saves -- the voters won't -- 470 of which came in a 14-year span (Franco did notch 400 over 14 years, but that's 28.5 per season to 33.5).


While I don't think he has quite the case the guys already in the Hall have, I think he's got the best case outside it next to Rivera (who's still active), and he's been sitting on that case for fifteen years.  In a small Hall, maybe he's out -- and the five before him are in (plus Rivera in 7-8 years).  But if there's room for one more reliever (and in the 60 years since Wilhelm came up, I think there is), I don't see how it's not Smith -- even over Hoffman, Wagner and Quiz (who I think are the next best cases).  I think if he had an awesome 70s mustache, he'd be in already...


 @Mmartin64 My guess (and guessing you're not gonna' like this answer because it's short on high, regular season, individually-accrued numerical support), is that Rollie was favored by voters because he played an integral part on one terrific team in Oakland (3WS) and with a memorable ballclub in Milwaukee (1WS), while leading the league in saves twice while toiling in San Diego.  Add in the MVP and there's your on-field, most relevant (PS), performance support.  After that, reasonable factors like character, press appeal, etcetera, your guess is as good as mine.