Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Lee Smith about to find out once again he’s not a Hall of Famer

Lee Smith pitched for the Wichita Aeros in 1980 before compiling 478 major-league saves.
Lee Smith pitched for the Wichita Aeros in 1980 before compiling 478 major-league saves. The Wichita Eagle

Somewhere, Lee Smith squirms.

His name appears on the baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the 13th year. Which means he hasn’t been voted in the previous 12 years and his chances when the 2015 election is announced Tuesday are non-existent, thanks to a strong class and his waning percentage of votes.

Smith received a high of 50.6 percent of votes cast by baseball writers three years ago – 75 percent is needed for induction. His numbers, though, decreased to 47.8 percent in 2013 and 29.9 percent last season.

Every January, Smith has to go through the painful process of not getting into the Hall. It’s a ridiculous amount of punishment and thankfully the Hall of Fame has reduced the number of years a player can be on the writer’s ballot from 15 to 10 before he’s handed off to the veteran’s committee.

Smith’s 478 saves rank third behind Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, neither of whom is yet eligible for the Hall of Fame. Smith pitched in the big leagues for 18 years, compiling a 71-92 record and 3.03 ERA. He was a second-round draft pick by the Chicago Cubs out of a Castor, La., in 1975.

Why my interest in whether Smith gets into the Hall of Fame?

He pitched for the Wichita Aeros, then the Triple-A affiliate for the Cubs, in 1980. I covered the Aeros that season and got to know Smith a little bit. He was an “aw shucks” kind of guy, unimpressed by his huge physique and a fastball he could throw through a bunch of cinder blocks. Smith had 15 saves and a 3.70 ERA for the Aeros as a 22-year-old.

Smith pitched for eight teams during his big-league career, but spent the bulk of his time with the Cubs (eight years), Cardinals (four) and Red Sox (three). He led the league in saves four times and in 1991 was second in the National League Cy Young Award voting after saving 47 games with St. Louis.

Hall of Fame voters have a hard time when it comes to relief pitchers because saves are not an easy statistic to weigh. There are strong saves and weak saves.

But there are four pitchers in the Hall of Fame who got there solely because of their ability to close out games: Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage.

Some numbers to compare:

Wilhelm: 21 years, 143-122, 227 saves, 2.52 ERA, 2,254.1 innings, 1,757 hits, 1,610 strikeouts.

Fingers: 17 years, 114-118, 341 saves, 2.90 ERA, 1,701.1 innings, 1,474 hits, 1,299 strikeouts.

Sutter: 12 years, 68-71, 300 saves, 2.83 ERA, 1,042 innings, 879 hits, 861 strikeouts.

Gossage: 22 years, 124-107, 310 saves, 3.01 ERA, 1,809.1 innings, 1,497 hits, 1,502 strikeouts.

Smith: 18 years, 71-92, 478 saves, 3.03 ERA, 1,289.1 innings, 1,133 hits, 1,251 strikeouts.

Now for their postseason careers:

Wilhelm: 2 games, 2.1 innings, 1 save, 0.00 ERA

Fingers: 30 games, 57.1 innings, 9 saves, 2.35 ERA

Sutter – 6 games, 12 innings, 3 saves, 3.00 ERA

Gossage – 19 games, 31.1 innings, 8 saves, 2.87 ERA

Smith – 4 games, 5.1 innings, 1 save, 8.44 ERA

Smith had postseason issues. He’s forever haunted by giving up a game-ending home run to the San Diego Padres’ Steve Garvey in Game 4 of the 1984 National League Championship Series while pitching for the Cubs.

Chicago led the series 2-1 and Game 4 was deadlocked at 5-5 in the ninth when Smith served up a 1-0 pitch that Garvey hit over the right-center field wall. The Padres won Game 5 to move on to the World Series. The Cubs, you might have heard, haven’t been to a World Series in 107 years.

Smith was also the losing pitcher for Boston in Game 2 of the 1988 ALCS against the Oakland Athletics, when he allowed a go-ahead RBI single to Walt Weiss in the ninth.

Is Smith being punished for his two postseason gaffes? For his lackluster won-loss record? For being a closer on many losing teams?

Wilhelm, Fingers, Gossage and Sutter were successful on the biggest stages. Smith’s regular-season statistics stack up favorably but he doesn’t have a World Series ring like the others. He never pitched in a World Series.

Wilhelm was a freak of nature who could pitch and pitch and pitch while showing no signs of fatigue. He redefined relief pitching in the 1950s with the New York Giants and later with the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox.

Fingers and Gossage became cult figures, thanks to their larger-than-life mystiques. Fingers’ handlebar mustache and Gossage’s menacing demeanor on the mound were as responsible as their pitching success for making them famous.

Sutter was the first pitcher to master a split-finger pitch and for a long time it was unhittable.

Smith had no defining pitch or look. He simply took his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame to the mound night after night, game after game, and got through the ninth inning.

He should probably be in the Hall of Fame because of that. But he’s not going to be elected Tuesday or any day soon. Somewhere he stirs, embarrassed about being great but not great enough.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

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