How Lee Smith saved the save (and the Hall of Fame) from itself

Lee Smith walking very slowly from one place to another as a member of the Cubs - terren in Virginia

Lee Smith is the latest St. Louis Cardinals closer to confuse everyone about what it means to be a Hall of Fame relief pitcher.

Somehow—despite their all-time saves leader (by some distance) being Jason Isringhausen—the St. Louis Cardinals have managed to get themselves involved in two Hall of Fame bullpen debates in a row. The 2013 ballot brings us Lee Smith, who completed his transformation from multi-inning "fireman" to single-inning save-accumulator as a member of the unlamented early-90s Cardinals. Smith is a transitional figure who isn't really being treated like one—a subtly valuable pitcher whose Hall of Fame case rests heavily on the accident of being the first All-Time Saves Leader anybody cared to chase.

[We took a look at the Cardinals' Hall of Fame hitters on Friday; today we're giving out 15 well-deserved minutes to the Cardinals pitchers on the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot.]

Rk YoB %vote HOFm HOFs WAR WAR7 JAWS Jpos
26 Woody Williams 1st 17 14 28.1 20.2 24.2 57.8
27 Lee Smith 11th 50.6% 135 13 27.6 19.7 23.7 32.3

One of my favorite B-R features, besides the one that lets me make those tables, is the "Progressive" leaderboard display. It shows you everyone who's ever held a particular all-time and single-season record, and the saves leaderboard is interesting because the stat emerges, fully-formed, with a great baseball player atop it.

Hoyt Wilhelm pulls into the lead in 1964, before the stat actually exists, and pushes the all-time record from 146 to 227 before retiring in 1972 with 227 of them. Rollie Fingers takes the lead up to 341, which lasts until 1991. Then Jeff Reardon snags it for a year before Lee Smith—as a member of the Cardinals—passes everybody.

I don't remember this being an especially big deal until it became clear that Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera were going to need someone to beat. Then Lee Smith was the Saves Leader we needed, more famous than he ever was for his own sake.

Even if the role hadn't changed so much around the concept of the save during Lee Smith's career we'd have problems determining Hall of Fame standards for relievers; no reliever has ever earned as many wins above replacement as, say, Mark McGwire. But as the role contracted and calcified it only got harder, and Smith has become the symbol of that quandary—not as dominant as later closers, not as rubber-armed as earlier ones, and famous for a record because it was about to be made irrelevant.

So is Lee Smith a Hall of Famer? It depends—do we treat relief pitchers like we do starting pitchers? If we do, Wilhelm, Goose Gossage, and Mariano Rivera are probably the only guys worth discussing. Do we compare them against their peers, as though innings aren't interchangeable? Lee Smith, despite his reputation as a Designated Save Receptacle, finished with more rWAR (and more WAA) than Bruce Sutter or Rollie Fingers... but fewer than Chris Carpenter.

I included the Hall of Fame Monitor and Hall of Fame Standards lines on the table this time—I didn't for the hitters—for that reason. They're old Bill James gadgets, and they're a matched set—the Monitor attempts to predict who will make the Hall, while the Standards attempts to determine, based on previous inductees, who ought to.

On the Monitor Smith is ranked at 135, 11th on this packed ballot and five over what James considered a near-certain election. He gets credit for the usual plaque-room stuff—putting up gaudy traditional stats, leading the league in things, playing for good teams. But those stats and those things aren't as valuable as the others, so for Hall of Fame Standards he's ranked 34th out of 37, between Woody Williams (about whom more this afternoon) and Roberto Hernandez.

Saves are not extremely valuable, and Lee Smith will make or not make the Hall of Fame (at 50% with a few ballots to go he's on the edge) based on how much the voters overvalue them. We know what we're monitoring, but the standards are still an open question.

But Lee Smith deserves more credit for saving the save from itself than he does blame for taking advantage of it. Here's how that progression of save champs looks by the usual sabermetric suspects:

G IP ERA+ WAR WAA SV Years
Hoyt Wilhelm 1070 2254 147 47.4 26.8 227 1964-1979
Rollie Fingers 944 1701 120 25.3 7.0 341 1980-1991
Jeff Reardon 880 1132 122 18.0 7.5 367 1992
Lee Smith 1022 1289 132 27.9 13.8 478 1993-2005
Trevor Hoffman 1036 1089 141 27.0 13.8 601 2006-2010
Mariano Rivera 1051 1220 206 52.7 31.4 608 2011-

From the instant the save was invented it's tugged downward on its own unit value. One save from Hoyt Wilhelm wasn't anything at all like one save from Rollie Fingers, and one save from Lee Smith in 1983 wasn't much like one in 1994.

And at the historical moment in which the save record was most in danger of being won by a lucky single-inning accumulator—Jose Mesa and Todd Jones got within a bad season-and-a-half of Fingers and Reardon—Lee Smith, who'd excelled in both roles, hung around to set a baseline for the record that average pitchers in the new environment still can't reach. For his troubles, he was reduced permanently to a lucky accumulator.

Whatever the rough standards for Hall of Fame closers eventually look like, then, Lee Smith ensured that he'd be the only pitcher who could ever claw in through the progressive-leaderboard loophole. After 1993, you had to be at least as tall as Lee Smith—the one-inning prototype who wasn't really a one-inning pitcher—to ride the all-time saves record onto a half-researched ballot. We owe him one.

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