Two Cardinals relief pitchers have been in the news this week: Lee Smith and Brett Cecil.
Lee Smith - the All-Time Saves Leader for 13 years - is currently on his final writer's ballot for the Hall of Fame. Brett Cecil - who has pitched almost exclusively in middle relief since leaving the rotation - was given the biggest contract ever for a Cardinals reliever.
Interesting bookends to this particular moment in time, don't you think?
Enlightened Minds have argued for years that the dogmatic belief in saving the "closer" for the final outs was sub-optimal, but this postseason felt like it was tailor-made to kill that notion once and for all. Buck Showalter's refusal to use Zach Britton with the season on the line soon gave way to Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman coming into games as soon as trouble started brewing.
The Fireman, it seems, has returned.
Fireman, of course, was the longtime preferred slang term for the best pitcher in a team's bullpen. In fact, starting in 1960, the Sporting News gave out a "Fireman of the Year" award. Ironically, that was the same year that sportswriter Jerome Holtzman defined specific, situational parameters for a statistic called the Save. Major League Baseball would formally start tracking Saves in 1969.
But for the first two decades of its existence, the Fireman of the Year Award went to pitchers who fit the role of the fireman, guys like Mike Marshall and Rollie Fingers, who regularly came into games in the 7th or 8th, or even earlier, and pitched multiple innings.
Lee Smith debuted with the Cubs in 1980, and when he won his first Fireman of the Year award in 1983, his role was already inching towards what we would now call the closer. He would finish 56 of the 66 games in which he appeared, though roughly half of his appearances still spanned more than one inning.
By the time Smith won his 2nd Fireman of the Year award with the Cardinals in 1991, he had fully transitioned into the closer role. He finished 61 of the 67 games in which he appeared and only got more than three outs in 15 of his 67 games. He led the league in Saves with 47, breaking Bruce Sutter's all-time mark of 45. He won the award again the next season in St. Louis, again leading the league with 43 Saves, pitching 75 innings over 70 appearances.
In 1993, just two weeks into the season, Smith surpassed the still-active Jeff Reardon to become the all-time leader in Saves with 358. On August 31 of that year, with free agency looming, the Cardinals traded Smith to the Yankees. Smith would pitch four more years, racking up a final tally of 478 saves.
In 2001, the Fireman of the Year was renamed the Reliever of the Year award, as sure a sign as any that the fireman as a concept was no more. The next season, Lee Smith debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot with 42% of the vote - nearly double the percentage Bruce Sutter garnered in his first ballot.
Had you taken a poll at the time, I think you would have found most baseball writers and fans believed Smith would and should get into the Hall. The best relievers earned Saves and he was the all-time leader. But then the world conspired to undermine Smith's most salient Hall of Fame argument.
In 2006, Trevor Hoffman passed Lee Smith as the All-Time Saves Leader, and then he himself was passed by Mariano Rivera. At the same time, the understanding that the save is a seriously flawed statistic has finally seeped deep enough into the collective consciousness to reach the voters of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Smith, who rose to prominence just as the fireman was becoming the closer, seems to be fading into the sunset at the moment when teams are again looking to use their best relievers in the highest-leverage situations, whether or not they come at the very end of the game. Whereas some have argued that Smith was overvalued because he played at the time when the Save was overvalued, it's quite possible that he's now being undervalued as we look down our noses at the one-inning closer.
It's looking more and more like Lee Smith may have been the beneficiary and then the victim of his particular historical moment.
As to whether or not Lee Smith deserves to be a Hall of Famer, that's really just a question of how much you value relievers. Their limited usage means even the very best ones contribute relatively little to WAR, but make no mistake, Lee Smith was one of the very best ones.