Lee Smith (baseball)
Lee Arthur Smith (born December 4, 1957) is an American former professional baseball pitcher who played 18 years in Major League Baseball (MLB) for eight teams. Serving mostly as a relief pitcher during his career, he was a dominant closer and held the major league record for career saves from 1993 until 2006, when Trevor Hoffman passed his total of 478. Smith was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2019 by the Today's Game Era Committee.
|Born: December 4, 1957|
|September 1, 1980, for the Chicago Cubs|
|Last MLB appearance|
|July 2, 1997, for the Montreal Expos|
|Earned run average||3.03|
|Career highlights and awards|
|Member of the National|
|Baseball Hall of Fame|
|Election method||Today's Game Committee|
A native of Jamestown in Bienville Parish in north Louisiana, Smith was scouted by Buck O'Neil and was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 1975 MLB draft. Smith was an intimidating figure on the pitcher's mound at 6 feet 6 inches (1.98 m) and 265 pounds (120 kg) with a 95-mile-per-hour (150 km/h) fastball. In 1991, he set a National League (NL) record with 47 saves for the St. Louis Cardinals, and was runner-up for the league's Cy Young Award; it was the second of three times Smith led the NL in saves, and he later led the American League (AL) in saves once. At the time he retired, he held the major league record for career games finished (802) and was third in games pitched (1,022). He still holds the Cubs' team record for career saves (180), and held the same record for the Cardinals (160) until 2006.
After his playing career, Smith spent time working as a pitching instructor in Minor League Baseball for the San Francisco Giants. He served as the pitching coach for the South Africa national baseball team in the World Baseball Classics of 2006 and 2009.
Smith attended high school in Castor, Louisiana, where his favorite sport was basketball; he did not play on the baseball team until he was a junior. Negro leagues veteran Buck O'Neil is credited with having scouted him. At age 17, Smith was selected in the second round of the 1975 MLB draft by the Chicago Cubs with the 28th overall pick. The Cubs, via O'Neil, were able to get Smith under contract for a $50,000 signing bonus plus $8,000 for his education.
Smith began his professional career as a starting pitcher, first playing in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 1975. He played in Class A in 1976 and 1977, then in Double-A during 1978 and 1979. In 1978, Smith struggled with the Midland Cubs of the Texas League, walking 128 batters in 155 innings pitched. When the team moved him to the bullpen, Smith felt he was being demoted and nearly quit the team; a talk from former Cubs outfielder Billy Williams convinced him to stay. Smith returned to Midland in 1979, lowering his earned run average (ERA) by a full run compared to the prior season (5.98 to 4.93). In 1980, Smith played in Triple-A with the Wichita Aeros of the American Association, recording 15 saves and a 3.70 ERA. With the major league Cubs struggling to a last-place finish, Smith was called up by Chicago in September.
Major league career
Chicago Cubs (1980–1987)
Smith made his major league debut with the Cubs on September 1, 1980, against the Atlanta Braves. He pitched a scoreless inning and recorded his first MLB strikeout, coming against Glenn Hubbard. Smith made 18 relief appearances through the end of the season, pitching to a 2.91 ERA with a 2–0 record. He returned to the Cubs for the 1981 season, and was used mostly as a middle relief pitcher. His first major league save came on August 29, when he recorded the final five outs of a 3–1 Cubs win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Smith had an ERA of 3.94 through early June, when the season was interrupted by the 1981 Major League Baseball strike. He finished the season with an ERA of 3.51 and a 3–6 record, coming in 39 relief appearances plus a single start at the end of the season.
During the 1982 season, closing for the Cubs was shared between Smith, Willie Hernández, Bill Campbell and Dick Tidrow, each of whom finished at least 25 games while registering 17, 10, 8, and 6 saves, respectively. Smith also started five games between June 16 and July 5, registering a no decision followed by four consecutive losses. These five starts, along with the start at the end of the 1981 season, were the only six starts that Smith made during his major league career. Smith also collected his first MLB hit, coming on July 5 against Atlanta, a second-inning home run off of Phil Niekro. Smith only collected two additional hits, one each in 1983 and 1984, registering a career batting average of .047 (3-for-64).
Ferguson Jenkins, who had pitched for the Cubs from 1966 to 1973, returned to the Cubs for the final two seasons of his career, 1982 and 1983. Years later, Smith credited Jenkins with simplifying his delivery, introducing him to the slider and forkball, and teaching him how to set up hitters. Smith subsequently led the Cubs in games finished and saves for each of the 1983 through 1987 seasons.
During his first 10 appearances of 1983, Smith allowed no runs while allowing only three hits and striking out 12 batters in 12+2⁄3 innings pitched; his ERA was not above 1.85 at any point during the year. His overall 1.65 ERA for the season proved to be the lowest of his major league career, nearly two runs better than the NL average of 3.63, and he also posted a career-best 1.074 WHIP. He led the NL with 29 saves and 56 games finished. Smith was selected to his first All-Star Game, allowing two runs (one earned) on two hits in an inning of work as his NL team lost the 1983 mid-summer classic to the AL, 13–3. Smith received a point in the NL's Cy Young Award voting and eight points in the NL Most Valuable Player Award voting.
The 1984 Cubs made the franchise's first postseason appearance since 1945, and were the first of only two playoff teams that Smith played for (the other being the 1988 Red Sox). Smith saved more than 30 games for the first time in his career, but compiled a 3.65 ERA, his worst of the decade. In the postseason, he appeared in two games of the NL Championship Series. In Game 2, Smith earned the save in a 4–2 Cubs win by recording the final two outs. The win gave the Cubs a two-games-to-none lead in the best-of-five series, but the San Diego Padres won the next three games to deny the Cubs a berth in the 1984 World Series. Smith took the loss in Game 4: entering in the bottom of the eighth with the game tied, 5–5, he allowed one hit and kept the game tied; in the bottom of the ninth, he allowed a one-out single to Tony Gwynn, followed by a two-run walk-off home run by Steve Garvey to force a deciding fifth game. Smith did not pitch in Game 5; while Chicago held a 3–0 lead after the second inning, San Diego score six unanswered runs for a 6–3 final. Of Smith's eight seasons with the Cubs (1980–1987), this was the only year the Cubs had a winning record, and the only time they finished higher than fourth in their division.
In 1985, Smith for the first time dominated the league in strikeouts as a relief pitcher. After averaging fewer than eight strikeouts per nine innings in each prior season, he improved to 10.32 in 1985. He finished the season with a career-high 112 strikeouts in only 97.2 innings. Meanwhile, the Cubs were in first place until a 13-game losing streak from June 12 to June 25 from which they never recovered.
Smith saved more than 30 games while the Cubs had losing records in 1985, 1986 and 1987. In 1987, he was chosen for his second All-Star Game. When the midsummer classic went into extra innings, Smith pitched the 10th, 11th and 12th innings, striking out four and getting credit for the win when the NL scored the only two runs of the game in the 13th.
With his 30th save in 1987, Smith became only the second pitcher (joining Dan Quisenberry) to reach the mark in four consecutive seasons. Even before then, he was known as one of the most feared relief pitchers in the game. One player told writers Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo for their book, Baseball Confidential, that one of the most daunting sights in the majors was Smith throwing "pure gas from the shadows" of Wrigley Field, which did not have lights at the time.
Despite his numbers, rumors were swirling about his weight and its effect on his knees and his request for a trade out of Chicago. On December 8, Smith, the team's career leader in saves, was traded to the Boston Red Sox for pitchers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. Nipper pitched only 104 more innings in the majors, and Schiraldi was out of baseball before age 30. Smith, meanwhile, registered nearly 300 saves after the trade. The trade started Smith on a journey involving seven teams in eight seasons, which may have affected his perceived electability among voters for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Boston Red Sox (1988–1990)
After reaching the 1986 World Series, lost to the New York Mets in seven games, the Boston Red Sox finished the 1987 season with a losing record, at 78-84. One of the main problems was a weak bullpen, leading to the Red Sox trading pitchers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi to the Cubs to acquire Smith in December 1987.
Despite giving up a game-winning home run in his 1988 Opening Day debut at Fenway Park, Smith posted an ERA of 2.80 in 64 regular season appearances, his lowest ERA since 1983 (1.65). The Red Sox finished the regular season with a record of 89–73, good enough to win the American League East division, one game ahead of the Detroit Tigers. In Smith's second (and final) career trip to the postseason, he made two appearances in the AL Championship Series. Against the Oakland Athletics, he was the losing pitcher in Game 2, allowing the winning run via three ninth-inning singles. In Game 4, with Boston down three games to none and trailing 2–1, Smith allowed two insurance runs in the eighth inning as Oakland completed the series sweep.
Entering 1989, Smith's salary rose to $1.425 million, but his ERA for the season was 3.57, his highest since 1984 (3.65), and he only pitched 70+2⁄3 innings, his lowest total since 1981 (60+1⁄3). He did record a career-high of 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings. The Red Sox finished at 83–79, third place in their division.
For the 1980s, Smith recorded 234 saves in 580 MLB relief appearances, with an ERA of 2.95. Smith and Jeff Reardon are considered two of the top relievers of the decade, with Reardon recording 264 saves in 507 relief appearances with a 3.06 ERA for the decade. In December 1989, the Red Sox signed free agent Reardon to a three-year, $6.8 million contract.
During the first month of the 1990 season, both Smith and Reardon pitched for the Red Sox, with Smith earning four saves and Reardon earning one. They both pitched in the same game four times, including a 7–5 Boston win over the Chicago White Sox on April 18 that was started by Roger Clemens and ended by Smith. On May 4, the Red Sox chose to bolster their offense and traded Smith to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Tom Brunansky, a former teammate of Reardon's with the Minnesota Twins. Overall in his two-plus seasons in Boston, Smith had appeared in 139 games while collecting 58 saves; in 168+2⁄3 innings pitched he struck out 209 batters.
St. Louis Cardinals (1990–1993)
Smith made his St. Louis debut on May 6, 1990, allowing two runs on three hits in an inning of work during a 5–1 loss. He went on to make 53 appearances with the 1990 Cardinals, registering 27 saves with a 2.10 ERA while striking out 70 batters in 68+2⁄3 innings. He also had a stretch of 16 consecutive appearances without allowing a run, spanning late June to early August. The team, however, finished at 70–92 and in last place for the first time since 1918.
In 1991, St. Louis improved to 84–78, while Smith recorded a career-high 47 saves. His 45th save came on September 28, tying him with Bruce Sutter's National League record, which had been set in 1984, also with the Cardinals. Smith claimed the league record for himself three days later. With his salary roughly doubled to nearly $2.8 million, this was the first of four consecutive seasons during which he had over 40 saves. Smith won his first Rolaids Relief Man Award, received the most significant consideration for league MVP in his career (finishing eighth in NL MVP voting), and finished second in Cy Young Award voting behind only Tom Glavine, who had a breakout 20-win season with Atlanta.
Smith again led the NL in saves in 1992, registering 43. In 70 appearances, he struck out 60 batters in 75 innings, while recording a 3.12 ERA. That season, former teammate Jeff Reardon broke the MLB career saves record, which had been held for over a decade by Rollie Fingers; Fingers had recorded 341 saves in his career, and Reardon ended the season with 357.
In 1993, Smith passed Reardon in MLB career saves on April 13 with save number 358, and passed Bruce Sutter on April 14 for the National League's career saves record, recording NL save number 301, compiled with the Cubs and Cardinals. In June, Smith had 15 saves, which set an MLB record for the most saves in any month; it still stands, having been equalled only by John Wetteland of the New York Yankees in June 1996 and by Chad Cordero of the Washington Nationals in June 2005. On August 31, with St. Louis 10 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies, seemingly out of contention, and with Smith poised to become a free agent after the season, the Cardinals traded Smith to the Yankees for reliever Rich Batchelor.
With St. Louis, Smith recorded 43 saves in 55 appearances during 1993, striking out 49 batters in 50 innings, albeit with a 4.50 ERA. He left the Cardinals as their all-time save leader (160) until Jason Isringhausen passed him on June 13, 2006. Smith's NL single-season record of 47 saves, set two years earlier, was bested by both Rod Beck of the San Francisco Giants and Randy Myers of the Cubs, with 48 and 53, respectively.
Late career (1993–1997)
The Yankees were just 1+1⁄2 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays when they acquired Lee Smith, and he pitched nearly perfectly for the last month of the season. In eight games, Smith did not allow a single run and picked up three saves and 11 strikeouts. The Yankees as a team, however, did poorly during the remainder of the season, and Toronto easily pulled away to win the division. Smith's New York career lasted just those eight games as he filed for free agency after the season. He signed with the Baltimore Orioles for 1994 for $1.5 million plus incentives.
At age 36, Smith started 1994 pitching better than ever. In his first 12 games, he had 12 saves and a 0.00 ERA. After nearly two months, his ERA was still under 1.00 and it was still under 2.00 in mid-July. Smith had been selected for the All-Star Game in 1991, 1992 and 1993 but had not played. After his sixth selection in 1994, Smith was brought into the game to hold a two-run American League lead in the ninth inning. Instead, he gave up a game-tying two-run home run to Fred McGriff, and the AL lost in 10 innings. Smith's bad streak continued for the next several weeks until the 1994–95 Major League Baseball strike ended the season. He filed for free agency again and signed a two-year contract with the California Angels for over $2.5 million while the strike was still in progress.
In 1995, Smith registered a save in every appearance from April 28 to June 25. On June 11, he saved his 16th consecutive game to break the major league record set by Doug Jones in 1988. He ran his streak to 19 games before finally blowing a save on June 28. (John Wetteland broke the record the next year by saving 24 straight). After keeping his ERA at 0.00 through the first two months of the season, Smith was selected to his seventh and final All-Star Game, thereby becoming only the fourth player to be an All-Star for four different teams (after Walker Cooper, George Kell and Goose Gossage). Smith did not fare well for the next month, pushing his ERA all the way up to 5.40. Regardless, the Angels held a double-digit lead in the division and seemed poised for the postseason. However, the Angels went 14–29 in their final 43 games to finish in a tie with the Seattle Mariners atop the AL West, then lost the tie-breaker game to miss the playoffs. Despite the team's difficulties, Smith pitched effectively during August and September, registering 13 saves against a single blown save. He finished the season with 37 saves and an ERA more than a run lower than the AL average (3.47 vs. 4.71).
For 1996, the Angels replaced Smith in the closer role with second-year pitcher Troy Percival. After only eight games as a setup pitcher, Smith, who was unhappy in California, was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for Chuck McElroy on May 27. He resumed setup duty for the Reds—this time for Jeff Brantley, who was in the midst of his best season—but did not fare as well in his return to the National League. His ERA was nearly as high as the league average, his strikeout rate was the lowest in 15 years, and the Reds granted him free agency after the season.
He was picked up by the Montreal Expos in the following season for only $400,000 and had the worst season of his career. His last game of the season was two innings of relief during extra innings of an all-Canada interleague game (sometimes called the Pearson Cup) won by Toronto on July 2. It turned out to be the last game of his major league career. On July 15, 1997, Lee Smith announced his retirement.
After posting career-worsts in ERA (5.82), hits per nine innings (11.63) and several other statistics and then announcing his retirement in mid-July, Smith was released by the Expos on September 25, 1997. Regardless, the Kansas City Royals signed Smith as a free agent and invited him to spring training for 1998. When he refused to start the season in the minor leagues, the Royals released him. Later in 1998, he signed a minor league deal with the Houston Astros, but with an ERA near 7.00 at Triple-A, he retired from the majors again.
Two years after his retirement in 1998, Smith went to work as a roving minor league pitching instructor for the San Francisco Giants. Giants director of player personnel, former teammate Dick Tidrow, along with the manager of the Double-A Shreveport Captains, Jack Hiatt, offered the job to Smith, who gladly agreed, since it was right in his hometown. Smith still held this job with the Giants as of 2009.
In the 2006 World Baseball Classic, Smith served as the pitching coach of the South Africa national baseball team, which was eliminated in pool play, finishing with an 0–3 record. In 2007, Smith participated as a coach in the second annual European Baseball Academy for Major League Baseball International in Tirrenia, Italy. The Academy provides instruction to young players from Europe and Africa, several of whom have signed professional contracts. For the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Smith returned as a coach for South Africa; the team was again eliminated during pool play, losing both of their games.
Hall of Fame candidacy
In 1995, Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Jim Murray selected Lee Smith as the active player most likely to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, describing him as "the best one-inning pitcher the game ever saw", and "the best at smuggling a game into the clubhouse in history." Since his retirement two years later, much speculation had centered on Smith's specific chances of becoming a member of the Hall of Fame as well as the criteria for relief pitchers and closers in general. Only Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Trevor Hoffman, and Mariano Rivera have been inducted into the Hall of Fame-based primarily on their relief pitching, and only Sutter and Hoffman have been inducted with fewer innings or starting appearances than Smith. In addition, Fingers and Eckersley – the only two to be elected in fewer than eight tries – won MVP awards, and Sutter captured a Cy Young Award, but Smith was rarely a serious contender for either trophy. He pitched in a transitional era, when closers began to be expected to pitch only a single inning; although Smith and Goose Gossage each pitched in slightly over 1,000 games, Gossage ended his career with over 500 more innings. Sutter was the first pitcher ever elected to the Hall with fewer than 1,700 innings pitched; Smith, who pitched fewer innings every year from 1982 through 1989 and never pitched more than 75 innings after 1990, ended his career with fewer than 1,300. In 2005, statistician Alan Schwarz described Smith as a long shot for election despite the career record, and used Retrosheet data to compare the saves of several top relievers including Smith, Eckersley, Fingers, Gossage and Sutter. While Smith's save percentage (82%), outs per save (3.72) and average of inherited runners per game (.50) compared well with Eckersley's marks (84%, 3.33, .49), his figures in the last two categories sharply trailed those of the others; Fingers, Gossage and Sutter all averaged between 4.72 and 4.82 outs per save, with Sutter inheriting .67 runners per game and the other two .86, suggesting their saves were harder to achieve. Smith started his career earning multiple-inning saves, but the strategy in baseball for closers changed, and he was later used as a one-inning pitcher. He had a higher career save percentage than Fingers, Gossage and Sutter. Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera both exceeded Smith's former record of 478 saves, and the two are now widely considered the best one-inning closers ever.
At Sutter's July 2006 induction to the Hall, Smith talked with reporters about his chances for election. Like many others, he commented that he was puzzled that he had not yet been selected. "This confuses the hell out of me. But I've always been baffled by it", he said. Smith's candidacy may have been hampered by the number of outstanding relievers on the ballot; Sutter had earned increasing vote totals for nine years before Smith appeared on the ballot, and Gossage—who first appeared on the ballot three years before Smith—had received greater support in each year from 2004 until his induction in 2008.
In his first year of eligibility, 2003, Smith received 210 votes of the 496 total ballots cast by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA)—42.3%, with 75% being the minimum to be elected. In 2004, Smith only received 185 votes out of the 506 total ballots cast (36.6%). In 2005, Smith improved from the previous year's results, and received a total of 200 votes out of the 516 ballots cast (38.7%). Smith further improved in 2006, by receiving 234 votes out of the 520 ballots cast (45%). In 2007, Smith received only 217 votes out of the 545 total ballots cast (39.8%). Smith increased his total in 2008, with 235 votes, 43.3% of the total ballots cast. He received 44.5% of the vote in 2009 and 47.3% of the vote in 2010. In 2011, he received 45.3% of the vote. He peaked at a new high of 50.6% in 2012, but dropped down to 47.8% in 2013. In 2014, he dropped to 29.9%, but received 30.2% of the vote in 2015. He received a slight bump in 2016, garnering 34.1% of the vote. He failed to gain induction in 2017, when he received 34.2% of the vote in his 15th and final year on the ballot. Smith was the last player to appear on 15 BBWAA ballots, grandfathered after a 2014 change limited players to 10 years on the ballot.
Having not been elected by the BBWAA, Smith was later selected for consideration by the 16-member Today's Game Committee as part of 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame balloting. On December 9, 2018, Smith and outfielder Harold Baines were elected, receiving 16 and 12 votes, respectively, to meet the 75% threshold for induction. A formal induction ceremony was held in Cooperstown, New York, on July 21, 2019.
- List of Major League Baseball annual saves leaders
- List of Major League Baseball leaders in games finished
- Major League Baseball titles leaders
- List of St. Louis Cardinals team records
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lee Smith (baseball).|
- Career statistics and player information from MLB, or ESPN, or Baseball-Reference, or Fangraphs, or Baseball-Reference (Minors), or Retrosheet
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