There have been five Hall of Famers elected who were primarily relief pitchers during their playing days: Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter and Hoyt Wilhelm. Two more will join them when Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera are eligible.
One, meanwhile, has been waiting his turn patiently. In his time, Lee Smith was called one of the best relief men in baseball as he pitched for the Cubs, Red Sox, Cardinals, Yankees, Orioles, Angels, Reds and Expos. He broke records and maintained leads. Now, he's on his 12th ballot and is running out of time to get into the Hall of Fame.
Why he's a Hall of Famer:
He broke the record that is ubiquitous with closers: He took over the all-time saves record in 1993 as he became the first reliever in MLB history to close out over 400 games. He kept going for a few years longer, finishing with 478 career saves. That record would stand for 13 years.
Smith led his league in saves four times over his career, with an ERA under 3.00 six times. His best year came in 1983 with the Cubs, when he posted a 1.65 ERA and 1.07 WHIP with a league-leading 29 saves.
The fact that he has been on the ballot for so long is not particularly surprising, either. Relievers tend to bide their time waiting their turn. Fingers and Eckersley were the only two relievers to get in to the Hall of Fame in fewer than eight years of eligibility. Some writers like to wait a while before casting a vote for a player in an effort to show just how much of a Hall of Famer he is.
Why writers won't vote for him:
Simply put, he's a reliever. For a reliever to be elected to the Hall of Fame, he typically needs to be a particular kind of special. Smith broke the all-time saves record, but did so in a time when closers started to become nearer to what they are today, pitching every ninth inning -- and only the ninth inning -- and collecting nearly every save.
Furthermore, Smith took the record from Jeff Reardon, a man who did not receive enough votes on his first Hall of Fame ballot to see a second one. This goes to show that not every man who holds an all-time record deserves to be a Hall of Famer. Hoffman later eviscerated Smith's record before Rivera eclipsed Hoffman. Fingers and Eckersley managed to win MVP awards. Sutter won a Cy Young.
The closest Smith came to a major award was in 1991, when he finished second in the NL Cy Young race, 50 points behind Tom Glavine. He also finished fourth in 1992 with just three points.
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Smith also never had a season where he was overwhelmingly dominant. His WHIP never dipped below 1.07, his ERA+ was above 150 just four times, and though he posted a few years with big-time strikeout numbers, he also had his share of control issues at times. He saved 82% of his games, hardly a number for an all-time great.
For a reliever, a 3.03 ERA and 1.26 WHIP over his career is unlikely to get Smith voted into the Hall of Fame. Even as a starter that could be tricky depending on the trajectory he took. He was one of the best relievers of his time, but that doesn't always mean much.
His case for a Hall of Fame bid has slowly gained more traction among writers. He earned over 50% of the vote for the first time in 2012 before dropping back to under 48% in 2013. But slowly is not going to cut it when he has just four years of eligibility remaining. Smith needs a big jump and he needs it quick. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much of a chance of that happening.
Lee Smith has had a number of honors in his career. Hall of Famer likely won't be one of them. He was a good pitcher, even a great pitcher. But not good enough to be among the best to ever play the game.