ESPN’s David Schoenfield writes, regarding Hall of Fame votes, and Bruce Sutter vs Lee Smith specifically:
Why does [Bruce] Sutter start at 23.9 percent [of the vote] and later gain momentum and enshrinement after 13 years on the ballot, but Lee Smith start at 42.3 percent and after nine years remain at 45.3 percent?
It doesn’t make sense.
As someone who grew up in St. Louis watching both pitchers, it makes sense to me. Sutter and Smith look similar by some mathematical models, but the people who watched them remember them differently. And memory is everything when it comes to close-call Hall of Fame candidates.
Bruce Sutter was the dominant closer in the National League during the early 1980s. Then, after the 1984 season, he signed a huge contract with the Atlanta Braves that put him on the cover of every sports magazine in the country, and flamed out. At least that’s how those of us who watched him at the time remembered it. By modern standards, he wasn’t terrible in Atlanta, but he certainly didn’t live up to expectations. He had one so-so season in Atlanta, then two injury-riddled seasons, and his career was over, though he continued to collect a hefty paycheck for several years afterward.
That’s why he only managed 23.9 percent of the vote early on. People remembered him as one of Ted Turner’s free-agent flameouts. Over time, the mediocre end of his career faded from memory, those dominant years with the Cardinals and the Cubs returned, and people realized 1980s stars are under-represented in the Hall. And eventually all of that was enough to put him over the top.
Lee Smith pitched a lot longer than Sutter, and was a lot more consistent. But Sutter at his best always was considered better than Smith at his best. Sutter held up a lot better under long workloads. Sutter could pitch a three-inning save if the situation called for it. If the Cubs were bringing Smith in during the 7th inning, nobody automatically assumed the game was over at that point. Smith benefited greatly from the modern philosophy of ninth-inning closers, and frankly, once that became the norm for him, he became a much more dominant closer. And for a time, Smith was the career saves leader, but he lived under the perception that a lot of his saves were, well, cheap–pitching the 9th inning with a three-run lead. Stuff like that. He was one of the best closers of his generation, but never the best. And there’s nothing about his career that looks especially different today than in 1997, when his career ended. He became a full-time closer in 1982, stuck in that role for 13 seasons, averaged 37 saves for those 13 seasons, then stuck around for two more seasons as a fading but experienced arm out of the bullpen, like many relievers do. He wasn’t great those last two seasons, but unlike Sutter, he wasn’t really expected to be either.
There’s an argument for putting Smith in, certainly. Not many relievers average 37 saves over 13 seasons as a closer. And Smith was arguably the first modern closer. Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera are better than Smith, but if Smith had been used his entire career the way those two were–not to mention the way Dennis Eckersley was used during the closer portion of his career–Smith would have been better too.
But being a Hall of Famer isn’t about what-ifs. Otherwise, Bo Jackson would be in the Hall. Smith’s case just isn’t as strong as it is for the typical Hall of Famer. But it’s interesting that his vote totals are about as consistent as his save totals were.
I think eventually his historical noteworthiness will be enough to get him in. But he’ll be a controversial case.