Relief pitcher Lee Smith spent 3 years with the Red Sox. He was lethal on the mound and will finally be recognized by his induction into the Hall of Fame.
Lee Smith: former Red Sox player, a new inductee into the Hall of Fame. Smith was born on December 4 of 1957, made his MLB debut on September 1980, and pitched his last game at the age of 39 in July of 1997. Smith was a 7x All-Star and a 3x Rolaids Reliever of the Year (given to the top relief pitchers of the regular season in both leagues).
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2019: the Summer of the Closer. Two relief pitchers and one starting pitcher all inducted into the Hall of Fame in one year. To be honest, I’m not sure if it’s something that I should be jumping for joy with excitement over or pausing for a moment of disgust while pondering why it took so long. Maybe, simultaneously, both?
The bullpen, as we Red Sox fans know, is a crucial part to any team. They have the power to make or break the game. They’re every bit as important as a starting pitcher and some might argue that they’re more important.
But baseball doesn’t (yet) fully reflect that. The role is something that very few kids grow up saying, “I want to be a 7th inning relief pitcher!” They’re paid less, they’re less recognized, and their job is often more stressful than a starting pitcher.
Is it slightly ironic that 2019 also marks the year that was the toughest on free-market pitchers? Especially, our beloved star closer Craig Kimbrel. It took him e-i-g-h-t months of free agency to finally get picked up by the Cubs. (note to Dave Dombrowski: while I understand the money aspect, I’m still not happy that we didn’t resign him).
Lee Smith had a career 3.03 ERA, 1.256 WHIP, 28.9 WAR, and 478 saves in 1,0222 games. Over the 18 years in the majors, Lee Smith pitched all over the map. He spent 8 years with the Chicago Cubs, 4 years with St. Louis Cardinals, 3 years with Boston, 2 years with the California Angels, and 1 year with the Montreal Expos, Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees, and Baltimore Orioles.
He was 30-32 while pitching for the Red Sox. During this time his ERA increased to 3.04, he saved 58 games, recorded 209 strikeouts and had a 1.287 WHIP in 115 games.
Lee Smith spent 14 seasons in the Top 10 for Saves,13 seasons for Games Finished, 6 seasons for Games Played, and 2 for being a more experienced “older” player. Also, his name was seen on the leaderboards, awards, and honors for wild pitchers, adjusted pitching wins, and defensive games as a pitcher. Smith is No.3 for all-time saves record, a record that he led for 13 seasons.
His numbers speak for themselves, but what about Smith’s history? How did he get to this point? Smith was always a gifted athlete, with a preference towards basketball until bad knees drove him to reinvent his athlete status as a baseball player.
Smith was a reliable relief pitcher, known for his endurance and consistency. The role of relief pitching fell onto Smith and at first, he was very skeptical about it. Lee Smith lived with a chip on his shoulder because of his experiences. It wasn’t common for all-white schools to forfeit games against teams that had a black player.
His favorite part about being a relief pitcher was the ability to be the unsung hero of the game and the frequency in which he could play. Smith’s mentality was to pitch what he knew, what his strength was. Smith quickly made a name for himself as a power pitcher in the role. As Los Angeles Dusty Baker said,
"“I don’t run from anybody, but the opinion around the National League is that you’re in no real hurry to get to him.”"
In his first year in Boston, the Red Sox won the American East title. Smith was in the league for the notable transition of the prominent playing of one-inning closers (he had one season with the Cubs where he would typically pitch for 3-inning stints). Smith enjoyed playing for the Red Sox he said,
"“Oh God, yeah, did I enjoy my time in Boston. The club was unbelievable and we had some really good years.”"
Lee Smith left baseball after 18 years in 1997. But he didn’t leave baseball, after three seasons of retirement he jumped into coaching with San Francisco (ironically, he’s been a coach for 19 years). As Baseball America’s Bill Mitchell notes that Smith is a gentle giant off the field, but an intimidating man on the mound. He credits Billy Williams for convincing him to stay in the *at the time the undesirable* role of the relief pitcher.
Smith is a wealth of knowledge. Playing baseball was never something that I was going to excel at, but I find myself jealous of the young men that get to learn from a legend like Smith. His time with the Red Sox was short, but it was certainly memorable. It’s insane that it took so long for such an iconic reliever to get inducted. 2019 hopeful marks a year of change in the way that we view relief pitchers.
MLB Network will be covering the event starting at 11 am ET. The ceremony will begin at 1:30 pm. Both MLB Network Radio and MLB.com will live stream the event.