Sunday, June 4, 2023

Red Sox in Cooperstown Pt. 44: Lee Smith

Years in Boston: 1988-1990 (12-7, 3.04 ERA, 58 saves, 209 strikeouts, 168.2 innings pitched)
Best Year in Boston: 1988 (4-5, 2.80 ERA, 29 saves, 96 strikeouts, 83.2 innings pitched)

Lee Smith was a monster.  A hulking 6'5", 220 lb. reliever from Louisiana, he was an intimidating force in the late innings.  After spending the first eight seasons of his career with the Cubs, saving 180 games and striking out 644 batters in 681.1 innings, he was traded to the Red Sox.  The price was Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi, two pitchers Boston did not really even need at that point.  Nipper was coming off of an 11 win season, but had an ERA nearly 6, and Schiraldi was not the same pitcher after his collapse in the 1986 postseason.  It is easy to say Boston won this deal.

Smith solidified the back end of the Red Sox bullpen for the next two full seasons.  He saved 29 games in 1988 and then 25 in 1989.  His ERA in 1988 was 2.80 and he had a 4-5 record with 96 strikeouts.  His ERA increased to 3.57 the next season, but he had a record of 6-1 while again recording 96 strikeouts, this time in just 70.2 innings.  Smith was not an All Star in either season, primarily due to the emergence of Dennis Eckersley as an automatic game-ender in Oakland.  He did receive some down-ballot MVP votes in 1988 though.

The 1990 season started off a bit strange.  For some reason, Boston signed closer Jeff Reardon to a free agent deal.  Whether the intention was to split the duties between the two or have one or the other close was not clear.  Smith pitched in just 11 games into May, but made them count.  He had a record of 2-1 with a magnificent 1.88 ERA while notching four saves.  He struck out 17 in 14.1 innings.  Then, he was traded to the Cardinals.  Boston needed more offense and had two closers when most teams only have one, so Smith was jettisoned for Tom Brunansky.  Bruno did not quite provide the offense expected.  The former 30 home run hitter never hit more than 16 in Boston.  Smith on the other hand evolved into a Hall of Fame-worthy closer.  

Over the next few years, Smith was an All Star five times and led the league in saves three times, primarily with the Cardinals.  He also made stops with the Yankees, Orioles, Angels, Reds and Expos before retiring.  When he retired, he held the all-time saves record with 478.  It took Smith a long time to get into the Hall of Fame.  He was on the ballot with the BBWAA for 15 years before finally gaining induction through the Eras Committee on his first attempt.

Smith wears a Cubs hat on his plaque and that is the team he spent the longest amount of time with, though his legacy seemed to have really been cemented during his time with the Cardinals.  I thought it could have gone either way between those two teams.  His time in Boston was the third-longest stretch, but there were no individual achievements to distinguish it otherwise.  He was just a solid closer during that time.  It is certainly important to his story, but was more of a stepping stone between his more noteworthy stints with the Cubs and Cardinals. 

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