Lee Smith

Lee SmithSmith has come to personify the “modern closer” who comes in for three outs to get an easy save. The easy saved is defined as when the team is up by three runs and trots the closer in to get three outs in the ninth. The closer never faces the tying run, unless he himself puts runners on base.

But that really isn’t fair to Smith. He pitched 18 seasons in the big leagues and for the first 11 of them he was used how relievers were used in the 1970s. In 1983 he pitched in 66 games and in half of them he entered the game with runners on base. In 38 of them he was asked to get more than three outs. That was a typical season for him from 1981-1990. Starting in 1990, when he was pitching for Joe Torre in St. Louis, Smith was utilized like Dennis Eckersley: he entered 51 of his 67 games with the bases empty. He recorded more than three outs in just 15 of his appearances. Smith thrived in that role, leading the NL in saves in 1990 and 1991 on his way to four straight seasons of 40 saves or more.

Smith wasn’t the first pitcher to be used as a 1-2-3 ninth inning closer, it’s just that the second half of his career overlapped the period when relief pitchers were used that way after teams copied the success of Eckersley. The big righthander also deserves a lot of credit for his durability: Smith pitched in 60 games or more in 12 straight seasons, which is probably a record, and he never suffered a serious arm injury of any sort.

On the bad side of the ledger, Smith was ineffective in his two chances in the post-season. In 1984 he lost Game Four against the Padres as his Cubs blew a 2-0 games lead. In Game Two of the 1988 ALCS he surrendered a game-winning hit to Walt Weiss in the ninth. His post-season ERA was 8.44 in five games.