The newly inducted St. Louis Cardinals closer actually spent most of his career with the Chicago Cubs, but his best years arguably came in Cardinal red.
The people who saw Lee Smith knew that the reason that he was only called on to get saves was because that’s where he excelled the most. He appeared in 245 games in his tenure for the St. Louis Cardinals, and 209 of those times, he was called on to finish out a game.
He had the numbers to back that conviction up. He finished with 160 saves in his Cardinals career, and a solid 2.90 ERA, 2.89 FIP, and 1.15 WHIP to go with it. While the first eight of those years were spent as a Chicago Cub, he only recorded 20 more saves as at Cub than he did with the St. Louis Cardinals. Both save numbers were franchise records at one point, and he remains the Cubs franchise leader in saves to this very day.
Smith arrived in St. Louis on a trade in 1990 for right fielder Tom Brunansky. He wasn’t quite the strikeout artist he was in his younger years, but Smith still brought the goods to the St. Louis Cardinals. He made an immediate impact for the team, appearing in 53 games for the Cardinals, and was the last Cardinals pitcher to take the mound in 45 of them, and posted an elite 2.10 ERA.
In those appearances, he only managed to pick up 27 saves, but that would soon change. Smith would record his two highest save marks in the next two seasons. His 1991 saw Smith finish with 47 saves, a National League record at the time, and a 2.34 ERA. while he picked up 42 saves 1992, despite his ERA rising a bit to 3.12.
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A couple of weeks into the 1993 season, Smith broke the record for most career saves all time held by Jeff Reardon, who had broken Rollie Fingers record the season before. He was sitting just 2 saves behind the record at 355 following the previous year, and recorded his record breaking 358th save on April 13, 1993 as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals
Soon after, things would get a bit rocky, as Smith’s ERA quickly ballooned to above 4.00, and the St. Louis Cardinals were not in a position to contend for much besides better draft picks. With Smith set to become a free agent that offseason, the Cardinals decided to trade Smith to the Yankees for pitcher Rich Batchelor, who didn’t provide much value to the team.
By this point, Smith was beginning to feel the adverse effects of aging, and he could never quite regain his dominant form again. He was 35 years old and on the tail end of his career, but he still managed to make the All-Star game in 1994 and 1995 following his departure from St. Louis. He retired after the 1997 season, concluding his career after 18 seasons.
His 478 career saves places him 3rd all time, behind Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. Both of these guys are undoubtedly Hall of Famers, and Rivera is a first ballot without question. While the gap of saves between Smith and these guys is large, Smith is still in a class above most, and a 3.03 ERA with this save count should be enough to justify his Hall of Fame election.