The Top 50 Mets of All Time: #38 Steve Trachsel

In 2000, the Mets snagged the National League Wild Card and rode their playoff appearance all the way to the World Series where they eventually lost to some other team in five games. That offseason brought the defection of two-fifths of their starting rotation, as Mike Hampton fled to Colorado and Bobby Jones was allowed to leave for San Diego. The Mets filled Hampton's slot with free agent Kevin Appier and then signed another free agent, Steve Trachsel, to a two-year, $7 million deal to replace Jones.

At the time, Trachsel was just a year younger than Jones, and was coming off of a two-year stretch that saw him go 16-33 with the Cubs, Devil Rays and Blue Jays. General manager Steve Phillips cited pedestrian run support for Trachsel's underwhelming won-lost record, which was certainly a contributing factor (Trachsel's run support was the sixth worst in baseball over the previous five seasons). In a conference call to discuss the signing, Trachsel added the following:

"If you make 35 starts and pitch every fifth day, your record is going to reflect your team's won-lost record"

-- New York Times (12/12/00)

Trachsel's comments contradicted the conventional baseball axiom that some pitchers simply "know how to win", but his history as an innings-eater -- he had pitched at least 200 innings in each of the prior five seasons -- was the primary reason the Mets brought him in to be their fifth starter.
Year  Age    IP   ERA    H   HR  BB   SO  ERA+  WARP3  SNLVAR
-------------------------------------------------------------
2001   30  173.2  4.46  168  28  47  144   92    3.6     4.0
2002   31  173.2  3.37  170  16  69  105  116    4.7     4.2
2003   32  204.2  3.78  204  26  65  111  112    6.4     6.0
2004   33  202.2  4.00  203  25  83  117  107    5.1     4.1
2005   34   37.0  4.14   37   6  12   24  101    0.5     0.7
2006   35  164.2  4.97  185  23  78   79   87    3.0     2.9
Trachsel's career in Queens got off to a rocky start as he lost six of his first seven decisions. His struggles culminated with his start on May 17 at Shea against the Padres, when he was pulled from the game after allowing seven runs in 2.1 innings, including four homeruns in the third inning alone. His ERA as a Met was 8.24, and manager Bobby Valentine wasted no time laying into his pitcher.
"He can't pitch like that, that's for sure. He explicitly has a plan, he's told what to do, how to organize that plan, and he goes out and doesn't execute. That's unacceptable."

-- New York Times (5/18/01)

To his credit, Trachsel made no effort to sugarcoat his performance:
"I screwed up. I screwed up really bad."

-- New York Times (5/18/01)

Trachsel was given a choice: pitch mop-up relief, or spend a couple of weeks in Triple-A Norfolk working on his command. As a five-year veteran of the league Trachsel had the right to refuse a minor league assignment. However, faced with the possibility of relegation to spot starter/long-relief specialist, he reluctantly accepted his temporary demotion. Trachsel worked with coaches Rick Waits, Al Jackson and Ray Rippelmayer to improve his fluidity and pace on the mound. He also followed Valentine's advice by dumping his cutter and working on not tipping his splitter. Trachsel wound up missing three turns in the rotation while he was in Norfolk, but he pitched effectively in the minors, winning two of his three starts and allowing just six earned runs in 19.1 innings, good for a 2.79 ERA.

Trachsel returned to the big league rotation on June 8 in Tampa Bay and picked up the loss, but from that day through the end of the 2001 season he was a markedly different pitcher. He went 10-7 with a 3.35 ERA and a terrific 3.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio (116 strikeouts to 34 walks) over 134.1 innings. His 7.46 strikeouts-per-game was a career high and his 2.44 walks-per-game a career low. His overall numbers were skewed by his dismal first six weeks, but after his humbling stint in Triple-A he had himself a splendid season on the mound.

Statistically, 2002 was a very interesting year for Trachsel. Overall, his peripheral stats were considerably worse than 2001. Despite pitching the exact same 173.2 innings, his strikeouts decreased to 105 (from 144) and his walks increased to 69 (from 47). However, while his strikeout and walk rates regressed he significantly improved his homerun rate from 1.45 per nine innings to just 0.83 per nine. Somehow, it all added up to an reduction in ERA of more than a full run. He spent a couple of weeks on the disabled list in July with a strained trapezius but was otherwise a picture of health in his second season with the Mets.

Trachsel's strikeout and walk rates changed little in 2003, but his homerun rate fluctuated wildly for the second straight season. His 2002 looks like an outlier in retrospect as he gave up 26 long balls in 2003 after surrendering just 16 the prior year. Trachsel wasn't just giving up more homeruns; his homerun-per-flyball rate (the frequency with which flyballs became homeruns) only slightly increased from 8.8% to 9.8%. The biggest difference was with respect to his overall flyball rate. In 2002, Trachsel induced flyballs on 32.8% of opposing batters. In 2003 that number spiked to 40.5%, a dramatic increase which was primarily responsible for his increase in homeruns allowed. (Note: Shea Stadium's park factor increased from 95 to 99 during that stretch, which likely contributed something to Trachsel's homerun binge).

The result was an ERA increase of almost a half-run, though his 3.78 ERA over 204.2 innings still had plenty of value, punctuated by his Mets' career high WARP of 6.4 wins above replacement. He managed to win 16 games for a terrible Mets' team that won just 66 overall.

Trachsel threw another 200+ innings of above-average ball in 2004, posting an ERA that was 7% better than the league. He went 12-13 while his team went 71-91 overall in the last season of the train wreck that was otherwise known as Art Howe's tenure as the team's manager.

Trachsel, who had missed just three starts due to injury in his first four seasons with the Mets, had his back examined in March of 2005 after complaining of stiffness. The diagnosis was a herniated disc, and the subsequent surgery sidelined Trachsel until the end of August. He made just six starts after his return for an improved Mets' team that finished 83-79 and seven games back of first-place Atlanta.

In 2006, Trachsel's last with the Mets, the right-hander went 15-8 despite posting an ERA worse than the league for the first time in five seasons. Despite rapidly-declining peripherals, Trachsel's record echoed his prescient comments from six years earlier when he first signed with the Mets: he won largely because the Mets were a good team. The ERA was his lowest since 1999 when he posted a 5.56 mark with the Cubs. The divergence of Trachsel's performance from his won-lost record was never clearer than in the postseason that year, where he made two starts and never lasted through the fourth inning. He allowed two runs in 3.1 innings in an LDS game against the Dodgers that the Mets would eventually win, and was utterly useless in an inning of work against the Cardinals in an LCS game which saw him allow five runs before leaving the game after a Preston Wilson line drive pegged him in the right thigh. It was Trachsel's last appearance in a Mets' uniform and the low point in his career in orange-and-blue.

Trachsel left New York following the 2006 season, signing a free agent deal with the Baltimore Orioles after former Met Kris Benson tore his rotator cuff. Trachsel's success with the Mets was often a mystery: his rate stats -- strikeouts, walks, homeruns -- were never impressive, but he consistently outperformed his expected ERAs and, other than his injury-plagued 2005, he chewed up innings at the back of the rotation. He was a pretty darned good pitcher for three and one-half seasons and, though he left under less-than-ideal circumstances, he was an important part of the Mets' starting rotation for more than a half-decade.

Sources

Steve Trachsel at Baseball-Reference.com
Steve Trachsel at Baseball Prospectus
Steve Trachsel at The Baseball Cube
Steve Trachsel at Fan Graphs

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