October 14, 2006
The Mets entered Game 3 of the NLCS coming off a brutal loss in Game 2. The bullpen, which had been a strength all year, faltered mightily, turning a 6-4 lead into a 9-6 loss with some help from Scott Spiezio and So Taguchi. The team headed into Busch Stadium with the series tied at one game apiece, and looked to their veteran right-hander Steve Trachsel to put them back in control of the best of seven series. Trachsel didn’t get out of the second inning, walking 5 of the 12 batters he faced before being mercifully pulled after taking a comebacker off his leg. He would be charged with all five of the Cardinals' runs that evening, while the Mets' bats were shut out by Jeff Suppan. The Mets would fight back to even the series at 2-2, and then claw back again to knot it at 3-3. Trachsel would have been scheduled to pitch Game 7 of the series, but manager Willie Randolph elected to start Oliver Perez and, well, we all know what happened after that (damn you, Jeff Suppan!).
Trachsel had struggled in the Division Series against the Dodgers as well. He took the mound in Game 3 and lasted only three and a third innings. The Mets' offense had bailed him out that time, though, as the team completed their three game sweep out in Chavez Ravine. And despite his gaudy win total and veteran presence, Trachsel was quite likely the sixth best starter on that 2006 team, his 15-8 record a shiny bauble that distracted you from his 4.97 ERA and 5.50 FIP. Trachsel walked almost as many batters as he struck out, was quite home run prone, and posted a -0.1 rWAR while averaging less than five and a half innings per start. It was by far his worst full season as a Met.
Now, it’s not fair to judge any player by one game, but certainly my most lasting memory of Steve Trachsel will be Willie Randolph lugubriously strolling out of the dugout to take the ball from him with the game already seeming well out of hand. But before this rather dire coda to his career in Queens, Trachsel was the best pitcher on some very bad Mets teams. And while he never was much more than a league-average-innings-eater type, that had value to your sanity when the threat of Tyler Yates or Jaime Cerda loomed out in the bullpen.
Trachsel, of course, also wasn’t particularly fun to watch. He was famous for... taking... forever... between... pitches, and when he did decide to deliver the ball, he rarely popped 90 on the radar gun. He liberally mixed in some junk: a decent curve, an average change-up, a pretty good splitter, but he was never much of a strikeout threat, even early on in his career. And after his first year with the Mets, he never posted even an average K/9. Trachsel would nibble as much as he could, pitch around a guy if he had to, and relied on generating enough weak contact inside of a big ballpark to get him through six innings. And with the Mets, it worked more often than not.
Steve Trachsel was selected in the eighth round by the Chicago Cubs in the 1991 draft, starting a minor league career that was about as nondescript as his major league career. He was more polish than stuff even then, and after a successful debut in short season ball in 1991, spent his first full professional season with AA Charlotte. There he showed what would become the hallmarks of his major league career: pretty good control, an average strikeout rate, and enough stuff to keep the ball in the ballpark most of the time. He was never going to make a BA Top 100 list, and I probably never would have given him more than a C+ as a prospect. But he was only 21 at the time and that was his first taste of full season ball, so it was a pretty impressive campaign on a very aggressive assignment. All in all, you would have had to give him a decent shot at reaching his somewhat limited ceiling
Trachsel spent almost all of 1993 with Iowa in the AAA American Association. It was close to a carbon copy of his previous campaign with a few more strikeouts, a few more walks, and a few more home runs. He got a cup of coffee at the end of the 1993 campaign and was up for good in 1994. Trachsel would spend his first six full seasons with the Cubs serving as an average back of the rotation arm. His FIPs generally ranged from 4.50-5.00, and his ERA bounced around based on his home run and batted ball luck. Trachsel’s last season with the Cubs in 1999 looks particularly bad, with an unsightly 8-18 record and a career-worst 5.56 ERA. Really, it wasn’t all that different from his 1998 campaign, save for a small spike in home run rate and a mostly unlucky strand percentage.
All told, Trachsel went 61-72 with Chicago, posting an almost exactly league average 4.41 ERA (98 ERA+) for Cubs teams who were by and large pretty wretched. But coming off what superficially looked like a career-worst season, Trachsel’s name didn’t have much cachet in the free agent market, and at this point he was probably best known for giving up Mark McGwire's record-breaking 62nd home run. He signed a one-year deal with the Devil Rays for one million dollars, a steep paycut from his Arb3 season with the Cubs. Unsurprisingly, Trachsel went right back to being a league average pitcher on a bad team. That was good enough for the Blue Jays, who traded for him at the deadline as they tried to make a run at a vulnerable Yankees squad. But Trachsel pitched poorly down the stretch for the Jays, who were never quite able to get beyond the periphery of the AL East race.
Between his two stops, Trachsel’s 2000 campaign was another 200 innings of league average work. The Mets were in need of such a pitcher, as that same offseason they would bid adieu to Bobby Jones and Mike Hampton. The NYC school system must have been acceptable enough for Mr. Trachsel, as he inked a two-year deal with the Mets worth about seven and a half million dollars. The media was less than enthused with the signing of a sub-.500 pitcher for a team coming off a trip to the World Series, but Trachsel was rather matter of fact about his won-lost record:
"If you make 35 starts and pitch every fifth day, your record is going to reflect your team's won-lost record"
These were prophetic words from Trachsel as he would go 11-13 for a Mets club that struggled for most of the season before making a late charge to get over .500. Like his team, Trachsel was horrible at the beginning of the year, posting an ERA over 8 through his first eight starts.
"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."
Upon his return to the major leagues, Trachsel turned his season around, posting a 3.55 ERA in June and then going 9-3 in the second half of the season. By October, Trachsel’s numbers were in line with what you would expect, and he ended up posting 170 innings of slightly below average work.
The Mets' fortunes turned steeply downward in 2002 as they suffered through their first of consecutive last place finishes, but Trachsel was a bright spot, posting the lowest ERA among Mets starters. It is worth noting that he far outperformed his peripherals in 2002, but due to the large drop in his HR/9 rate, he still posted a better FIP than in 2001. By 2003, with Al Leiter on the downside of his career and Tom Glavine struggling in his first season as a Met, Trachsel was the staff ace by default. In reality, he was the same #4 starter he’d always been, but the 200 innings of 3.78 ERA were good enough for a 3.7 rWAR, making it his most valuable season of work. 2004 was more of the same: 200 innings of slightly above average performance for a lousy Mets squad.
During Spring Training the following year, Trachsel began experiencing pain in his back, and an MRI revealed a herniated disk that would keep the pitcher out for the first half of the 2005 season. When he was ready to return to action as the Mets were making an ill-fated playoff push, Trachsel found himself blocked by the red hot Jae Weong Seo. (Of course, the fact that they were debating between Jae Weong Seo and Steve Trachsel might explain why the Mets fell short of the postseason that year. That, or Willie’s decision to use Shingo Takatsu to face Miguel Cabrera in a big spot. Never forget.)
Trachsel ended up making six rehab starts across three levels of the minors before finally forcing his way back into the starting rotation. On August 26, with the Mets riding a four-game win streak, Trachsel returned to the bump against the San Francisco Giants. He tossed a sterling eight innings, limiting the Giants to two hits as the Mets squeaked out a 1-0 win that moved them to within a game and a half of the wild card. This apparently wasn’t enough to persuade Willie Randolph to keep him on his turn, leading Trachsel to famously quip, "I guess I should have pitched a no-hitter."
Trachsel would return to the rotation in September and make five less successful starts as the Mets' season fizzled out before the leaves even started to turn. But with Seo traded in the offseason for Duaner Sanchez, Trachsel would spend all of 2006 in the Mets' rotation. That would be his last season with the Mets, as he would turn 36 in the offseason and his declining peripherals indicated that time was finally catching up with the junkballer. That's without even mentioning how the NLCS Game 3 performance essentially made him unemployable in the state of New York. Trachsel caught on with the Orioles at the end of Spring Training in 2007, but his fading arsenal was ill-suited for the AL East and he would post more walks than strikeouts in a season split between Baltimore and the Chicago Cubs. He re-upped with the Orioles in 2008, but after 10 quite poor starts he was DFA’d, ending his major league career.
Why He’s Here
Trachsel logged almost 1,000 innings with the Mets, during which time he posted a basically average 4.09 ERA (103 ERA+). In some ways he is a lot like Craig Swan, who will appear higher on our list, as a pretty good pitcher who stood out on some terrible Mets squads. 9.1 rWAR may not seem like it should be Top 50 worthy, but the Mets do not have a particularly long history or many long-tenured players (Trachsel's thrown the 13th most innings in team history.) Granted, he was hardly a joy to watch, and the last taste he left in Mets fans’ mouths was a bitter one, but there is something to be said for a guy who manages almost 150 wins in the majors without plus stuff and a strong amateur profile. He’s a pitcher who got every inch out of his ceiling and that alone is worthy of commendation. His ranking at #38 on the original list raised the hackles of some commenters, and that probably is a bit too high (oh, WARP3, you were so useless in the end), but #48 seems like a perfectly cromulent ranking for a guy who could eat a lot of innings without making you want to pull your hair out.
N.B. Not to get too much into how the sausage is being made, but this series is going to use a weighted version of rWAR from here on out (with some subjective adjustments here and there). I chose rWAR for consistency’s sake because we don’t have fWAR for pitchers pre-1974. I will, of course, make note of the DIPS peripherals and good or poor FIP seasons when appropriate throughout this series, but for generating the list, I have to stick with Rally’s WAR. But for the record, Fangraphs does not smile quite so much on Trachsel’s resume, giving him credit for only seven wins above replacement as a Met. However, for his career, Trachsel outperformed his FIP by almost a full half-run, and apart from 2006, his BABIP marks as a Met were eerily consistent, even though they were all below .280. I think he has to get at least some of that credit for outperforming his peripherals. He didn’t pitch in front of particularly good defenses (especially in his best seasons with the Mets) and I would wager his reliance on pitches other than his subpar fastball allowed him to generate more weak contact than most.
A pitcher who is in pretty much every way the opposite of Steve Trachsel.
For Further Reading