Sunday, May 3, 2020

Stealing Wins

When I was writing my post yesterday about pitchers who can compete without a blazing fastball in their arsenal, a guy who immediately came to my mind was Steve Trachsel. He managed to last 16 years in the major leagues without striking out a ton of guys, averaging a rather pedestrian 5.7 K/9 over his career.

Trachsel had some interesting career highlights. In 1998, while with his first MLB team, the Cubs, Steve gave up Mark McGwire's record-breaking 62nd Home Run. (Ah, those naïve days) It was one of an astounding 348 home runs Steve would allow. I often wondered if Trachsel's late-career back problems were caused by constantly looking back over his shoulder, watching balls fly out of the park.

After he signed as a free agent with the Mets, he pitched so poorly that he was actually sent down to the minors, despite being an 8-year major league veteran. Perhaps it was the inning he allowed 4 home runs to the Padres of all teams. To his credit, Trachsel came back and pitched well the remainder of that 2001 season and was an above-average starter for the Mets the next 3 seasons with ERA+ stats of 119, 111, and 107.

It's from that 2002-2004 period that I have my best memories of Trachsel. He had an excellent curveball. He was a tough pitcher to beat when he was getting that over and spotting his fastball. Watching Trachsel at his best was a great display of the art of pitching. He kept opposing batters off balance by mixing his pitches well and out-thinking them.

Of course, enjoying that artistry came at quite a cost. Trachsel may have been the most deliberate pitcher I've ever seen. You know that feeling that hits you at times when you think life is going by you fast? A Trachsel start was the perfect antidote for that. Particularly when he was in trouble with men on base, time would almost stop in between pitches.

Trachsel missed most of 2005, eventually needing back surgery, but he came back to make 30 starts for the 2006 Mets. That would be a nice story if he pitched well. Still, the fact that he made 30 regular-season starts and 2 playoff starts was more attributable to Manager Willie Randolph's stubbornness to stick with a "proven veteran" than actual merit.

Trachsel's numbers in 2006 were remarkably bad. His 30 starts only amounted to 164.2 IP, a quintessential 5-inning starter. He had an ERA of 4.97 despite pitching half his games in Big Shea. He pitched out of the stretch quite a bit, allowing 10.1 H/9 and 4.3 W/9. Yet despite all of that, he won 15 games that season.

I remember at the time that Ron Darling insisted that the 15 wins meant something. Winning 15 times meant that Trachsel "knew how to win." Stat guys disagreed, of course, and what I saw with my eyes that season made me side with the "damn lucky" side.

If you check out Trachsel's game logs from 2006, it's almost incredible some of the games he either won or escaped with a no-decision:

  • May 23 [ND] against the Phillies, Trachsel gave up a couple of runs in the first but then held Philadelphia in check, allowing the Mets to tie it 2-2 in the 4th. Trachsel managed to get the first 2 outs in the fifth, then imploded to allow 4 runs and put the Mets in a 6-2 hole. The Mets came back to tie the game 8-8 in regulation and won it in the 16th on a Beltran home run.
  • June 9 [W] Spotted a 7-2 lead against the Diamondbacks, Trachsel allowed 5 R (3 ER) on 8 hits and 6 walks in 5 1/3 IP. Yes, that 14 baserunners while collecting 16 outs. He also allowed 2 HR. The Mets held on for a 10-6 win.
  • June 25 [W] Spotted leads of 1-0, 4-1, and 6-3 against the Blue Jays, Trachsel's 5 IP featured 6 hits, 3 walks, and 2 HR. He left with the Mets up 6-4, and the bullpen made it hold up.
  • July 19 [ND] The Mets knocked Reds starting pitcher Aaron Harang out in the second, handing Trachsel a 4-0 lead. Coming after 3 consecutive solid efforts from Trachsel, this seemed a good chance for him to build some personal momentum. He only managed to get 7 outs before being removed from the game allowing 6 hits and 4 walks. The bullpen saved him the loss as he escaped with only 3 ER allowed, but the Mets went on to lose this one.
  • August 2 [W] The Mets jumped out to a 6-0 lead vs. the Marlins, but Trachsel couldn't make it out of the 6th. He allowed 7 hits, only 1 walk but 2 more home runs. The Mets needed to burn 5 relievers to hold on for the win.
  • August 23 [W] The Mets scored 4 in the 1st against St. Louis and jumped out to leads of 4-0, 7-2, and 10-2. It should have been a laugher. Trachsel only made it through 5, allowing 6 ER on 6 H, 3 BB, and 3 HR. The Mets needed 5 relievers, including closer Billy Wagner, to hold on for a 10-8 nail-biter win.
Trachsel pitched poorly in September, but the one start he pitched well was the division clincher against the Marlins on September 18. I was hoping Willie Randolph would consider other options for the playoffs. But with Pedro already out and then Orlando Hernandez going down with a calf injury before the playoffs started, the "proven veteran" got a couple of playoff starts.

He pitched Game 3 against the Dodgers with a chance to clinch but didn't make it out of the 4th. The Mets, of course, held on to win that one, anyway.

They weren't as fortunate in the NLDS, where Trachsel's failure to get an out in the second led to a dismal loss that would put the Mets behind 2-1 in the series they would eventually lose in 7. Trachsel would not pitch another inning for the Mets after that stinker.

Trachsel's 2006 season was proof of the concept "better to be lucky than good" when it comes to starting pitcher wins. If I could wave a magic wand, Trachsel's Met career would have ended after the 2003 season. He would be remembered as a solid starting pitcher who epitomized winning with his head rather than relying on an electric arm. As slow as he was, he was fun to watch when he was on top of his game. Despite how it ended, I'll always have fond thoughts of the man.

Stay well, everyone. I'll be back tomorrow.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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