Monday, January 27, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Steve Trachsel

There have been dozens of Mets teams that finished with mediocre or losing records.  Yet despite the poor records sported by these teams, there have always been players on each squad who performed well and became fan favorites.

In the early-to-mid 1960s, Al Jackson performed better than his Mets colleagues and became the first ace on a team that lost in spades.  During the late 1970s to early 1980s, the Mets fell on hard times again, but Lee Mazzilli thrived on the diamond and off it.  And during a six-year, sub-.500 stretch in the 1990s, Todd Hundley caught his share of pitchers, then caught the eye of Mets fans as the team's best player.

The Mets had a fourth period of non-competitiveness in the early-to-mid 2000s, one that produced three consecutive losing seasons that could easily have ballooned to five had the team not finished strongly in 2001 and 2005.  Those teams had their share of popular players, such as Mike Piazza, Al Leiter and two budding talents in Jose Reyes and David Wright.  But one of the better players on the Mets during that frustrating five-year period was never going to win any popularity contests.  In fact, a sizable contingent of Mets fans would rather forget he was ever on the team.  But well-liked or not, there's no question that he was one of the most successful players on a team that did not enjoy much success.

Like him or not, Steve Trachsel was a big winner for the Mets when the team wasn't doing much winning.

Stephen Christopher Trachsel was never supposed to be a big winner for the Mets.  In fact, when the Mets signed him to a two-year, $7 million contract in December 2000, he was coming off a two-year stretch in which he was a combined 16-33 for the Chicago Cubs, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Toronto Blue Jays.  Trachsel's 33 losses in 1999 and 2000 were the most of any pitcher in baseball, three more than Brad Radke lost for the Twins.  But Trachsel was also coming off his fifth consecutive season of 200 or more innings, making him quite valuable to the Mets, who were unable to retain the services of 15-game winner and NLCS MVP Mike Hampton and were not interested in bringing back Bobby Jones.

Trachsel, along with fellow free agent signee Kevin Appier, was part of general manager Steve Phillips' plan to incorporate more right-handed pitchers in the starting rotation because, as he put it, "the Braves are much better against left-handed pitching".  Appier, who won 12 or more games eight times from 1990 to 2000 (one of only nine pitchers to do so), managed just 11 victories for the Mets in 2001, his only year in Flushing.  Trachsel also won 11 games in his first season with the Mets, but his road was far bumpier than the one taken by Appier.

On April 7, 2001, Trachsel made his debut for the Mets.  His effort - or lack of one - was memorable for all the wrong reasons.  Trachsel allowed ten earned runs in a 10-0 loss to the Montreal Expos, becoming just the third pitcher (and second starting pitcher) in Mets history to allow ten or more earned runs in a single game.

The debacle in his first start was just the beginning of a six-week nightmare for Trachsel, who slogged his way to a 1-6 record and an 8.24 ERA in his first eight starts.  That, and the endless chorus of boos from unforgiving Mets fans, led to Trachsel's demotion to the minor leagues after becoming the first pitcher in team history to allow four home runs in one inning on May 17.  It was an embarrassing and unexpected development for the right-hander, but one that produced a stunning resurgence after he was called back up to the Mets in June.

Trachsel spent three weeks in the minors at AAA-Norfolk trying to correct his flaws.  It took him only two starts to regain his confidence, as Trachsel fired a no-hitter for the Tides in the first game of a doubleheader on May 30.  A week later, he was back in the majors.  Trachsel pitched slightly better upon his return to the Mets, but a lack of run support prevented him from winning games.  Trachsel lost three of his first four appearances following his call-up.  In the game he didn't lose, he earned a no-decision, despite allowing just one run against the Expos.

With his record sitting at 1-9 and the Mets losing patience in him, Trachsel turned in his most important performance of the season on June 29.  The right-hander pitched seven strong innings in Atlanta, holding the Braves to one unearned run and five hits.  It would be the first of nine victories for Trachsel over the Braves over the next four seasons, as his general manager expected him to do when he signed him the previous winter.  It would also be the first of many wins Trachsel would earn over the last three months of the 2001 season.

The Mets limped their way to the All-Star Break in fourth place, 13 games behind the first place Braves.  With a 38-51 record, New York looked nothing like the team that won the National League pennant just nine months earlier.  Steve Trachsel was a huge reason for the team's first-half failures, going 2-10 with a 6.72 ERA.  But once the Mets returned from their mid-season hiatus, Trachsel became one of the best pitchers in the league.

From July 16 to September 22, Trachsel made a dozen starts for the Mets, going 8-2 with a 2.72 ERA.  His eighth win in that stretch, a 7-3 decision over the Braves, pulled the Mets to within 3½ games of first place Atlanta.  Unfortunately, it would be the closest the Mets would get to the Braves in 2001, as Atlanta held on to win the division title.

After a horrid start to his Mets career - a start that included a three-week stint in the minors - Trachsel rebounded to finish the year with a 4.46 ERA.  His 11 wins tied Al Leiter and Kevin Appier for the team lead.  Trachsel's second half numbers (9-3, 2.74 ERA, 0.95 WHIP) were nothing short of spectacular.  He made 14 starts after the All-Star Break and pitched at least seven innings in 11 of them, including a complete-game two-hit shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in his final start of the season.

Trachsel had regained his confidence after his poor start in 2001 and hoped to carry his second-half success over to the 2002 season.  He would, but the same could not be said for the rest of the team, as the new-look Mets, with Roberto Alomar, Mo Vaughn and Jeromy Burnitz, fizzled at the plate and in the standings.

The Mets finished the 2002 campaign in the NL East cellar with a 75-86 record, their first sub-.500 season since 1996.  It was also the first time they had finished in last place since 1993.  Once again, Trachsel won 11 games for the Mets.  But Trachsel had a more complete season for the Mets in his sophomore year with the team, lowering his ERA to a team-leading 3.37.  He also carried a perfect game into the seventh inning in a matchup against the Minnesota Twins on June 20.  A year later, Trachsel would flirt with no-hit history on more than one occasion.

Just like their 2002 counterparts, the 2003 Mets finished in last place under new manager Art Howe.  With a 66-95 record, the '03 squad remains the only Mets team in the last 20 years to lose at least 95 games.  But Steve Trachsel, who was re-signed by the Mets prior to the 2003 season, barely noticed he was pitching for a last place team.  In fact, he had his best year as a Met during their worst season in the last two decades.  Trachsel finished the year with a 16-10 record and a 3.78 ERA, leading the team in wins, starts, innings pitched, complete games and shutouts.  And those two complete-game shutouts made team history.

On June 15, Trachsel pitched the 24th one-hitter in franchise history, allowing just a sixth-inning double to the Angels' David Eckstein.  Trachsel's gem would be the first of three consecutive one-hitters the Mets would participate in, as New York was held to one hit by the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis on June 16 just one day before three Mets pitchers combined to one-hit Florida.  Two months later, Trachsel was at it again.  This time, it was Rockies pitcher Chin-hui Tsao who provided the only hit against him, as his double in the sixth inning ended Trachsel's bid to become the first Met to throw a no-hitter.  Although he failed to pitch the team's first no-no, Trachsel did become the first pitcher in team history to toss two complete-game one-hitters in the same season.  (David Cone participated in two one-hitters in 1991, but he needed relief help in the first game - a game he ended up losing.)

Trachsel's 2004 season wasn't quite as good as his 2003 campaign, but he still managed to win a dozen games for a Mets team that finished 20 games under .500.  And yes, those 12 victories once again led the team.  It was the third time in four years with the Mets that Trachsel led or tied for the team lead in wins.  Trachsel defeated the Braves three times in 2004, which was quite an accomplishment considering the Mets only won seven of 19 games against their division rivals.

From 2001 to 2004, the Mets won 294 games and lost 352.  Yet somehow, Steve Trachsel - the pitcher who led the majors in losses in the two seasons prior to becoming a Met - managed to go 50-47 over those four seasons.  No pitcher on the Mets won as many games as Trachsel did from 2001 to 2004.  In fact, Trachsel and Al Leiter were the only pitchers on the team to record more than 20 wins during those four otherwise forgetful years. 

Injuries kept Trachsel off the field for most of the 2005 season, limiting him to just one win in his fifth year with the Mets.  Trachsel didn't pitch for manager Willie Randolph until August 26, when he tossed eight scoreless innings against the San Francisco Giants.  In that game, a 1-0 victory at SBC Park, Trachsel held the Giants hitless until Randy Winn laced a two-out single in the sixth inning.  Trachsel continued to pitch well during the season's final month, posting a 2.78 ERA going into his final start of the season.  But a shellacking at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies on September 28 inflated his ERA to a rather pedestrian 4.14.

After spending much of his career with the Mets getting poor run support (he recorded a solid 3.91 ERA in his first five years as a Met, yet only managed to win 50% of his decisions), Trachsel finally got the bats he coveted in the lineup in 2006.  With Jose Reyes and Paul Lo Duca setting the table for Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and David Wright, the Mets became an offensive juggernaut, with Trachsel receiving unprecedented support when he was on the mound.  Trachsel allowed four earned runs or more ten times in 2006.  The Mets won six of those starts.  By late August, Trachsel had a 14-5 record, which put him among the league leaders in winning percentage.  But he had an ERA approaching 5.00, which was his highest since becoming a Met in 2001.  Trachsel's ERA did go above 5.00 in early September, but went below the mark on September 18, when he pitched 6 shutout innings against the Florida Marlins to clinch the Mets' first division title in 18 years.  In doing so, Trachsel became the fifth pitcher to win a division-clinching game for the Mets, joining Gary Gentry, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling.

After the game, Trachsel reflected on his career with the Mets.  As the longest-tenured player on the team, he had seen his share of highs and lows.  When he became a Met, he expected to be part of a perennial playoff powerhouse.  After all, the Mets had just appeared in two consecutive postseasons and were coming off a World Series appearance in 2000.  Instead, he saw the team get completely rebuilt, before finally seeing the payoff in 2006.  Trachsel went on to say:

"[Making the playoffs] was the whole point of me coming over here.  It took a little longer than I hoped, but now that we're here, we've got to make the best of it and get this thing finished."


At the end of the 2006 regular season, Trachsel was the owner of a 15-8 record and a 4.97 ERA.  But the division clincher ended up being his last victory in a Mets uniform, as Trachsel's first postseason experience as a Met did not end well for him or the team.  Although Trachsel started the NLDS-clinching game on October 7, 2006, he had already been sent to the showers by the time the Mets rallied to take the lead from the Dodgers in the sixth inning.  Trachsel allowed just two runs in 3⅓ innings, but he was constantly pitching under pressure, as eight of the 17 batters he faced reached base.  As ineffective as he was against Los Angeles in the NLDS, he was even worse against the Cardinals in the NLCS.

In his one LCS start (Game 3), Trachsel faced 12 batters.  Ten of those batters reached base, including opposing pitcher Jeff Suppan, who homered off Trachsel to lead off the second inning.  The Mets recovered from that loss to force a seventh game, but chose not to start Trachsel on normal rest.  Rather, they sent Oliver Perez to the mound on three days rest with the Mets' season riding on his left arm.  Perez pitched well, but the Mets lost the deciding game when Yadier Molina hit a home run off Aaron Heilman to break a ninth-inning tie.  Steve Trachsel, who could have entered the game had it gone into extra innings, could only watch from the bench as his season - and his Mets career - had come to an unexpected end.

Steve Trachsel was never beloved as a Met.  After all, when fans came to see the team on a day he was scheduled to pitch, they knew they were in for a long game, especially if Trachsel got into trouble on the mound.  Trachsel was very deliberate to the plate when runners were on base, causing many a fan to yell "throw the ball" whenever Trachsel wasn't.  Trachsel also didn't have a promising debut with the Mets, nor did he fare well at the end of his career when the games mattered the most.  In many ways, his Mets career was similar to Carlos Beltran - another player who started off slowly, then had a number of successful seasons, but will always be remembered (unfairly) for not coming through against the Cardinals when his team needed him the most.

Mets fans remember Trachsel's inauspicious debut, the four homers in one inning, the demotion to the minors and the postseason failures.  But they might have a tough time remembering his numerous flirtations with no-hitters, including his two complete-game one-hitters in 2003.  They also would be hard-pressed to remember that Trachsel won 15 or more games twice with the Mets, making him one of only seven pitchers in team history with multiple 15-win seasons.  To put that into perspective, David Cone, Frank Viola and R.A. Dickey were all 20-game winners for the Mets.  Neither pitcher won as many as 15 games in any other season with the team.  And finally, unless you're a Mets savant, you'd have a tough time believing that Steve Trachsel's 66 wins as a Met put him in the team's all-time top ten victory leaders.  But there he is, sitting at No. 10, ahead of several formidable pitchers in team history like Rick Reed, Craig Swan, Bob Ojeda, Johan Santana and ... ahem ... Tom Glavine.

Steve Trachsel was a solid pitcher for six years as a Met.  But most of those seasons were spent with bad or mediocre teams, making it easy to overlook his success.  It also didn't help that Trachsel was often overshadowed by the loquacious Al Leiter at the beginning of his Mets career and by future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine at the end of his tenure with the team.  Trachsel was never going to be crowned Mr. Popular, nor was he ever going be confused for the Flash, especially with runners on base.  But man, was he a good pitcher!  It's too bad no one seemed to notice.

Smile, Steve!  You had a heck of a Mets career.  Seriously, you did.

Note:  The Best On The Worst is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting the greatest Mets players who just happened to play on some not-so-great Mets teams.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 6, 2014: Todd Hundley 
January 13, 2014: Al Jackson
January 20, 2014: Lee Mazzilli

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