The U Files # 73: Keeping In the Trach

The Mets have a proud history of homegrown pitching. Though in recent years, the Mets have not had a core of successful farmhands in the rotation, they do have the talent in the pipeline. In these years without the young help the Mets have attempted to succeed with free agent pitchers. The Mets have just made a move that contradicts their stated goal of rebuilding, retaining veteran Steve Trachsel for two more years.

The Mets had signed Trachsel in December of 2000. His pedigree featured five consecutive years of 200 innings, but little of note aside from the workload. His performance fluctuated naturally, centering around essentially average run prevention. In his Mets career, he has appeared to pitch more effectively, but appearances can be deceiving.

Even if Trachsel continues to pitch as he "has", he is not a cog to build around. Currently Trachsel is slotted behind 38-year-old southpaws Tom Glavine and Al Leiter. The total production of the three is not likely to be as good as average, and they are now certain to stay together for at least one more year. Leiter's (previously extended) contract as well as the contract Glavine signed as a free agent before the 2003 season run through 2005. Both Leiter and Glavine have options for 2006. Though it certainly would not be in the best interests of the organization to pick up the options, there is the possibility that one or both could be retained.

The current Mets are a good distance from competing, and they are not likely to do so in any of the years the trio of mediocre veteran pitchers throw in the service of the Mets. However, the team does have the chance to build a contender if the current crop of young pitchers in the system produces enough major league material. Unfortunately, the Mets have acted to hold back the potential for continuation of the Mets legacy.

The Mets are already feeling the squeeze. Jae Seo pitched surprisingly well in his rookie season in 2003, and needs a chance to carry on from that point. Hard throwing Tyler Yates has won a spot in the 2004 rotation. As long as Scott Erickson, another old pitcher with even dicier odds than the "leaders" in this Mets rotation is disabled, Seo and Yates will fill the bottom of the rotation. Meanwhile, a prospect rated ahead of both Yates and Seo last year, Aaron Heilman, will work in AAA with little chance of earning a promotion except in case of exceptional circumstances. He was deemed major league ready by the middle of the 2003 season, and has little more to gain by facing AAA hitters once his control is settled.

Things will only get worse as the cream of the young crop rise through the system. By 2006 at the latest, the Mets will have two pitchers ready to complete their development at the highest level.

As for Trachsel himself, it is likely that his run prevention will return to typical Trachsellian levels. Since his return from his famed demotion to AAA in 2001, Trachsel has not maintained a higher level of performance than what his career numbers foretold. For the remainder of 2001, he was unquestionably a better pitcher. His strikeout rate in that period was, in a departure from typical Trachsel, not an affront to his ego and he was able to keep the ball in the park. Since the end of that year, though, Trachsel's good ERA may not have been a reflection of his performance. In both years his strikeout rate was, to put it poetically, unmanly. In 2003, Trachsel continued in his unfortunately altruistic ways; he allowed batters to pad their home run totals. The prior year, though he kept the ball in play, he compensated by allowing a higher rate of bases on balls. In both years, the result was the same: below average overall performance in the three areas a pitcher unquestionably can control.

In 2002 Trachsel allowed fewer hits than one could have expected. As he continued to allow many balls in play, he was the benefit of superior out conversion on balls in play. Though this is an area of great controversy, all of the evidence collected to date suggests that pitchers do not have a high degree of control over this. Most who do consistently deviate from the norm do so to a relatively small degree (and Trachsel has not been in that category for his career).

In 2003, Trachsel's hit rate returned to a more normal level for a finesse pitcher. He simply allowed fewer runs than a pitcher who allows as many hits as innings, of which 26 were long balls, should allow. This, too, is a talent few pitchers consistently display, and to a small degree. It is more likely Trachsel's performance was a statistical anomaly than that he has suddenly, at the age of 33, metamorphosed into a new pitcher.

As to his 16 wins on a 66 win team; Trachsel was unquestionably the recipient of more great luck here. Some have suggested Trachsel could have won 20 games with " decent run support", and these some are misinformed. In fact, Trachsel did have the help of very generous run support, and needed all of it to achieve what would impress a fool. The Mets were clearly not a good offensive team on the whole last year, but one should not assume that as a result, every Met to throw a ball in anger was shortchanged. It is not a rule that runs are distributed homogenously in support of a team's throwers, in fact the true laws of statistics demand the opposite. Fact: The Mets scored more than 5 runs per game in Steve Trachsel starts in 2003.

The retaining of Steve Trachsel is not a move that will benefit the Mets in baseball terms, and even more alarmingly, the move was not made solely on the basis of baseball. It was not the Mets' baseball department that provided the impetus for this error. It was Jeff Wilpon, son of principal owner Fred Wilson. Wilpon "suggested" to the general manager that Trachsel be kept. Further, I do not find it tear jerking that Wilpon appreciates Trachsel's taste in fine wines.

There is something fishy in Den, err, Metsmark.

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