Steve Trachsel has been the most effective starter in the Baltimore Orioles' starting rotation. Although he is only 4-3, eight of his eleven starts have been quality starts and one only missed because he was pulled with two outs in the fifth inning. In short, he has done a tremendous job of keeping the Orioles in the game when he takes the mound.
So much for this writer's prediction that he would make us yearn for the days of Bruce Chen.
With a third of the season in the books, however, many are still wondering if he can keep this up. Let's break down the 15-year veteran's season a bit further for clues.
Steve Trachsel's 2007 season:
Although it is nothing new for the crafty veteran, Trachsel's strikeout and walk rates both stand out as below average. Even in his complete game in his last start, he walked three batters without registering a single strikeout. Generally, this is an indicator that his current pace is not sustainable.
For example, consider that of the 14,614 pitcher seasons since 1980; only five pitchers have logged even 80 innings with as poor a K/BB ratio as Steve Trachsel. In fact, the leader for innings pitched in that time frame and with that poor of a K/BB ratio is Kirk Rueter's 2005 season with 107.1; a season in which he posted a 5.95 ERA in the non-DH league in one of baseball's friendliest pitching environments.
The other names on this list don't exactly inspire much confidence either. Doug Sisk shows up on this list twice. Pitching solely in relief, he posted a 2.24 ERA in 1983 and a 3.72 ERA in 1988. Unfortunately, Steve Trachsel can not match Sisk's dominating groundball tendencies. Steve Sparks managed paltry 6.60 ERA in 1996, but he was a knuckleballer. Again, it's not exactly a fair comparison. The most optimistic comparable on this list is Brian Fisher's 1992, when he was able to post a reasonable 4.53 ERA as a swingman for the Seattle Mariners. This was to be Fisher's final hurrah, however; he was forced out of baseball after his age 30 season.
So how is Steve Trachsel being successful? Has he figured out something that has eluded pitchers over the past 27 years? Or has he just been lucky? Let's dig even deeper and find out.
Steve Trachsel's batted ball data:
There are two areas that stand out as being unsustainable. The first is Trachsel's ability to keep flyballs from clearing the fence. The league average in this category normally sits around 12%, while Trachsel is cutting that number in half. There is a very low year-to-year correlation amongst pitchers in HR/F. Pitchers doing very well and very poor in this category tend to regress to the mean. Even in this specific case, it's unlikely that the 36 year old has learned something he didn't know in his previous three seasons when he allowed 12.0%, 15.2%, and 11.9% of flyballs to go for homeruns. In English, this means that he is much more likely to post a figure around the league average from here on out than the figure he is currently posting.
In addition, Steve Trachsel currently has the second lowest batting average allowed on balls in play (BA/BIP) in all of baseball amongst pitchers with as many innings as him. As numerous studies have shown, the difference among major league pitchers in ability to prevent balls in play from falling for hits is so small as to be nearly statistically insignificant. In fact, one method of calculating expected BA/BIP (LD%+.12) would indicate that Trachsel is exceeding his expected figure by nearly 80 points.
To put this in perspective, he has allowed about 18 less hits in his 66.1 innings pitched than what would be expected. A figure that dramatic is clearly not sustainable; not when the pitcher in question has allowed a .282 and .299 BA/BIP in his previous two seasons.
At this point, I can imagine waking up tomorrow with my inbox full of complaints from some newfound Steve Trachsel fans, so let's explore one more possibility as to how he is managing to be so successful.
Tom Glavine is a pitcher who is famous for outperforming his peripheral numbers. Although this effect is exaggerated in most cases, he really does have a tendency to put a little bit extra on his pitches when it matters most.
So, is this how the crafty Steve Trachsel is doing the same?
From 2004-2006, batters hit .277/.344/.464 against Trachsel with nobody on base. When runners were on base, he was able to cut that down to .267/.342/.421. And when runners were in scoring position, Trachsel really brought it, holding opposing hitters to a paltry .224/.326/.332 batting line. Clearly, this guy's reputation for having guile is well deserved.
In 2007, batters are hitting .229/.315/.333 against Trachsel with nobody on base. With runners on, they are hitting .227/.319/.340. And with runners in scoring position, Trachsel is holding opposing hitters to a .235/.317/.333 batting line. In this instance, it doesn't look like Steve Trachsel is picking up the pace when it counts. Thinking about it further, though, and with his 2004-2006 data in mind, his opponent's batting line with runners in scoring position appears to be the only one that is sustainable. He has demonstrated a clear ability to perform better in a game's most critical moments in the past and I have no reason to believe that ability isn't real. All those extra hits that have disappeared from his pitching line look like they would normally fall without runners on base, or at least without runners in scoring position.
In summation, Steve Trachsel is not the ace he looks like at this point in the season. His peripheral statistics look like they belong to a guy posting a 5.00+ ERA. When you factor in the added home runs that are sure to come, his peripherals look like they belong to a guy with an ERA around 6.00. The lone point in his favor is that Trachsel has a demonstrated ability to pitch better in critical points of the game; a fact that has not yet been apparent in his 2007 numbers.
Finally, the big question- What can we expect from Steve Trachsel from here on out. Unfortunately, unless he somehow improves his peripherals, it is likely that he will be more like the #5 starter that the Orioles originally envisioned when they signed him than the staff ace he has looked like so far. His fast start makes it unlikely that his final ERA will sit above 5.00, but it is likely that his ERA from here on out will.
Even with that said, I don't think anybody will be yearning for the days of Bruce Chen.
Michael Hollman is the Senior Writer for Inside The Warehouse and can be reached via email at Publisher@InsideTheWarehouse.com