More than a footnote: The underappreciated Steve Trachsel

Steve Trachsel allowed 348 home runs in his 16-year career in Major League Baseball. But the one he allowed to Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals on September 8, 1998 cemented his spot as a footnote in baseball history. The right-hander served Big Mac an 88 MPH fastball and with a quick, short stroke the hulking first baseman swatted it 341 feet, clearing the left field wall at Busch Stadium to set a new MLB record with his 62nd home run of the season.

“[The pitch] wasn’t going to be a strike,” Trachsel said to reporters after the historic blast. “When he hit it, I thought it was either going to be a foul ball or a double.”

Trachsel placed fourth in the 1994 National League Rookie of the Year ballot, was an NL All-Star in 1996 with the Chicago Cubs, and out-dueled Pedro Martinez 1-0 on May 6, 2000, handing the eventual AL Cy Young Award winner only his fifth loss since September 19, 1998. He was much more than the slow-working, sometimes homer-prone, soft-tossing righty that he is remembered for being.

Drafted by the Cubs in the 8th round of the 1991 MLB Draft out of Long Beach State, he was considered a polished righty with good-but-not-great stuff. Chicago was very aggressive in promoting him through their minor-league system, jumping him to High-A Winston-Salem after only two professional starts, and having him spend his first full season with the Double-A Charlotte Knights in 1992.

As a 22-year-old in 1993, Trachsel spent most of the season with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs before a brief September cup of coffee. The strike-shortened 1994 season was his first full year in the majors, and he was solid in 22 starts, going 9-7 with a 3.21 ERA and slightly better than league average strikeout and walk rates. He spent the first seven seasons of his MLB career with the Cubs, going 60-68 with a 99 ERA+, almost exactly league average. He achieved those results in a roller coaster way, posting 2.9 bWAR-or-better three times (’94, ’96, ’98) and 0.9-or-worse three times (’95, ’97, ’99).

However, Trachsel picked a bad time to have what was the worst season of his career in 1999. As a 28-year-old he went 8-18 to lead the NL in losses, paired with a career-worst 5.56 ERA. His record, which weighed more heavily on a pitcher’s perception 20 years ago, wasn’t helped by the fact that he had the third-worst run support in the NL. He hit free agency and eventually caught on with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on a one year, $1 million deal, a huge paycut from the $5.25 million he made with the Cubs in ‘99.

The highlight of his Devil Rays tenure was that day when he locked horns with Pedro Martinez at Fenway Park. Pedro was still on his two-year stretch of dominance where he was undoubtedly the best pitcher in baseball, and both hurlers threw complete games, with Tampa Bay winning 1-0 behind a career-high 11 strikeouts from Trachsel and a Greg Vaughn RBI single.

He accumulated 1.9 bWAR in 23 games with Tampa Bay, but had just a 6-10 record and 4.58 ERA to show for it. That said, a 4.58 ERA in the AL East in 2000 was still good for a 108 ERA+, so it’s not as bad as it might look by comparison to the lower run-scoring environment we are in now. The Devil Rays were spiraling toward another 90-loss season and dealt Trachsel to their division rival Toronto Blue Jays at the July 31deadline along with left-handed reliever (and future Met) Mark Guthrie in exchange for infielder Brent Abernathy.

Toronto had lost four straight games to fall to 55-52, but was in the thick of the AL East Divisional race as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox both failed to create separation at the top. Trachsel’s acquisition was part of a flurry of moves made by Blue Jays General Manager Gord Ash to solidify the team for the home stretch. Trachsel joined a rotation that included veteran southpaw David Wells, and talented youngsters Kelvim Escobar, Chris Carpenter, Esteban Loaiza and Roy Halladay. He went just 2-5 in 11 starts with the Blue Jays, sporting a 5.29 ERA (96 ERA+) as Toronto settled for a third-place finish in the division, 4.5 games behind the 87-74 Yankees. Once again, Trachsel was headed for free agency.

At this point the Mets needed starting pitching help. Mike Hampton had signed with the Colorado Rockies, and Bobby J. Jones (the righty) was on the way out of town as well. The Mets tried and failed to sign free agents Mike Mussina, Denny Neagle and Darren Dreifort. At the Baseball Winter Meetings in Dallas, Texas, Mets GM Steve Phillips convinced Kevin Appier and Trachsel that the New York school system was satisfactory and signed both veterans, the latter to a two-year, $7 million deal.

Murray Chass of The New York Times was among those who questioned the wisdom of signing a career sub-.500 pitcher to a team fresh off the World Series. Phillips defended the signing to the press, citing a lack of run support, “His record over the last couple years is something most people raise an eyebrow to. In our view, there’s information behind the numbers. His record really is a product of the run support he’s received over the last couple seasons.” And it is true that Trachsel had the 7th-worst support in the AL in 2000 and the 6th-worst in baseball from 1996-2000, according to Chass’ article.

“If you make 35 starts and pitch every fifth day, your record is going to reflect your team’s won-lost record,” Trachsel said in his own defense. And it is true that he had pitched for bad teams for essentially his entire career.

During the back-end of his career with the Mets, Steve Trachsel rewarded Phillips’ faith and wrote himself into the team record books. From 2000-2009, no New York Mets pitcher had more wins than Trachsel’s 66, only Tom Glavine made more starts (164 to 160) or threw more innings (1005.1 to 956.1) than he, and only Al Leiter struck out more batters (770 to 580). Trachsel is tied with Jacob deGrom for 10th all-time in franchise history in wins, and more dubiously 10th all-time in franchise history in bases on balls.

A Rocky Start

It’s impossible to talk about the mostly disappointing era of Mets baseball in the 00s without mentioning Trachsel’s contributions to the team. Already an eight-year MLB veteran by the time he joined the Mets the southern Californian began that season much in the same way the team did – terribly.

On May 17, the San Diego Padres roughed him up for seven runs in 2.1 innings at Shea Stadium in an eventual 15-3 route in which Trachsel infamously became the first pitcher in Mets history to allow four home runs in one inning.[1] The defeat dropped Trachsel to 1-6 on the season with an unsightly 8.24 ERA, and the Mets to 15-25. Mets brass made the difficult decision following that start to demote the veteran to Triple-A Norfolk.

“I was pretty shocked. And I’m disappointed. It’s not the route I wanted to take,” Trachsel said at the time of the demotion. “I thought they’d make me skip a start or move to the bullpen. But they have precedent on their side that this had worked.”

The precedent that Trachsel is referring to is that of Jones whom the Mets sent down to Triple-A in 2000 after early-season struggles. Jones returned looking more like his old self and went on to famously throw a one-hitter against the San Francisco Giants in Game 4 of the 2000 NLDS. The Mets hoped Trachsel would find the same “Norfolk Magic” as Jones the year prior.

Trachsel made a loud statement in his second start with Norfolk on May 30, 2001. In Game 1 of a doubleheader against the Ottawa Lynx he threw a seven-inning no-hitter in a 3-0 Norfolk win. After three starts with the Tides, the Mets brought him back up. As Bobby Valentine had reportedly asked, he scrapped his ineffective cutter and worked on not tipping his split-finger fastball. The results – an 0-3 record and a 4.50 ERA – in his first four starts back were not eye-popping, but his peripherals improved and he was keeping the ball in the park.

Beginning with a June 29th start against the Atlanta Braves in which he went 7.0 innings and allowed only one unearned run, Trachsel was arguably the Mets’ best starting pitcher down the stretch of the season. In his final 16 games, he went 10-4 with a 3.07 ERA, while opponents could only muster a .211/.264/.371 slash line against him. His season culminated with a complete game, two-hit shutout on October 3 against Pittsburgh.

He was one of several bright spots down the stretch for that 2001 ball club. The team, coming off of a World Series appearance that was expected to compete for a playoff spot once again, finished just 82-80, in third place looking up at Philadelphia and division champions Atlanta. The Mets went on an inspiring run in August and September, before one of the more soul-crushing losses in franchise history ended the team’s playoff hopes on Saturday, September 29.[2]

Post-2001: The Unlikely Anchor

The Mets made dramatic changes to their roster heading into 2002. Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Roger Cedeno and Jeromy Burnitz were brought in to add punch to the lineup, which had hopes of being a new Murderer’s Row. It was a spectacular flop as the Mets finished 13th in the NL in runs scored, and the trio of Alomar, Cedeno, and Burnitz all posted wRC+ marks of 91 or worse.

The pitching staff was as big of a disaster as the lineup with Pedro Astacio, Jeff D’Amico and Shawn Estes all underperformed expectations, but Trachsel was a huge bright spot. He went 11-11 with a 3.37 ERA, which was the best mark on the club. His 4.14 FIP was only bested by Leiter’s 3.87 mark among starters. His 2.5 bWAR was the second-best on the staff behind Leiter, and fourth-best on the team behind Mike Piazza (4.3) and Edgardo Alfonzo (4.2).

The Mets suffered an embarrassing 12-game losing streak in August and finished last in the NL East, 26.5 games out of first place. That performance cost Bobby Valentine his job as Mets manager, and following another last place finish in 2003, Phillips was out as well.

As in 2002, Trachsel was a bright spot on the 2003 Mets. The team found out that Art Howe’s managerial skills weren’t responsible for the Moneyball-era Oakland Athletics making the playoffs. Piazza missed most of the season with a torn groin muscle, and the two big offseason acquisitions – Glavine and Cliff Floyd – got off to rough starts in Flushing. But the hope of what was to come was strong as the Mets rookies Jae Weong Seo, Aaron Heilman, Ty Wigginton, Jason Phillips and Jose Reyes gave fans something to be excited about.

But the best player on the 2003 Mets was Trachsel, who produced a career-best 4.4 bWAR. He won a career-high 16 games and logged 200.0 innings for the sixth time in his career. The highlight of the season for the now 32-year-old righty was on August 18 when he faced the Colorado Rockies at Shea. In an 8-0 win, Trachsel held the Rockies to just one hit in a complete game shutout, striking out three and not walking a batter.

The lone hit in the game for the Rockies came when Colorado pitcher Chin-Hui Tsao doubled over Timo Perez’ head in the sixth inning – after Trachsel had retired the first 17 batters. Tsao’s hit was historic, as he became the first Taiwanese-born player to record a hit in a MLB game. The only other Rockies baserunner in the game was Greg Norton, who reached on a throwing error in the ninth inning.

“Based on the balls that were hit off me, I’m surprised I only gave up one hit,” Trachsel told reporters after the game. “Jay Payton hit three rockets and went 0-for-3. There’s no way to explain it.”

The 2004 season was similar, with the 6-foot-3 righty logging over 200.0 innings of slightly better than league average baseball. Things got off to a rocky start in 2005, though, as injuries and disagreements with new manager Willie Randolph marred his season.

In spring training, Trachsel was having back pain, and an MRI showed that he had a herniated disk which kept him out of action for the first half of the season. By the time he returned to MLB action in August the Mets were making a push to insert themselves into the playoff conversation, but the team wasn’t quite ready for prime time. They finished seven games behind the Braves in the NL East and six games behind the Houston Astros in the NL Wild Card.

There were questions with Trachsel’s return about whether or not he deserved a spot in the rotation with Seo pitching well. He got a shot to start on August 26 at San Francisco, and held the Giants to only two hits in 8.0 innings in a 1-0 Mets win that moved the team within a game and a half of the wild card. Still, Randolph decided to skip Trachsel’s next turn through the rotation, leading him to tell the press, “I guess I should have thrown a no-hitter.”

The Last Act: Finally in the Playoffs

Trachsel’s last year with the Mets was 2006, and though he stayed healthy, signs of his decline were on full display. His peripherals (4.3 K/9, 4.3 BB/9) were both sub-par, and his 15-8 record masked a 4.97 ERA (88 ERA+). But still, he was 35-years-old and for the first time in his career was on a team that had made the playoffs.

The pitching matchup in Game 3 of the 2006 NLDS between the Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers was Steve Trachsel against Greg Maddux. Two crafty righties who began their careers on the North Side of Chicago, and whose best years were beyond them. Both were destined to live on in baseball history – Maddux in Cooperstown and Trachsel in the footnotes of McGwire’s record – but neither fared well.

Trachsel allowed two runs in 3.1 innings while the Mets touched up Maddux for four runs in 4.0 innings. New York won the game 9-5 to sweep Los Angeles in the best-of-five series and set up an NLCS date with St. Louis. He next pitched in what would be the last game of his Mets career – October 14, 2006, Game 3 of the NLCS at Busch Stadium. The Mets bullpen had just blown a late lead in Game 2 (thanks to Scott Spezio and So Taguchi), and the series was tied at 1-1.

His opponent on the mound that night was Jeff Suppan, who would eventually become the NLCS MVP. Trachsel only faced 12 batters, walking five of them and allowing five runs before being pulled from the game without recording an out in the second inning. Suppan and Josh Kinney combined to shut out the Mets in a 5-0 Cardinals victory. His performance was so poor that Randolph decided to start the enigmatic and unpredictable Oliver Perez in Game 7 instead of Trachsel.

That turned out to be a good decision as Perez was great, even though the Mets ultimately lost the game and the series. It was also a somewhat fitting way to book-end Trachsel’s Mets tenure, which began with him being sent to the minor leagues and ended with him being replaced in the playoff rotation. In between those sour first and last impressions was a lot of good.

He was never a pitcher who was going to be among the very best in the game – you can count junkballing righties who were in modern times on one hand – but he was a dependable, better-than-league-average starter for the Mets for a half-dozen years. A modern-day Craig Swan, he was the best pitcher on some very bad teams. While he wasn’t the most fun guy to watch because of his lack of electric stuff and deliberate pace in between pitches, he was a reliable starter every fifth day. Trachsel was sanity and stability in an era of Mets baseball which featured little of either.

He caught on with the Baltimore Orioles in 2007, and was traded at the August 31 waiver deadline to the Cubs, and saw his peripherals continue to decline. He struck out just 3.2 batters per nine and walked 4.3 per nine. He re-signed with Baltimore as a free agent after the season, but was designated for assignment and released after 10 appearances and an 8.39 ERA in 2008, ending his career.

Since retiring from baseball, Trachsel has returned home to his native California, and entered the wine business. Always a wine enthusiast, he used to bond with Mike Piazza over bottles of wine and would sometimes conduct wine tastings on the Mets team plane. Now, he is an “independent wine and spirits professional” in the Greater San Diego Area, according to his LinkedIn profile. A nice second-act for an underappreciated Met.


[1] In the top of the third inning, San Diego got home runs from Alex Arias, Rickey Henderson, Ryan Klesko and Bubba Trammell.
[2] With the Mets leading Atlanta 5-1 heading into the bottom of the ninth at Turner Field, the Braves rallied for seven runs against Armando Benitez and John Franco to win 8-5. Franco had been pitching for weeks with a sore elbow and allowed a walk-off grand slam to Brian Jordan on a grooved 0-2 pitch. The loss dropped the Mets to four games back of the Braves with six to play.

8 comments for “More than a footnote: The underappreciated Steve Trachsel

  1. April 20, 2020 at 2:34 pm

    Good stuff Joe.

    Trax wasn’t my kind of pitcher but I always thought the flack he got from fans was out of proportion to what he deserved.

    He certainly ended up being a better signing than either Dreifort or Neagle.

    • Joe Vasile
      April 21, 2020 at 2:59 pm

      Haha, yes. I kind of chuckled when I came across those as other targets for the Mets from that offseason. Moose would have been nice, though I’m not sure anything could have saved that 2001 team from being what it was.

  2. David Klein
    April 20, 2020 at 4:36 pm

    He was good 2002-2004 but absolutely dreadful in ‘06 but was carried to fifteen wins by the offense and had atrocious peripherals and predictably blew up in the playoffs.

  3. John From Albany
    April 20, 2020 at 9:17 pm

    His 2006 NLCS disaster is what is forever etched in my mind. Last impressions sometimes last the longest.

    • Joe Vasile
      April 21, 2020 at 3:02 pm

      Yeah, he was over the hill by that point for sure. The back-end of the rotation in 2006 was such a jumbled mess because of injuries and ineffectiveness. Would love to see how Willie Randolph might have managed that series given today’s playoff pitching management style. The bullpen was not great in that whole series, but was a strength for most of that year.

      • John From Albany
        April 21, 2020 at 3:44 pm

        Darren Oliver and Chad Bradford were great that year, wish they had both resigned for 2007. The injuries to Pedro, El Duque, and Duaner Sanchez hurt a lot.

  4. Rob
    April 21, 2020 at 12:12 pm

    When moved from NY to Florida and worked in crystal river where Hampton was from offered 5k but name field after him. And ny has bo good schools. Guy is scumbag.

  5. Eraff
    April 22, 2020 at 8:04 am

    My Initial thought was that the Mets have had two “Pretty good but Universally disliked” pitchers—Trax and John Maine.

    So, I look them up and realize that Trax Has almost 150 wins, 2500 innings, 400 Starts….. He’s a Legit Pitcher and He pretty much defines “Innings Eater” as a 4/5 slot.

    Maine was on the Cusp of being a Very Good Starter…he was despised for…?????… getting hurt?…wanting to Pitch Hurt?…Not wanting to Pitch Hurt???

    Was Maine disliked for being “surly”?…idk… my take was that he was caught in the bad odor of the organization, at a time when Fans needed villains.

    “Fans” kind of suck. The demands for a player to be flawless in performance and attractive in playing style and effervescent of personality— these were good pitchers. They’ll never be remembered on Old Timers Day….. but who does OT Day, anymore?

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