The U Files # 29: The Confusion of the Pitchers

The Mets have been known in their history more for pitching than hitting. Even while the offense has sunk to offensive lows recently, the pitching staff has remained respectable. Two certain presences on the staff were acquired with different histories and expectations, and with different questions attached. They went in different directions last year, and their expectations may be skewed. Here I will examine the cases of Steve Trachsel and Pedro Astacio.

The Mets signed Steve Trachsel before the 2001 season to replace Bobby Jones as their resident innings eating fifth starter type. In the years since his debut in 1993, he'd established himself as an average starter who can throw a lot of innings. He'd chucked over 200 innings for five years running coming into the 2001 season. His career ERA was about a percentage point higher than the league average. Naturally, he promptly broke his streak of 200 IP years and produced two years quite different than league average.

For his career, Trax has maintained a strikeout rate a little below league average - in line with his under whelming stuff. His control has been pretty good, with a career walk rate of 3.198 walks per nine innings. He'd have had a chance to be slightly above average pitcher, were it not for his famous bugaboo. He gives up a lot of gopher balls, four base jacks, taters, moon shots, and even a home run or two. For his career he's succumbed to the homer once every 7.089 innings.

Coming into Shea, a pitcher's park, one would expect his home run rate to fall and his strikeout rate to rise. The same would happen to most other pitchers, so we'd end up with an average pitcher with a lower ERA than he'd posted in the past. In fact, Trax caused a sensation with his putrid start and a sparkling year and a half to follow.

It was fashionable to call Trax "Trash" at the start of his Mets career on the online forums I frequented. In his first half season, his K rate was a bit below average, and he was victimized by the long ball more than ever. His rates were: 6.72 strikeouts per nine innings and a home run per 5 innings. His ERA was a repugnant 6.72. He was sent down to Norfolk in mid season to try to find a fix to his problems.

When he came back, he was a different pitcher. He was, for the first time ever, a strikeout bandit, and his home run rate fell (albeit, it was still rather high. But, it was lower than his career average). His walk rate dropped too, for good measure. His second half ERA was 2.74. His strikeout rate was the highest of his career, and his walk rate the lowest of his career. In those terms, he had the best season of his career in 2001.

He had what to many looked like a great year in 2002. His ERA was 3.37, and 16 percent better than average. In fact, this is deceiving. An unusually low percentage of the runs he allowed were earned, or an unusually high number unearned. His ERA thus overestimates his run saving efficacy. Trachsel allowed 80 runs, but only 65 were earned. His RA was 4.15. While it is true that his home runs allowed were a career low for him (one per 10.854 IP), it is also true that his strikeout rate fell to 5.44/9 IP and his walk rate was higher than his career average. He is not the pitcher his ERA says he was last year, and he seems due for a fall this year.

The Mets signed Pedro Julio Astacio Pura, Pedro Astacio to the world, before the 2002 season to take the spot of traded pitcher Kevin Appier. Pedro came to the Mets with a better reputation than Trax. He was known as one of the most successful pitchers ever to challenge the hellhole known as Coors Field. He earned the distinction of one of the few pitchers to be congratulated for posting an ERA of 5.

However, this Pedro was a Pedro with a Problem. ("Straight ball, I hit it very much. Curveball, bats are afraid. I ask Jobu to come, take fear from bats. I offer cigars, rum. Jobu will come." Come to think of it, we can use a batter with the power of Pedro Cerrano). Actually, Astacio's problem was an injury. Though, he's probably no good at hitting a breaking ball either.

Astacio's career can be divided into his Dodgers career, and his Rockies career. Those are two very different environments and his numbers look different in each place. The one constant that's held throughout his career is his control. He's posted a walk rate higher than 3 per nine innings in just two full years in an eleven-year career. His strikeout rates were generally in the sixes in his Dodger days (league k rates weren't as high then as they are now: his k rates were closer to average than the same would be now). His ERA tracked his home run rates in his Dodgers career. In 1993 he allowed a homer every 13.3 innings and he was 10 percent above average. In 1996 he allowed a home run every 11.76 innings and he was 12 percent above average. In 1994, 1995, and 1997 he allowed more homers and he was 6-10 percent below average.

In his Rockies days, his K rates shot way up and his home run rates also shot up. In his first full year in pitching hell, he was 18 percent below average. Then, he seemed to have made an adjustment, as he posted back-to-back years 14 and 13 percent above average in 1999 and 2000. In 2001, he was traded to the Astros in August. He soon thereafter had to shut it down due to shoulder pain.

Much was made of the fact an MRI discovered a partial tear of the labrum in his pitching shoulder. However, the MRI taken after he was shut down looked almost identical to one taken before his injury surfaced. Doctors concluded the tear was a long-standing problem unrelated to his pain. He probably had pitched with the fraying for a while. The doctors said that most pitchers develop some fraying in their pitching shoulder as time goes on.

Pedro was ready to start the season, and showed it. In the first half of 2002, he posted an ERA of 3.17. His K rate was just a smidgen below 7 (the league average these days is around 7). However, in the second half, the wheels came off. He posted an ERA of 7.

What went wrong? It wasn't the K rate; that was a bit higher in the second half than in the first. His walk rate was higher, but only by the tiniest bit (3 to 2.928). His home run rate, however, shot through the roof, through the clouds, and straight into orbit. In the first half, he was stingy to the tune of a home run every 9.22 innings. In the second half, he was hit for a bomb every 4.05 innings.

Scouting evidence indicates nothing was seriously wrong with his arm. He was still throwing in the low 90's in the second half. However, his normally swerving and ducking fastball straightened out and his breaking stuff became grammatically correct: it was broken. It's been suggested that he was just tired: He'd pitched many innings in winter ball to prove that his arm was sound and hardly got a break before the season started.

Trax and Astacio are different pitchers who've had much different seasons in 2002. Both were surprises, and this can cloud the issue of what to expect of each. Trachsel we can expect to pitch to a higher ERA, as his 2002 ERA isn't indicative of the season he had last year and is out of line with his career numbers. Astacio we can expect to improve. His k and walk rates were solid throughout the season, his propensity to give up the home run was anomalous, and he's had an offseason to rest.

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