When the Mariners signed Russell Branyan on Dec. 2, the comparison made most often — indeed, made at the time by Jack Zduriencik — was to Jack Cust.
Both had bounced around several organizations, waiting to get their big chance (though Branyan had had much more of a major-league career than Cust when he was rescued by Oakland in 2007; Branyan, on the other hand, was five years older — three weeks away from turning 33 — when the Mariners signed him than Cust was when Oakland purchased him from the Padres on May 3, 2007).
Both hit left-handed, both had the rap of striking out way too much, yet both had discerning eyes at the plate (Cust to the extent that Billy Beane had long lusted after him), both were believed to be strict platoon players, and both were known to crush mistake fastballs.
Cust, who happens to be in town right now with the A’s, blossomed just as Beane thought he would when given a chance to play every day. In 2007, he put up a very nice .912 OPS (and 147 OPS plus), hitting .256 with a .408 on-base percentage and .504 slugging percentage. He hit 26 homers, drove in 82 runs, walked 105 times in 395 at-bats, and struck out 164 times. The A’s were delighted with the entire package, and you had to wonder how the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Orioles and Padres all gave up on him.
Last year was another fine year for Cust, though not quite as good. His average dropped to .231, his OPS to .851 (.375 on-base, .476 slugging), his OPS plus to 132. He did hit 33 homers (with 77 RBI), but struck out 197 times while walking 111. In sum, an asset to the balllcub.
This year, Branyan has not just been another Jack Cust — he’s been better than Cust. So far, anyway. Branyan is slipping fast, while Cust, who got off to a lousy start, has been surging.
Here are their season lines:
112 games, 491 plate appearances, 419 at-bats, 61 runs, 105 hits, 21 doubles, 1 triple, 30 home runs, 75 runs batted in, 2 stolen bases, 56 walks, 144 strikeouts, .251 average, .347 on-base percentage, .520 slugging percentage, .867 OPS, 127 OPS plus.
117 games, 482 plate appearances, 404 at-bats, 68 runs, 98 hits, 13 doubles, 0 triples, 19 home runs, 56 runs batted in, 4 stolen bases, 74 walks, 137 strikeouts, .243 average, .359 on-base percentage, .416 slugging percentage, .775 OPS, 109 OPS plus.
Branyan’s OPS is nearly 100 points higher than Cust — yet it’s nearly 100 points below what it was at the All-Star break (.956), when he was a legitimate All-Star candidate. Whether he’s tired, or pressing, or pitchers have figured him out, or it’s a pure case of regression to the mean, Branyan has not been the same player in the second half (or actually since a few weeks before the break). Since the break, in 33 games, he’s hitting .188 with eight homers, 26 RBI, a .267 on-base percentage, .406 slugging percentage and .673 OPS. He’s struck out 49 times in 133 at-bats and walked just 11 times. His platoon split is starting to emerge as well — Branyan’s OPS is more than 100 points higher against righties (.913) than lefties (.787).
Cust in 35 games since the break is hitting .271 with a .448 on-base percentage and .430 slugging percentage for a .877 OPS. But he hasn’t had as much power production as Branyan — five homers and 12 RBI.
At the rate Cust and Branyan are going, they could meet in the middle by the end of the season. The Mariners have indeed unearthed another Jack Cust — one who doesn’t get on base as often but hits for more power. In the big picture, it’s been a good thing.