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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

December 8, 2010 at 12:24 PM

Getting ready for a wild gust of Cust

cust.jpg

(Jack Cust homers in a 2007 game against Detroit. Photo by Associated Press)

Jack Cust, soon to be officially announced as the newest Mariners’ designated hitter, has had a fascinating career.

For years, he was a darling of the sabermetric crowd, renowned for his high on-base percentage but nevertheless seemed to have fallen into a career as a minor-league journeyman. The former No. 1 pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1997, Cust went from Arizona to Colorado to Baltimore without much of a major-league chance. The raps on him were twofold: He couldn’t play defense, and he struck out too much.

It was not surprising that Cust’s first big chance to play came with the Oakland A’s. If ever there was a Billy Beane kind of player, it was Cust. I remember when Beane tried and tried and tried to acquire Erubiel Durazo, another guy he envisioned as a hidden gem. When Beane finally succeeded, at the winter meetings in 2002, he said of his singled-minded pursuit of Durazo, “I feel like Inspector Javert in Les Miserables.”

Cust was that kind of guy. Beane actually acquired him twice. The first time, in 2005, Cust had carpal tunnel issues in both hands, and spent the whole season in Class AAA Sacramento before signing with San Diego as a minor-league free agent in 2006. But even that year in the A’s organization, Cust had a .402 on-base percentage. (In 12 minor-league seasons, in which he played 1,147 games –including 33 last year back at Sacramento, much to his displeasure — Cust’s on-base percentage was .429).

In 2007, Cust landed back in Oakland, to stay. Kevin Towers, then San Diego’s GM, more or less gave Cust to Beane in May (the official term was “cash considerations”) after Mike Piazza went down with an injury. Cust had been stymied at Class AAA Portland with the Padres. He promptly hit six homers in his first seven games with the A’s and became something of a legend in the Bay Area. John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle dubbed him “Jack the Roper.”

On May 14 of 2007, in his seventh game with the A’s, Cust hit of walk-off homer to beat the Indians — his fourth consecutive game with a homer — prompting teammate Milton Bradley (life is strange, isn’t it?) to tell Shea, in what the reporter described as a “jovial” manner, “Billy Beane’s got to be a genius — picking him up and signing me.”

Just as an aside, in that game, Bradley hit a two-run homer in the ninth, right before Cust’s, to tie the game. Shea writes in the Chronicle:

“Bradley sprinted the final leg around the bases, crossed the plate and stared into the Indians’ dugout, where Eric Wedge, his old manager with whom he feuded, watched in dismay. Bradley admitted later he was trying tohit a homer in that situation.

“I’d be lying to say I didn’t have extra incentive playing against those guys,” Bradley said. “I don’t think they gave up on me. I think they got tired of me, and I got tired of them. It worked out for both of us.”

Yeah, life is sure strange.

That was May 13, remember. On June 21 of 2007, barely a month later, the A’s designated Bradley for assignment (they wound up trading him to the Padres), largely because of a logjam in the outfield, partially caused by the emergence of Cust. As Geoff suggested, Cust’s arrival will again have an impact on Bradley in Seattle.

Despite not arriving in the majors until May of 2007, Cust still led the American League in strikeouts with 164. Ah, but he also finished second in the AL in walks (105) and seventh in on-base percentage (.408). That’s the kind of player the Mariners are getting — one who will whiff an ungodly amount of times, but who will also, in the perfect world, drew a huge amount of walks, and every once in a while crank one out of the ballpark. It’s basically the Russ Branyan formula, with a higher on-base percentage and lower slugging percentage. But the M’s hope Cust will be healthier than Branyan, whose ongoing back issues were a big concern. At 31 (he turns 32 in January), Cust is also three years younger than Branyan.

No question about it, Cust will be frustrating at times, exhilirating at other times. In 2007, he hit .222 in May, .329 in June, .213 in July, .314 in August, and .193 in Setember. Talk about a roller-coaster. He led the American League in strikeouts in three consecutive seasons from 2007-09, the first player to do that since Minnesota’s Bobby Darwin did it from 1972-74. In fact, Cust set the American League record for strikeouts with 197 in 2008. But that year, he also led the AL in walks with 111, becoming just the ninth player in history to lead his league in both walks and strikeouts. Cust walked or struck out in 308 of his 598 plate appearances in 2008 (51.5 percent), just the second time in major-league history a player walked or struck out in at least half his plate appearances (minimum 502 plate appearances).

The first? Jack Cust in 2007 (53.1 percent).

In 2010, he led the AL in fewest percent of pitches put in play (12.6 percent) for the fourth consecutive season, and had the second-highest percentage of swings that missed (32.4 percent). Starting to get a mental image? But this style of hitting can still be highly effective as long as the walks and homers offset the strikeouts. For the bulk of his Oakland career, Cust more or less made it work, though his slugging percentage fell from a high of .504 in 2007 to .438 in 112 games last year. Then again, considering the M’s designated hitters had a .340 slugging percentage in 2010, that still makes Cust a comparative Babe Ruth.

In his Oakland career, Cust walked or struck out in 49 percent of his 2,142 plate appearances. A left-handed hitter, Cust has hit 83 of his 102 career home runs against right-handed pitchers. He’s a career .480 slugger off righties, .372 against lefties. As Geoff writes, Cust said the M’s have told him he’ll be the full-time DH against lefties and rightes.

Cust figures to be an adventure in 2011, but if you can live with a lot of strikeouts, that can be a good thing.

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