Tame the Cust


The news from today that the Orioles are bringing in Jack Cust for a workout gives me the opportunity to rant a little bit about one of my favorite players of all time. In 2009, I went to the A’s home opener against the Seattle Mariners (for a complete rundown on why that whole thing was a total debacle, go and read this). At one point, Cust came up to start an inning and took a pitch on the outside corner for a called strike three. I immediately leaped up and bellowed from my lower box seat, “If Jack Cust takes it, it’s not a strike!”

My strike zone evaluation may have been fueled by one or two (or seven) beers, but it was borne of Cust’s major strength as a player: he just drew a buttload of walks. He walked 105 times in 124 games in 2007, and then drew 111 walks in a full season 2008. At that point in my baseball life, I just loved players who drew lots and lots of walks. Back then, I was smack in the middle of an obsession with Three True Outcomes guys, and I definitely sided with the movement that trumpeted that that kind of player was underappreciated in the game.

And they sure seemed underappreciated, at least at that time. In 2006, Cust played essentially the entire year with San Diego’s AAA team, the Portland Beavers. In 138 games, Cust hit 30 home runs and walked 143 times. His OBP for the season for the Beavers was a Votto-esque .467. All that got him was three measly at-bats with the Padres in September. I, along with much of the saber-community at large, wanted to see what Cust would do given a full season’s worth of playing time in the majors.

Luckily, that chance would come the following year, when the A’s acquired Cust from the Padres for some cash and he exploded, finishing at .256/.408/.504 after establishing himself in the Oakland lineup in May. In 2008, he led the A’s in home runs, with 33, and got on base a lot. In four seasons with the A’s, Cust put up a .381 OBP. He provided a lot of offensive value for relatively little expense. His success seemed to validate the idea that a Quad-A player was just a myth, and that if you could hit in AAA, you could hit in the majors.

However, there were…problems. Blinded by my fixation with Cust’s walk totals, I didn’t realize the true reason that the Padres didn’t bother giving the slugger a chance: his glove. Cust was just an absolutely terrible outfielder. I mean, you just couldn’t play him out there at all. Never mind defensive metrics; the sight of Cust stumbling around left field would make wallpaper curl. The A’s tried to hide him at DH as much as possible, but more often than not they had to start him in left field and live with it, and it got reaaaallll ugly out there.

As great a story as Cust was, he was truly a very limited player, and if the walks or power ever dried up, you weren’t left with much. Unfortunately, the A’s got to witness this firsthand. In 2010, the power started to dwindle, and Cust’s flaws became harder for the team to stomach. Suddenly they had outfielder with negative defensive value and problems making contact, who suddenly wasn’t hitting the ball over the fence. That’s a high-OBP, low-average singles hitter, friends, and that is why the A’s were totally unenthusiastic about keeping him around anymore. In fact, the A’s were so unenthusiastic about him that they had him start the 2010 season in AAA.

From 2007-2009, i.e. Cust’s good years, the A’s averaged 75 wins per season. I think that’s probably the extent of what he is: a colorful player on a bad team. When the A’s were floundering and needed a bat, they could afford to take a chance on him. When they saw red on the horizon and began to get good again (and once they started having to pay him real money), they moved on to something better.

I think the Rise and Fall of Jack Cust was the beginning of the end of my Three True Outcomes fascination. I eventually decided that walks were great and all, but sometimes you’d just rather have a guy who could hit make bloody contact. That wasn’t necessarily synonymous with a wild, brainless hacker, and I eventually realized that. Ten years ago, I would have gone ape over a season like Adam Dunn just had (.219 batting average but 34 home runs and walks!!!!), but nowadays I know that he’s just barely playable. I think I got a little too caught up in the “OBP revolution”, and began to get a bit confused as to what truly constituted a good hitter. It wasn’t solely limited to drawing a crap ton of walks and whiffing every third at bat.

I don’t know what the Orioles think they can get from Cust, who turns 35 this Thursday. Definitely not Gold Glove outfield defense. Their DH situation looks pretty lacking (it projects as Nolan Reimold or bust as of now), so I guess they’re grasping at dirt cheap straws, hoping Cust could be the high-OBP side of a DH platoon. Fair enough. This is the team that gave Nick Johnson a try in 2012 after he looked completely finished (and as it turned out, he was).

Cust hasn’t sniffed the majors since 2011, when he was horrible with the Mariners. Hopefully he gets another chance, and hopefully he hits his way on to the Orioles’ Opening Day roster. Because Cust may be flawed, and he may be frustrating, but he’s definitely fun.

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