Note: This is not about Jack Cust’s decline – that can be for another day, a day where I hope I can find some optimism in his dwindling stats. This post is about why Jack Cust is so freaking awesome, and explores how he could possibly have spent so long in the minor leagues.
Jack Cust is my favorite baseball player, currently and perhaps of all time. His home runs are the most fun-to-watch bombs the Bay has had since Barry, he walks constantly, and he’s a black belt in the Three True Outcomes. He seems like just a nice dude, and sports a general air of goofiness (known in french as un air de gufinesse), which is always a plus in my book. When he was younger, his father helped him develop his own Baseball Business Plan for how to become the player he wanted. That’s right: a baseball business plan.
Jack’s lengthy minor league career is a fascinating repertoire of numbers, and his tremendously lengthy dominance has got to be one of the stranger things I’ve seen in sports. His minor league resume, if we may visit it for a moment, is really pretty fantastic: In eleven minor league seasons, Jack OPSed .947, OBPed .429, and hit exactly 200 home runs. In 2001 in High-A ball, he hit 42 doubles, 32 home runs, knocked in 112 runs, batted .334, and walked 96 times. In 2006, in AAA, he walked 143 times in 138 games, with 28 doubles and 30 dingers, for an OPS of 1.016. He has over 1,000 hits, has 247 doubles, scored 787 runs, and even threw in 53 stolen bases for good measure.
And yet before being called up by the A’s, Jack’s total experience in the majors amounted to 169 plate appearances for four different teams over the course of six years. How is this possible?
So OK, it’s not really that strange: (a) he’s a terrible fielder, and (b) Holy Crap those strikeouts, plus some (c) bad timing*. All the defensive fielding metrics have him as a pretty bad outfielder – his career UZR is -18.5 per 150 games, for example, and there are minus signs all over his fangraphs defensive stats page – so in Cust you have a weak-fielding, not very fast, strengthy walk-taking strikeout machine. To play Jack in the field, you have to make the concession that you’ll live with his D if you want to reap the rewards of his power and patience.
*This isn’t Jack’s first stint with the A’s organization, for example – he spent all of 2005 as a River Cat, and he had an off-year, with a .257/.402/.428 triple-slash, significantly out of line with his career minor league numbers – and the A’s released him without ever calling him up. Jack signed with the Padres, and was rewarded for a great 2006 minor league season with 4 plate appearances. When Mike Piazza went down in 2007, Billy Beane plucked Jack from San Diego in the midst of yet another fine minor league year, Jack finally got off to a hot start in the bigs, and the rest is history.
Point (b): Jack Cust strikes out all the time. Jack Cust strikes out twice before he strikes out twice, and then he strikes out twice more. Then, he smokes two joints, which could explain a thing or two. But really, if his strikeout totals are a part of what has kept him out of the Bigs for so long, then that’s pretty silly.
As has been shown over and over through various studies and lots of advanced mathematical science, and some scientifically advanced mathematics, strikeouts are, generally speaking, no worse than other outs. Broadly speaking (and specifically with regards to scoring runs), a strikeout = a groundout = flyout = any other you can dream up, except perhaps the fabled Very Secret Out, the existence of which has not even yet been proven. "Putting a ball in play," something touted over and over by announcers and managers and others of their ilk, is really not that valuable, not to mention that over the course of a season, the loss of moving a runner over with a "productive out" is essentially negated by the gain of fewer double plays, which are totally worse for a rally than a measly widdle stwikeout. In essence, what it boils down to is: who would you rather have batting (defense aside), Jack Cust or Jason Kendall? Yeah: that’s what I thought.
Sidebar: In 2005, with the A’s, Kendall struck out only 39 times. He also grounded into a league-leading, head-splitting 27 double plays and made 468 outs, good for 14th-most in the American League.
Double Sidebar: If anyone ever says to you, in mocking tones, "if strikeouts are no worse than regular outs, how come you Sabermetricians love pitcher strikeouts so damn much?" you can spit on the ground, turn to face them dramatically, and gently remind them gently that fewer balls in play = fewer hits. In essence, you are relying less on your fielders to make outs when you strike out a lot of people. Then you can stare the person down if you want.
Let’s have a look at Jack’s magical 2007 season for a slightly deeper analysis of his strikeouts (and only very slightly deeper – none of this is governed by any sound principles of analysis. Consider it "armchair statistical analysis"). He made a total of 300 outs, 164 of which were by way of the whiff. Now, there are two situations where a non-strikeout is NEVER more productive than a strikeout, and those are: (1) bases empty, regardless of # of outs (amounting to 92 of his K’s), and (2) two outs, regardless of how many runners are on base (55 of his K’s). Those two data sets intersect in the situation of bases empty and two outs, and so we have to subtract 23 from 55, because 23 is the number of times he struck out with the bases empty and two outs. From that we get 32, which we can add to 92, leaving us with 124 strikeouts that came where no other type of out would have made a lick of difference – this leaves us with a grand total of 40 times that Jack K’ed where another out could theoretically have been productive. So sure, a grounder here and a fly ball there could have amounted to a few extra runs – but a statistically significant amount over a whole season? Prolly not.
To be such a good hitter, despite his shortcoming, and never really get a shot before age 28, well… that just doesn’t make a ton of sense. In 2002, the Rockies gave him a shot, 35 games worth, in which he put up a measly .541 OPS and was his usual self in the field. But in 2003, in 84 PAs, at age 24, he put up a .260/.357/.521 for an OPS+ of 129, with 11 extra-base hits and 10 walks. Small sample? Sure. But there was a very large sample available, too. And yet somehow, over the next three years he stepped to the plate a grand total of four times.
Was it really surprising that, in 2007, he put up a line of .256/.408/.504, good for an OPS+ of 147? It shouldn’t have been, given the large body of data available in the minors. He mashes the ball and is extremely selective, usually a combination that leads to high Three True Outcomes numbers*, and how any team wouldn’t want the numbers he was bound to put up is beyond me.
*Cust’s offensive calling cards are strikeouts, walks, and home runs. If you’re a casual fan, it might appear to you that all he ever does is strike out, walk, or homer. But he actually does much more: sometimes he’ll strike out looking, for example, and I think twice he was hit by a pitch this year. But seriously: every time Jack Cust steps to the plate this year, he stands a 49.6% chance of hitting a home run, walking or striking out. This means that HALF the time he bats, his defense is not involved in any way on the play. In 2008, it was 57% of the time, and in 2007, it was 58%. And this is nothing new: throughout his lengthy minor league career, he exercised the triple-threat position a robust 49.6% of his PAs.
To conclude: forget whether or not Jack is statistically "valuable" as a player given his talents and his flaws – it’s hard to understand why some organization didn’t give him a more extended chance, especially given the number of every day players who’ve played well below replacement level, and also given that chicks dig the long ball and EVERYONE likes a Good Guy. Jack’s had some bad luck, was never blessed with a fielder’s skills, and has not always conformed to traditionally "good" hitting stats – but has become a beloved figure in Oakland and I love him for it.
PS – As if Jack weren’t cool enough as it is, in 1997 he and his father opened up the Jack Cust Baseball Academy, which has recently turned into Diamond Nation, a 700,000 square foot facility for baseball instruction and development – one of the largest youth facilities on the East Coast. He has apparently teamed up withSoftballista Jennie Finch and her own Softball Academy. Jack’s staff now develops those baseball business plans for 18-and-under kids, and even employs two Cust brothers as hitting coaches.