Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Jack Cust's trip to the Majors

It's the third inning of a A's-White Sox game as I type this post, and I notice on Yahoo's automatically updated box score that Oakland's DH, Jack Cust, has just drawn another walk, his 20th of the season in only 73 plate appearances. He is drawing walks at an astounding rate; also astounding: he's hit 8 home runs in just 53 at bats. Yet, Cust remains, at least for another day or week or two, a curiosity and a relative no name, a 28-year old journeyman, who's spent the last four seasons on AAA teams in Ottawa, Sacramento, and Portland. It's unlikely that he'll sustain his Ruthian output, but he's not a fluke. Upon returning to normalcy, it's not a stretch to predict that he'll still rank among the best hitters in baseball.
Today's market for baseball players is arguably more efficient than it was ten or fifteen years ago, as teams like the A's, Red Sox, Blue Jays and others apply increasingly sophisticated methods of evaluation. How, then, does a player of Jack Cust's abilities and obvious value, languish in the minor leagues until he's 28, logging nearly 2000 AAA plate appearances (PA) in the process? With this question in mind, I opened a Google page and dove in.
Drafted by the Diamondbacks as a teen in 1997, Cust made his major league debut in 2001, but only reached the plate three times for the team. His first full test in the majors ocurred the following year, at the age of 23, playing for the Rockies. He had 78 PAs for the team, hit poorly, and found himself on the Orioles the following season.
Playing for Baltimore, Cust hit above the league average in his 84 PAs, collecting 11 extra-base hits, and 10 walks (BB). Cust's most noteworthy play of the year, however, was a dubious one. It was October, and Baltimore was ending yet another disappointing season with a series against the Yankees. Down by one with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Cust rounded third, and headed to score the game-tying run. Just before he reached home plate, his coordination betrayed him, he fell face-first and was tagged out to end the game.
So he fell on his face once, but he largely proved himself as major league material in his previous 83 trips to the plate, right? Well, sort of.
In 2004, he returned to Baltimore's roster briefly. He struck out in one PA before April 9, when the team sent him to play the rest of the season for the AAA Ottawa Lynx. Earlier in spring training, Cust had hit under .200 in 36 AB, and the front office remained unconvinced of his worth, and undaunted by the oracle of large sample sizes. Sabremetricians in the Orioles community, meanwhile, were not pleased with the move.
Despite Cust's impressive career statistics, he spent ten days on the waiver wire, attracting no strong interest from other teams. "I thought that surely an American League team with a weak farm system (Red Sox, Yankees) or a sabermetrically savvy front office (Athletics, Blue Jays) or a weak major-league roster (Devil Rays) could find a place for him," wrote Orioles blogger, "The Birds Watcher," on April 20, 2004.
Cust hit--and that's all you can really say he does for a team--respectably for Ottawa, but maybe not well enough to doubt the Orioles' decision to send him down. He hit 17 HR for the Lynx, and walked 65 times in 416 PA, finishing the season with an on-base percentage of .358, and an OPS of .793. His hitting was decent for a AAA player, but not good enough to mark him as an obvious major leaguer, especially for a player whose lone selling point was hitting home runs and drawing walks. 
Cust knew why his power dipped, but he didn't tell anyone. Sometime in the 2004 season he began suffering excruciating pain in his wrists and arms, sometimes reportedly reducing him to batting, effectively, with one arm. Given the circumstances, he achieved admirable success playing through the pain, but his numbers still sagged. The following year, he joined the Oakland A's AAA Sacramento club, and improved his hitting over the previous year, but only slightly. He hit 19 home runs in 600 plate appearances, and drew an outstanding 115 walks. His eye was as good as ever, but he suddenly lost the complementary power that made him so valuable. And after a season in Sacramento, Cust once again found himself a free agent without a team.
He returned to his home state, New Jersey, where he grew up obsessively taking batting practice with his brothers and their real estate-agent father. Concerned about the debilitating pain, he decided to see an orthopedic surgeon, who diagnosed him with carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands.
“Jack’s case of carpal tunnel syndrome was significantly more severe than average… [in] the top 10% of severity," Elliot Decker, M.D., Cust's orthopedic surgeon, reportedly said.
Decker operated on Cust in the off season, and by early December, Cust signed with the Padres' AAA-affiliate Portland, and set about proving himself once again. It did not take long.
At the age of 27, healed by surgery, Cust's performance at the plate was simply stellar. He hit 30 home runs, 23 doubles, and drew 143 walks--roughly one for every four of his 591 PAs. The Padres called him up once for three games, where everyone involved probably realized he did not belong in the National League. In three trips to the plate, he hit a single.
He was invited to spring training by the Padres this year, but didn't make the team, and, at the age of 28, spent April playing for Portland again. He needed a team that needed a DH. That limited him to just 14 clubs. He may never have played a game before the DH rule, but now it could only be a matter of time, right? Theoretically, inefficiencies do not linger indefinitely in competitive markets. Would Jack Cust, proven slugger, play in AAA forever? He must have wondered.
In early March, Cust was not destined for a spot on the Padres's roster, and someone at speculated about whether he might be better suited to playing abroad: "His game and work ethic are perfect for Japan. He could hit 50 home runs over there."
Another on the discussion board--"westbaystars" of Yokohama--responded skeptically: "I don't mean to burst your bubble, but I've never heard of the guy or any mention of him being given a tryout with a team over here... And 50 home runs are predicted for a lot of foreigners who don't pan out, so why would Cust be any different?"
And another chimed in: "He is a career .222 hitter with 5 HR in 144 AB."
Over several weeks, some Cust defenders cited his minor league stats on the board, and others on the site warmed to the idea of a Japanese debut: "he might do well for a power-starved club such as Rakuten, let's say," wrote "Ken D." of New York.
Someone posted on April 12, and then the board went quiet for awhile.
There's no evidence that any Japanese teams actually took a serious look at him, but the sensible mention of his name on the discussion board suggested that maybe he wasn't cut out for the bigs after all.
In late April, 2007, the Padres owned Cust's contract, but he wasn't scheduled to play in San Diego anytime soon, and he certainly wasn't heading to the NPB, Japan's pro league. Meanwhile, he toiled, nay, slugged away in Portland. In 100 plate appearances for the team this spring, he played as well as ever, hitting 9 home runs, 7 doubles, and drawing 19 walks.
Then, on May 2 something fortuitous happened. Oakland A's DH Mike Piazza injured his right shoulder diving into third base, and the team placed him on the DL for four to six weeks. Oakland GM Billy Beane, whose preference for awkwardly shaped, unathletic hitters was well-documented in Moneyball, needed a DH. The two had crossed paths before in 2005, and apparently Cust had remained on Beane's radar. On May 3, Beane traded for Cust, giving the Padres "a player to be named or cash" in exchange.
It's now May 23, twenty days later, and it's safe to say that Cust has arrived in the big leagues. In his first seven games with the A's, he hit six home runs, releasing years of pent up frustration, it seemed. Since his arrival, Cust has helped raise the team's offensive output by more than a run a game, and given the injury-ravaged team reason for optimism. Two Sundays ago, the A's staged a two-out rally in the bottom of the ninth, tying a game against the Indians at seven. Cust stepped to the plate with two men on, and promptly crushed a game-winning home run to deep left center. In a matter of weeks, he had become one of the most valuable players on a major league team.
At some point, Piazza, a likely Hall of Famer, and the team's big-name off season acquisition, will return from the injured list and expect a place in the lineup. A's manager Bob Geren hasn't figured out how to navigate this very good problem, but was recently quoted saying that he'll find room on the roster for Cust.


Ben said...

This is a good post, David. Another compelling baseball narrative I saw recently, from the NYT magazine:

Terrill said...

I don't have much to compare this post to since I rarely read the sports section (and by rarely I mean never), but this was a fantastic introduction to the ins and outs of trades and the life of a baseball player. Very engaging! Thanks!