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August 23, 2009

Prospectus Q&A

Jack Cust

by David Laurila

Jack Cust embraces the legacy that one day will be his. On pace to wrest the King of Three True Outcomes crown from Rob Deer, the A's slugger both recognizes and values the meaning of the sabermetrically-driven title that personifies his game. Finally established as a productive big-league basher after several undervalued minor league seasons, with multiple organizations, the 30-year-old Cust sports a .542 TTO in 1744 career plate appearances.

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David Laurila: How do you view the career you've had in professional baseball thus far?

Jack Cust: It's been a long, short career. It feels like I've been in the game for a long time, but at the big-league level, I've only got about three years in, so I'm still learning a lot and trying to become the best player that I can. I haven't done a lot of things that I think I can do, but I've done some things that have been pretty good, along with some things that were not so good. It's been a short big-league career and a long pro career.

DL: You were a productive hitter in the minor leagues for a number of years. Are you much different now than you were then?

JC: Not really. I've basically been the same type of player my whole career, as far as offense is concerned. I'll walk a lot, I'll strike out a lot, and I'll hit some home runs. I try to get on base as much as I can and score runs. The name of the game, on offense, is to score runs. For me, it's however you can get on base, so that guys can drive you in, but you also have to drive in runs.

DL: The statistical analysis community views your skill set more favorably than do most old-school baseball people. With that in mind, might you have gotten less of an opportunity had you come along a generation earlier?

JC: I don't know. Had I come along 20 years earlier, I think that maybe, with my power, I'd be even more valuable. But I do understand what you're saying, as far as the way I hit. My approach may have been a little more frowned upon, you know, the strikeouts. A lot of guys strike out a lot now, and back in the day, it was really frowned upon to make outs that way. Now, people kind of look at the at bats you're having and what you're trying to do. I always try to make the pitcher work. If a pitcher has to work and throw his best stuff to get me out, that causes fatigue, and you might be able to tire the pitcher out earlier in the game, and get to their bullpen. Some bullpens you might not want to get into as much as others, but usually it's a good thing when you get into a bullpen.

DL: Do strikeouts matter?

JC: I think so, but it depends on the situations that you're having them in. Obviously, with runners on base, especially in scoring position with less than two outs, you want to put the ball in play. Other times, the pitcher might be trying to get a ground ball, or what have you, and if you just roll over a pitch and hit that ground ball, and you're out of the inning; that's not a very productive at-bat either. And just going up there and putting the first pitch in play, and popping up or grounding out, isn't a very productive at-bat. No one wants to strike out, but I think that the way you're going about your at-bats, and your approach, is something that depends on whether a strikeout is really a bad at-bat, or just something that was a result of you maybe not getting a good pitch to hit; the pitcher just made his pitches.

DL: Both you and Russell Branyan are on pace to supplant Rob Deer as the King of Three True Outcomes. Have you talked to either of them about that?

JC: Yeah. I consider Rob Deer a friend of mine. I had him in the minor leagues as a coach, with the Padres. He was the roving hitting coordinator for them. I played with Russ over in San Diego as well, so I've had conversations with both of those guys. Obviously, our names are kind of bunched together with that saying.

DL: You have a baseball camp. Do you teach the way you hit?

JC: My skill set is unique in that I have a good eye-at least I feel that I do-and yet I strike out a lot. To me, that's two completely different things, having a good eye and putting the ball into play. But, what we teach in our camp is just basic, general principles of the game, offensively, defensively, and with respect to pitching. I basically set the criteria for the offensive side of it, while we have other guys who deal with other things. We like to teach guys, especially at that young age, with an aluminum bat, how to hit for power. It is fun, when you're young, to be able to hit the ball out of the ballpark, so we try to teach these kids to do that. If it's not something that's in their future, or if it's not their bag, as far as their skill set, then we'll adjust accordingly. But I think that everybody wants to be able to hit the ball out of the ballpark. And, obviously, we teach zone hitting, looking for a good pitch to hit, and not swinging at a pitcher's pitch. That's a lot easier at the lower levels, like high school, Little League, and even college. As you move up to the minor leagues, and to the major leagues, you're going to get fewer pitches to hit, and you're going to have to maybe open up your zone a little bit more. But, at that level, it really works to wait a pitcher out to get a good pitch, to look for something that you want to hit.

DL: Have you had many hitting coaches tell you that you need to change your game and cut down on your strikeouts?

JC: A little bit, yeah. I mean, I've had guys say that, but at the big-league level, not as much. I think that here in Oakland they appreciate what I do a little bit more than maybe some other places. They kind of accept that I'm going to strike out, I'm going to walk, and that I'm up there trying to hit the ball hard. So, I've had some hitting coaches who have told me that, but really, no one has messed with me too much-with my swing and my approach. Sometimes they tried to tweak things. I think that I have a good approach. I just tend to strike out a lot.

DL: Have you talked with people in the respective front offices about your approach?

JC: Not too much, but when I was in Baltimore, they really wanted me to try to hit the ball earlier in the count and put the ball in play more. They thought that, because I have a lot of power, that I should hit whatever they throw up there, but there are only a couple of guys in the big leagues who can do that. There's a guy like Vladimir Guerrero, and I remember Kirby Puckett, when he played. He could hit any pitch, but, for the most part, not every hitter can hit every pitch, and not every power hitter can just say, "I'm going to swing at this pitch and be able to drive it." I'm more of a guy who is looking at a certain area, and if it's that area, I'm going to try to do some damage. If it's not, I'm going to wait it out until they throw something in that area. If they don't, once you get to two strikes, you try to do the best you can.

DL: If you have a 3-1 count, and are looking in, will you generally take a fastball on the outer half?

JC: On a 3-1 count, if I'm looking for a fastball, I'm looking for a fastball in a spot where I can drive it, wherever that may be-not necessarily in or out. You have to know the pitcher; you have to know how he's trying to attack you. If he's a guy who likes to come in on 3-1, because he thinks you like to get your arms extended and get out there, he might try to come in, so you want to look for the ball in. For the most part, on a 3-1 count, I'm looking for a fastball that I can drive, and I don't want to let a good pitch go by. If it's a 3-1 pitch that hits the black, on the corner, at my knees, there will be times when I can hit that pitch out. There will be other times when it won't look like a good pitch for me to hit, so it just depends on how I'm feeling at the plate. Generally, when you're going well, pitches look good to hit, no matter where they are. You could be looking out, and it comes in, and it looks big. Or you could be looking in, and the pitch comes out, and it looks big. But when you're struggling, and maybe you're over-thinking a little too much, the ball doesn't look as big coming in. When you're going well, everything seems like it's down the middle. You look at the video later, and see that it wasn't down the middle, so it's just your general feel up there.

DL: Your entry in BP2009 includes: "What's the difference between Cust and Adam Dunn at this point? Not really all that much." What do you think when you read something like that?

JC: It's just something where I know what I can do; I have confidence in my ability. Adam Dunn has obviously had a great career, and he's been in a good environment to hit some home runs. So yeah, I see him and understand why people sometimes say that I'm similar to him. He's definitely a power threat, he has a great eye at the plate, and while he doesn't swing at a lot of bad pitches, he strikes out a lot. To me, [being compared to him] is a compliment. I think that he's a good hitter and a great power hitter, so I'm happy to be mentioned with him.

DL: When Jim Rice was inducted into the Hall of Fame, many people made note of the fact that he put up his power numbers in the pre-steroid era. What are your thoughts on that?

JC: He was a dominant player in his era. I think I heard that he had over 120 RBI four times or something like that. That's driving in a lot of runs, which is the name of the game. For a guy to do that… obviously, we don't know what anybody was doing in any era, really. I mean, the 1990s and early 2000s was obviously a time when a lot of guys were hitting a lot of home runs. Like I said before, back in that time, I think I would have had the same power that I have now, and maybe that would be valued. But, like you said, strikeouts were something that wasn't as accepted. What he did… he had a great career. I watched him as a young kid, growing up, and I'm glad that he finally got the respect that he deserves and went into the Hall of Fame.

DL: It was once said that Rickey Henderson is a Hall of Fame player even without the stolen bases. What does that say about the value of OBP?

JC: Rickey Henderson was one of my favorite players to watch. His at-bats were unbelievable. There was obviously his speed, but there was what he did at the plate; his eyes were great. Here was a guy… I used to switch-hit, and right-handed I used to try to hit like Rickey. Left-handed, I tried to hit like somebody else. He's a guy who made me an Oakland fan when I was growing up. Being from New Jersey, I was a Yankees fan, so when he went to the Yankees, I was obviously pumped up. He was a great all-around player, and I think that if you take any part of his game, he's a Hall of Fame talent.

DL: You'll someday be remembered as one of the Three True Outcome guys. Do you see that as being a good thing?

JC: Hah! I guess that if anybody remembers me, that will be good enough for me. You know, I'm a guy who works hard and just tries to do the best that he can. I love the game of baseball, and the fact that people talk about that, or if they talk about anything, that would be great for me. Obviously, you don't want to be a guy that people think of negatively. At this stage of the game, where there are a lot more stats and a lot of different ways to analyze the game, I think that when it comes down to it, I'm a pretty good offensive player. If you had a team full of guys that took my type of approach, you'd have a good team, offensively. So, if that's the way that people remember me, I think that's great.

8 comments have been left for this article.

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