By The Numbers: Jack Cust vs. Jake Fox

Earlier this off-season, the Oakland A's seemingly made a shift at DH when they acquired Jake Fox and non-tendered longtime DH Jack Cust. OaklandClubhouse.com's statistical expert Nathaniel Stoltz, also a top-rated columnist at The Bleacher Report, returns to take a look at whether the A's are better off with Jack Cust or Jake Fox on the roster in 2010 and beyond.

Earlier in the offseason, the Oakland A's acquired Jake Fox from the Chicago Cubs, largely to replace departing DH/RF Jack Cust, who was non-tendered a short while after Fox's acquisition.

It's unclear exactly where the defensively challenged Fox will play, as he has experience at catcher, first base, third base, left field and right field. However, it's a reasonable conclusion that he'll be a similar defensive liability to Cust, and his value will lie almost entirely in his bat.

Given that I'm here to do statistical analysis, I'll take a look at Cust's and Fox's stats in a minute, but first, I'd like to briefly examine the context in which this "tradeoff" of sorts was made.

For at least two years, I've personally been in the mindset that the A's "window of playoff opportunity" begins in 2011. I have met numerous other A's fans who share this outlook. With the Mariners seemingly ramping up for playoff contention in 2010, the Rangers making a push and the Angels looking to repeat, a 2010 playoff run for Oakland seems highly unlikely. With a pitching staff still a bit short on experience, a number of veteran position players with average-or-worse power, and the big minor league bats at least a year away from being able to carry an MLB offense, Oakland doesn't quite have the weapons yet.

Therefore, I think that the most important task the A's have for 2010 is not to win, but to determine who is going to be a part of this early-'10s contender. We know Brett Anderson, Andrew Bailey, Kurt Suzuki, Joey Devine and Gio Gonzalez are likely to be there. Trevor Cahill, Vince Mazzaro, Chris Carter, Michael Taylor, Grant Desme and many others may not be proven above-average MLB performers yet, but we have high hopes for them as well.

But who else will be around?

Was Rajai Davis' 2009 for real? Can Cliff Pennington, Daric Barton and Eric Patterson continue their excellent late-season production? Were the strong starts for Dallas Braden and Josh Outman a mirage, or will they return from their injuries and put up ERAs in the 3s again? Can Scott Hairston rebound from a poor stint in Oakland to end 2009? Will Aaron Cunningham figure out MLB pitching? Can Cahill and Mazzaro improve on their up-and-down rookie seasons?

Those are only some of the questions that Billy Beane and the A's front office need to answer.

One thing that does seem certain is that a number of the veterans who made up previous iterations of the A's seem to be on their way out. Eric Chavez and Mark Ellis' contracts expire after 2010 (Ellis does have an option for 2011), and Justin Duchscherer's re-signing only lasts through 2010 as well. The A's brought in Coco Crisp to be another rare veteran, but he's only in through 2010 (with an option for 2011).

With the organizational mentality pointing overwhelmingly toward a 2011 contention goal, it made little sense to retain Cust. He's going to be 31 for the 2010 season, and players with his skill-set (walks, power and little else) tend to have more rapid declines than most players. The chances of him being a major force in the A's lineup in 2011 (at age 32) were slim for Cust, and it's not like his glove offset that concern.

Fox, 27, will still be in his prime in 2011, and he only has 230 career major league at-bats. Cust has had more than 1,500 to show what he can do, so he's pretty much a known commodity who is not likely to improve at his age. Fox is more of the type of player the A's should look to in 2010: he may or may not be a worthwhile long-term player, so this season will be a perfect opportunity for him to prove himself worthy or unworthy of a large role on a team with playoff aspirations.

All right, onto the numbers.

Cust hit .256/.408/.504 in 2007, .231/.375/.476 in 2008, and .240/.356/.417 in 2009; it doesn't take a math genius to see that his OBP and slugging both declined every year he played with the A's. It's worth noting that Cust tried to cut down his hefty strikeout totals in the first half of 2009. This attempt proved misguided, as he slipped to .221/.311/.393 in the first half. He reverted to a .250/.399/.426 hitter after the All-Star Break, which is passable for a DH, but the lack of slugging ability is worrisome, and if an 825 OPS is the best Cust can offer, and he's in decline, that's not really a good thing.

Cust wasn't even the streaky power hitter of 2007-08—he didn't have a single month with a .450 or higher slugging percentage. For comparison's sake, Cust slugged better than .570 three months in 2007 and two in 2008. The homer totals (26 in 2007, 33 in 2008, 25 in 2009) may not show it, but Cust's 2009 power is clearly not the same as his 2007 power.

This isn't to say Jack Cust can't hit—an 825 second-half OPS isn't bad, and the .399 OBP in that span is stellar. The problem is that Jack Cust is simply not a good defensive player. In just 50 starts in right field last year, he cost the A's about six runs with his poor fielding according to UZR. That translates to well more than 20 runs lost if he were to play the field for an entire season, which is consistent with his career numbers (-20.4 runs per 150 games).

The defensive struggles mean that Cust has to be a true offensive force to be a worthwhile starter for a good team. If Cust is to play the field, he has to slug enough to make up for his defensive inadequacy, and if he is to DH, he has to slug enough to justify holding one of only 14 DH spots in the majors.

The .240/.399/.426 line of Cust's second half falls short of the extremely high bar his poor defense sets. Therefore, he has to find the right situation to be worthwhile—he'd be a good fit for a "win-now" team in a hitter's park in need of a DH against righties. Maybe he could replace Jim Thome on the White Sox. But the A's are a rebuilding team in a pitcher's park with a bunch of DH-types (Tom Everidge, Chris Carter, Dallas McPherson, Chavez and now Fox, not to mention a surplus of outfielders), so they are pretty much the antithesis of a team that needs Cust.

Last year, Jake Fox didn't even hit as well as Cust did in the majors, with a .259/.311/.468 line that was inferior to Cust's .240/.356/.417 season, not to mention his .250/.399/.426 second half. Still, it was only Fox's first season, and unlike Cust, who was a lineup regular, Fox was in and out of the lineup, and he was sent to and from Triple-A Iowa multiple times. He was also trying to learn how to play third base. The turmoil of where and when he was playing may have affected his stroke.

Like Cust, Fox put up gaudy minor league numbers, most notably an otherworldly .409/.495/.841 line at Triple-A last year in 45 games. Fox, however, lacks Cust's patience, and was actually demoted from Triple-A to Double-A for most of the 2008 season thanks to a horrific 31/2 K/BB ratio. Between the minors and majors, Fox has bashed 59 homers over the past two years, and I'd be surprised if he didn't match Cust's 2009 homer total (25) if the A's send him up 612 times (Cust's 2009 plate appearance total) in 2010.

Fox's power is also not just a minor league mirage; he slugged .468 with a .209 Isolated Power mark for the Cubs last year. It's worth noting, however, that Wrigley Field is a more hitter-friendly environment than the Athletics' home park.

Personally, I'm not sold on Fox. He just put up a .311 OBP at age 27, which is supposed to be a player's "peak" season. While he's more defensively versatile than Cust, Fox has the same horrific scouting reports, and UZR figures show his defense to be around Cust's level (or worse) at every position he's played in the majors. While UZR is notoriously unreliable in small samples, the data we have matches up neatly with the scouting reports: Fox, like Cust, needs to have a tremendous bat to stay in the lineup. Still, given that Fox hasn't had long to establish himself, and that he put up the greatest minor league line you'll ever see last year, perhaps he can improve his OBP in 2010 and establish himself as a player who, like Cust, can have a nice three-or-four-year run of effectiveness.

I'm not convinced he'll do that, but as I stated earlier, 2010 is the year to find out if a player like Fox is going to be a contributor for this theoretical contender in 2011 and beyond. I also mentioned the bounty of other DH options, most notably Chris Carter, that should be ready soon; if Fox proves himself unworthy of a major role, the A's have plenty of replacements on hand.

Jack Cust almost certainly would not play a role on the A's next contending ballclub; Jake Fox may or may not. While that's hardly a huge upgrade, it's still a sensible decision by Billy Beane and the Oakland front office.

To read more from Nathaniel, visit his blog at The Bleacher Report.


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