Last season, as a resident of Seattle, Washington, for the first half of the year, I watched Jack Cust play baseball, and it was not very impressive.
Now Cust has made the same Pacific Northwest-to-Southwest circuit that I did, signing a one-year deal with the Astros with an option for 2013, and it’s time for me to look at him in the new light that is the Astros team.
Cust certainly looks the part of a jovial masher. The big gut, the warm smile, the fluid left-handed swing, the intense focus in the batter’s box. And Mariners fans had every right to expect that he would and tuck a few baseballs into the low cloud cover above Safeco Field. In 2010, Cust hit 13 taters, and the year before that, taking some reverse-chronological bunny hops, he launched 25, and 33, and 26.
But last year, when all the Mariners asked for was a bit more of the same, Cust couldn’t seem to swing his way out of a flannel shirt.
First off, I don’t know why this happened. Could have been age or any other number of factors. What I do know is my personal experience, and it was this: Seattle is a chilly, damp place. If I was a free-swinging slugger, I would find it most unpleasant to ply my trade in Seattle.
Again, there’s likely no correlation, but I can say that Cust appeared as taught as a filled sail when he hit for the Mariners. Not knowing his hitting style before 2011, I can’t speak of a divergence from his norm. But his style last year suggested desperation and angst over “it’s a kid’s game” looseness and home run lust. An expression of concern hovered over his visage with regularity, and as his failures compounded he started leaving the batter’s box with a perplexed look, an appeal to some greater driving force beyond his understanding.
Not a good place to be for a home run hitter.
Michael Barr over at Rotographs paints an unlovely picture of Cust’s decline, and he may well be right. I’m no scientist, but most every one of the lines on his graphs is diving like a nuclear sub. What I’d offer as a response is that, if there is some psychological element to Cust’s drop-off, that a new approach might do him good.
That approach? Just mash. Swing as hard as you can. Let Houston’s warmth and humidity thaw the muscles in your arms, back, and legs, and set them free. Swing hard. Close your eyes when you do it. Laugh at yourself when you topple over after striking out.
The Astros are an unformed mass of baseball chaos, with few big names to draw anyone’s eye, and with no expectations to burden a player like Cust, who clearly sagged under the expectation that he’d anchor the middle of an order. Cust must not anchor a thing in Houston. He should swing his bat like a helicopter blade to lift the lineup one mighty, hubristic, ecstatic swing at a time.
To quote Zachary Levine in his recent post on the topic: “Despite a really down year last year, [Cust] had an on-base percentage 33 points ahead of the Astros as a team, .344 to .311.”
The stakes are low; the sky is high.