Saturday, December 11, 2010

Custy and Olivo

It's Thursday and the baseball's winter meetings are over and Jack Zdurencik finds himself on the way home with a pair of free agents in hand.  Lefty Jack Cust signed on as DH for 2011, and word is that catcher Miguel Olivo signed a two year with the M's .  While neither of these are signings I am wild about, they will improve the Mariners in the short term.

It seems to me the Mariners GM had one important task in the off-season:  jolt offensive production. 
Jack Cust is a younger version of Russell Branyan, without the funny thing on his right hand--a glove.  Cust is characterized as an all or nothing hitter.  Low average, home runs, lots of walks and lots of strikeouts. On the other hand, his numbers have declined steadily since being traded to the Athletics from the Padres.  That was a watershed year when his numbers were .254/.408/.504.  According to Bill James, Cust suffers from having "Old People Skills" that diminish more rapidly than the normal decline curve.   With power to both left and right field power alleys, some of those shots that fly, fly away at McAfee Park may be hauled in as outs or go for doubles.The two scatter charts borrowed from Hit Tracker show clearly that Cust's power is bipolar, while Branyan's homers are more to right and longer.

Scatter Chart for Russell Branyan's home runs in 2010. 

Scatter Chart for Scatter Chart for Jack Cust's 2010 home runs

Still, don't want to rain on anyone's parade here.  Cust's acquisition clearly upgrades the DH position.  His line last year was .272/.395/.438 in 349 at bats.  According to Cust he was platooned, hitting against right handers, and had the fewest at bats since joining the A's in 2007. According to Jack, this reduced his effectiveness as he usually faced lefty specialists late in games.  Cust has never been on the DL, which makes him an instant upgrade over Russell Branyan with his balky back.  His 2010 line is a clear upgrade over Ken Griffey, Jr., Milton Bradley, Russell Branyan and the cast of thousands who seem to have filled that spot last year.  If Zdurencik's job was to upgrade the offensive over last year's execrable model, a one year deal with Cust should help.

I've already written about the catching black hole for the Mariners, but I was shocked when the GM ran out and dropped a $7 million deal on Miguel Olivo.  You may remember Olivo, he was the incredibly uncomfortable looking young man that came to the M's with Jeremy Reed, and Michael Morse in the Freddy Garcia trade in 2004.  He caught 104 torturous games for the M's before being shipped off the next year to the Padres for a few bags of field chalk, a case of scalp oil for Bill Bavasi, and spare parts for Ichiro's pitching machine.  The verdict on Olivo was he was a poor handler of pitchers, a dreadful hitter and a passed ball machine.
Times change, and as Olivo has developed he's definitely a different player.  In most ways that's good.  He's shown himself to be a much better hitter than he was with the 2004 M's, with a .269/.315/.449 line last year with the Rockies.  He's shown he has some pop in his bat, hitting  at least 12 home runs in each of the last five seasons, including 23 homers with the Royals in 2009.  The latter is significant as the K like Safeco is not a hitters park.  While Olivo led the planet in passed balls with 10, it's still six less than the combined total  for Adam Moore and Rob Johnson.  Even with that, Olivo led all catchers in the major league in defense, according to the Dewan Rating System with a value of 14.  His rSB rating against base stealers also leads the majors with 11, so the M's are getting a fine defender.

Olivo does bring some questions.  Olivo has never been a patient hitter.  His .315 on base average was the best of his career.  Hopefully this shows some maturity and growing patience at the plate.  He's also a right hander pull hitter coming to the graveyard of right handed pull hitters and the scatter chart shows this tendency.  As many other writers have already indicated, this looks like the second coming of Jose Lopez.  Hopefully Olivo recognizes this approach will not work at home, but I'm not holding my breath.

Miguel Olivo, good or bad?  I admit I hated this signing when I first heard it.  I had several reasons, the first being that I remembered his first sojourn in Seattle and Miguel's ability to do much of anything well.  But, that's not fair.  In fact the M's are getting a very good defensive catcher, passed balls notwithstanding.  Pitch calling ability is not clear and that was a rap on him in 2004-5.  There's no question this provides an offensive boost to the catching spot.  I'm not fooling myself, Olivo isn't Joe Mauer or Victor Martinez, but production from the catching position was so poor in 2009, that this upgrade simply adds one more weapon, however limited, to improve the Mariner offense.  If I have one qualm it is about the development of Adam Moore and whether this holds him back.  At least Olivo's deal is only two years and does not involve Bavasi-like money.  Moore's response to the signing was encouraging, telling the News Tribune's Ryan Divish that based on last-year's performance by the catchers this signing wasn't a surprise  

“It’s not going to change anything for me,” Moore said. “I’m going to continue to work hard to earn that job in spring training. It’s not going to change my mindset.”
I'll close with comments made by Jack Zdurencik to Brock and Salk  on December 8th, the M's GM voiced his unhappiness and frustration with the slow development of young Mariners prospects.  The Olivo signing is simply a message to Moore and others that the clock is ticking on their major league careers and if they don't give maximum effort, if development does not come with their time of service, the Mariners won't sit idly by and guarantee their place on the team.


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