Charles in Charge: Charlie Culberson Ain’t What he Used To Be

The Braves and Dodgers completed one of the more intriguing trades of the offseason in December when Matt Kemp was sent to L.A. for a host of aging veterans with bad contracts — Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy — and utility man Charlie Culberson.

The trade was certainly mutually beneficial, putting the Dodgers under the luxury tax threshold while the Braves opened up more money for the 2019 roster by paying Kemp’s money up front instead of over two years. The Dodgers also got a svelte Kemp who slashed a .310/.352/.522 to the All-Star game, while the Braves only have McCarthy’s 78 2/3 sub-replacement-level innings to show from the veterans.

But then there’s Culberson, who has surprisingly been the trade’s saving grace for Atlanta. Culberson went into Thursday’s series finale against the Nationals standing at 0.7 WAR, a stark contrast to his -1.3 WAR entering 2018.

Culberson was expected to be a versatile, defensively minded bench piece, coming into the season with a career .231/.272/.324 line, an OPS that was 43 percent below league average over that span.

Going into Thursday, Culberson’s line stood at .283/.329/.493 line with a 122 OPS+ and 119 wRC+. This comes despite an April in which he had a .324 OPS and 0 wRC+ and was nearly cut when the Braves needed space for Johan Camargo and Ronald Acuña. Through May 20, Culberson slashed .200/.273/.300 with just three extra-base hits through 50 at-bats.

Then Culberson took seven days off and everything changed.

Since May 27, when Culberson returned to action, he’s slashed .310/.348/.555 with eight of his 14 career homers, a 141 wRC+ and a .383 wOBA over 164 plate appearances. Certainly, Culberson is not that good, with those numbers being propped up by a .381 BABIP and just a .283 xwOBA.

But there’s reason to believe that Culberson is becoming a better hitter.

His xwOBA may seem low, but that’s deflated by a high strikeout rate (25.6 percent) and low walk rate (5.5 percent). Looking solely at his balls in play, we can get a better picture of where he’s made his improvements.

From 2016, his first season in the Statcast era, until May 20 of this year, Culberson thrived on balls hit between 0º and 25º, the upper end of the line drive range as defined by Statcast. This is visualized below, using Statcast’s estimated wOBA based on launch angle and exit velocity.

It’s clear that Culberson saw his best results on the lowest level of line drives, around 10º, and had about equal success with higher-launch-angle grounders and line drives. But as his launch angle jumps from line drives to fly balls, the decline is precipitous.

That leaves Culberson with two options: either hit the ball harder or optimize his approach to hit fewer fly balls. He certainly hasn’t done the former. From 2016 through May 20, Culberson’s average exit velocity was 85.0 mph, below the 87.3 mph league average. Since then, it’s been exactly the same at 85.0 mph.

Coming out of his time off, he has, however, appeared to change his swing plane. Before mid-May, Culberson’s career average launch angle was 7.7º. Since May 20, that has dropped to 6.1º, a 20.8 percent decrease. That’s resulted in a serious change in his batted ball profile.

Batted Ball

Previous Pct.

Pct. since May 27

Ground ball

51.0%

54.0%

Line drive

18.4%

23.9%

Fly ball

26.5%

15.0%

Pop fly

4.1%

7.1%

By dropping his launch angle, he’s managed to drastically increase his line drives while cutting his fly balls almost in half.

This translates well to his estimated batted ball wOBA as well.

In addition to cutting his fly ball rate, it appears that whatever changes Culberson made have also improved his batted balls in the 25-35º range. Even if that’s just noise, Culberson is hitting more balls at his optimal angle, increasing his percentage of batted balls between 0º and 25º from 30.6 percent to 33.6 percent. An additional 9.7 percent of his batted balls have been hit between 25º and 35º.

Certainly some of this has been luck. Even on batted balls, his wOBA has well outpaced what would be expected. His xwOBA on batted balls sits at .355 while his wOBA on balls in play has been an exorbitant .501.

Going forward, Culberson will need to improve his plate discipline if he wants to find a spot as an everyday player. But even if he isn’t going to become the next Ben Zobrist, it’s not hard to see him filling a role similar to the one Brock Holt played with Boston from 2014-2016, posting a respectable 94 OPS+ while playing every infield and outfield position.



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Jim
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Jim

He’s also hit two walk-off homers, which makes four walk-off dingers career-wise.

TKDC
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While his offense has been inflated by luck, his defense has been somewhat deflated, and arguably it isn’t really his fault. He has been put all over the place, including left field which he both doesn’t play very well and comes with a negative positional adjustment. Playing sparsely at different infield positions can’t be easy, and at times the results have been pretty ugly, which has dampened his WAR. But I’m not sure that is fair when judging his true talent. I think if he were to be given regular time at one infield position, he would probably be a positive defensive value.

Another intriguing idea would be to just get him a Swanson jersey and have him hit while Dansby plays the field. That might be a 5 WAR player.