When the Atlanta Braves traded Matt Kemp to the Los Angeles Dodgers last offseason, Charlie Culberson was viewed as simply a throw-in. Culberson was coming off of a solid postseason performance for the Dodgers filling in for shortstop Corey Seager but had spent most of the 2017 season in Triple-A.
That had been pretty much the story of Culberson’s career, as he had ridden the Triple-A shuttle since 2013. Before this season, his previous career-high in games played came in 2014 with the Rockies where he got in 95 games but hit just .195/.253/.290 with three home runs.
Culberson made the most of his opportunity in 2018 spending the full season in the majors while coming up big in clutch situations. He put up career-best offensive numbers hitting .270/.326/.466 with 12 home runs and 18 doubles in 113 games. His versatility allowed him to see action across the infield and he also made several starts in the outfield as well.
While Culberson’s homecoming and subsequent breakout are a great story it may be hard for him to replicate his success. He posted a wOBA of .335 but had an xwOBA of just .261 which was the second largest discrepancy in the majors (and the largest for anyone with 250 or more PAs by a sizable amount). For those wondering, expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) is formulated using exit velocity and launch angle. It is more in indicative of a player’s skill than regular wOBA because it removes defense from the equation.
In other words, the difference in Culberson’s wOBA versus his xwOBA shows that he was extremely fortunate during the 2018 season and shows that regression is likely. Not only that, but he finished 20th among players with 300 or more PAs in 2018 in Fangraphs’ Clutch score, which shows how well the player performed in higher-leverage situations relative to lower-leverage ones. Not only did Culberson amass a wealth of good fortune in terms of the results on his batted balls, but also when he hit those balls.
With that said, Culberson earned the respect of manager Brian Snitker and his teammates with his performance this season. He is arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason but is still relatively inexpensive. With Johan Camargo currently cast as the team’s starting third baseman, Culberson’s defensive versatility allows him to fill the role of a super utility player and it would be surprising not to see him back in a Braves uniform in 2019. What would be more surprising is seeing him put up another similar season, however, as he put up one of the 25 worst xwOBAs in baseball this year.
Bottom line, what did he do in 2018? Exceeded expectations and emerged as a key piece of Atlanta’s bench. Culberson finished the season with a 108 wRC+ and 1.0 fWAR in 322 PAs. He also appeared at seven positions defensively (everything but catcher and center field), though his aggregate defense was quite poor, as he finished with negative UZR and DRS across his various positions.
Will he be on the roster in 2019? Culberson is arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason, but is likely to return unless Atlanta makes significant roster additions. It doesn’t seem very likely that the Braves will try to sell high on his magical season.
What is he going to do next year? He may have a hard time replicating his offensive success from 2018 but his defensive versatility should provide him a role for 2019. He might finish above replacement level, but probably not too highly — while he is considered versatile he’s not particularly skilled defensively, which limits his value and production in a bench role.
Highlight of 2018: Culberson showed a flair for the dramatic hitting a pair of pinch-hit walk-off home runs within a week. His May 28 homer off Seth Lugo was one of the biggest plays for the Braves all season, with a .792 Win Probability Added.
Culberson also made his debut on the mound in a mop up relief appearance and hit 94 on the radar gun.
Lowlight of 2018: Despite the overall resounding success of his season, he wasn’t always clutch. On June 27, the Braves were down by one to the Reds and had a leadoff runner reach base, only to have Culberson doom their scoring chance by hitting into a double play. Nor did his propensity for coming through in big situations carry into the playoffs, where he went 2-for-12 with two singles, a walk, and four strikeouts, combining for a -0.216 WPA across the four games.