Never in a million years could you have convinced me that there were any players of value involved in the Braves trade of a struggling Matt Kemp to the Dodgers for Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Adrian Gonzalez and Charlie Culberson. At first glance back in 2017 anybody with the slightest grasp on baseball saw that trade as a bad money for bad money deal.
Well here we are in 2019, and in a true weirdness that only the unpredictability of baseball can provide, Charlie Culberson is the only player involved in that trade that is still on a Major League roster. McCarthy retired following his one season with Atlanta while Kazmir and Gonzalez are all but formally retired. Matt Kemp is out of a job after not being able to even make the Mets roster. Yet, Culberson has blossomed into one of the, if not the, premier bench players in all of baseball.
When he joined Atlanta in the winter of 2017 he was heralded almost as a cult hero with Dodger fans who enjoyed watching him hit a walk off home run on the day of Vin Scully’s last home game broadcast as well as a big time home run in the World Series. There were still no expectations whatsoever with Braves fans though.
Culberson was a 28-year-old journeyman who came up in the Giants organization with a top-rated arm, and not much else. He had completely flopped at the Major League level having posted a combined -1.3 fWAR before coming to the Braves. His offensive game was putrid, and his defense was a negative as well. It was very easy to see how fans were less than enthused with giving a roster spot to Culberson.
However, Culberson has completely re-created himself since coming to his home state. Last season over 113 games he hit 12 home runs after hitting six over five seasons with three different clubs. Culberson posted a 108 wRC+ and for the first time in his career was a positive fWAR player (1.0). He also stepped into the field and played nearly every position (including pitcher) whenever he was asked and began to put his plus speed and plus-plus arm together for the first time at the Major League level.
So, what changed? The answer is interesting since we only have access to Statcast data going back to 2016. You see, Culberson actually had a lower than career average exit velocity (84.1 MPH) last season. He had a launch angle in line with his career average (7.3 Degrees) yet he had an ISO (Isolated Power) increase of over .100 points from his former best season in 2014 with the Rockies. However, since we can’t see what Culberson’s exit velocity and launch angle looked like back before 2016 it is hard to draw conclusions on exactly what changes he made to his swing to get that much of an offensive boost.
According to FanGraphs’ batted ball statistics though, Culberson increased his hard contact percentage from 24% in 2014 to 31.6% in 2018 with the Braves. That is a nominal increase although it may not seem like much. Another inference we can make from his spread statistics is that Culberson has figured out that pulling the ball is much more conducive to his swing path. His pull percentage of balls in play jumped from 34.4% in 2014 to 42.5% last season which is just over an 8% increase of pitches pulled into left field.
Culberson has taken the adjustments from last season to another level in 2019, but in a different way. His exit velocity is right there with his career average yet again (87.8 MPH) and his pull percentage is along the lines of last season’s adjustment at 45.8%. Yet, his hard contact percentage has jumped massively from 31.6% last season to 40.7% this season and his ISO has jumped from .196 to .235(!) which is elite.
The sudden massive spike in offensive numbers have been a result of Culberson continuing the adjustments made last season which turned him into what is essentially a “league average” hitter while adding in a major launch angle adjustment. After hovering around a launch angle in the 6-8-degree range during the three seasons of Statcast data we have access to, Culberson has jumped all the way up to an optimal 13.6-degree launch angle in 2019. As a result, he currently holds the highest Barrel% (Essentially an optimal combination of launch angle and exit velocity) of his career at 8.5%.
All of these behind the scenes adjustments over the last two seasons have really been reflected in Culberson’s wRC+ as he went from never posting a season over 80 wRC+ (100 is average) to two consecutive seasons over 100 with 108 wRC+ last season and a 131 wRC+ this season which ranks second among the entire Braves team (min 85 PA).
Now at 30-years-old Culberson has become a pivotal piece of this Braves team which ranks second overall in the National League. He comes off the bench on almost a nightly basis to play any position needed and has become almost a guaranteed baserunner every time he steps to the plate in the late innings.
Culberson deserves playing time at this point. He’s molded himself into one of the Braves best offensive options on the team. He’s been consistently healthy with Atlanta and is already a fan favorite. Not bad for an afterthought in a big money trade.