Charlie Culberson’s 2019 season ended in disappointing fashion when he was struck in the face by a pitch thrown by Washington’s Fernando Rodney on September 14. Despite that disappointing end, Culberson gave the Braves another typical Culberson season in that he filled in on the infield and the outfield, came up big some key moments and once again outperformed his metrics.
What went right in 2019?
Culberson saw a fewer opportunities than in 2018 early in the season, as the addition of Josh Donaldson pushed Johan Camargo to the bench in a utility role. When Culberson did get opportunities though, he produced, hitting .317/.362/.571 with three home runs in the first half. He saw additional time in the outfield and was also an option on the infield.
Very fun fact: Culberson’s highest-WPA game (and individual play) this season came because he drew a bases-loaded, go-ahead walk. For a guy that only drew six (yes, six) walks all season, that’s wild.
Also, he did this:
What went wrong in 2019?
Culberson struggled a bit in the second half hitting just .208/.230/.319 over the final 41 games. During that stretch, he saw his strikeout rate jump for 23.2% in the first half to 37.3% in the second. Additionally, his walk rate plummeted from 7.2% in the first half to 1.3% in the second.
Per Baseball Savant, Culberson posted a .306 wOBA and a .282 xwOBA. That is not quite as wide as the gap he produced in 2018 but could explain some of the regression we saw in the second half of this season.
While his ability to defy his peripherals remained somewhat intact if diminished, one thing that changed was his ability to live up to the Charlie Clutch nickname. Culberson posted negative WPA (substantially) in 2019. He had a .326/.351/.576 line in 97 low-leverage PAs this year, and a .116/.174/.140 line in 47 non-low-leverage PAs. (In 2018, it was the reverse, with a wRC+ in the 80s in low leverage and a wRC+ in the 140s in non-low-leverage, including a wRC+ over 200 in high leverage.)
He had arguably one of his worst games ever on May 23: 0-for-6 with four strikeouts, a GIDP, and a foul out. Beyond just the straight line, he seriously hurt the Braves’ chances to win (in a game they eventually won by a run), as his double play came with two on and ended the inning, his foulout came with runners on second and third and two out, two of his strikeouts led off innings, and two ended innings with multiple runners on base. In his career, he’s never had a game with a WPA deficit (-.038) as gnarly as that one, or anywhere even close.
Culberson already had swing-and-miss and pitch selection challenges coming into 2019, and they got much worse this season. His untenable whiff rates and chase rates got even worse, and pitchers took advantage by throwing him fewer pitches in the zone. It’s something to watch as the Braves will surely retain him into 2020. You can see just how bad it is when things like the below happen regularly.
Tragically for Culberson and the Braves, his season ended on September 14 on that hit by pitch which left him with multiple facial fractures. That came just days after the Braves had lost Camargo to a fractured shin further weakening the team’s bench for the postseason.
What to expect in 2020?
Culberson is arbitration-eligible again this offseason and will be due a modest raise. He has performed well in his role since coming to Atlanta and his versatility is a strength. Rosters expanding next season to 26 players certainly won’t hurt him either.