Charlie Culberson got off on the wrong foot with Rockies' fans. He came from the San Francisco Giants in that insufferable 2012 season in exchange for Marco Scutaro. Yes, the same Marco Scutaro who did nothing for four months in Denver and then went to a pitcher's park by the bay and raised his OPS by nearly 200 points and became the 2012 NLCS MVP.
In order to make up for that, Culberson would have had to be the next Todd Helton; so he really never stood a chance. However, his play on the field in 2014 was almost as cringe worthy as the chain of events that helped bring him here two years ago. With great regret, I bring you a look back at his awful year.
The short and easy answer here would be "nothing good", but surprisingly that wouldn't be entirely true. Way back in early May, Culberson hit a walk off home run in an 11-10 win against the Mets, and while it would foreshadow nothing, I'd thought I'd mention this one positive since pretty much everything else we're going to get into here is a train wreck.
In case you zoned out from this team, or just didn't pay attention for the last month of the season (easy to do this year), Culberson's final batting line was .195 / .253 / .290 with a wRC+ of 33. Unacceptable in every way possible. He didn't hit, he didn't get on base, he only hit for extra bases in five percent of his plate appearances, and he struck out a little more than five times as often as he walked. For more into how terrible he was this season, I'm bringing out the Drag Factor tables.
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For those who have not seen these before, Drag Factor is a home made Purple Row metric which helps measure how much bad offense or "drag" is on a team.
The equation for calculating Drag Factor is as follows:
Drag Factor = ((100 - wRC+) * Plate Appearances) / Team Total Non-Pitcher Plate appearances
1) An individual's Drag Factor can be calculated with the equation above.
2) A team's Drag Factor can be calculated by adding the Drag Factors of everyone on the team together.
In a nutshell, we're looking for players who have a very low wRC+ and a very high number of plate appearances. The more extreme the combination of each of these two factors are, the higher a player's Drag Factor score is going to be.
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Here's the scores for the 2014 Rockies:
There's a couple of amazing things about these results. First of all, despite the team's 96 loses, they finished with a relatively reasonable Drag factor score. Not great, but considering how bad everything else was on this team, this figure not rising into the high teens like we've seen in many other seasons probably prevented the Rockies from losing over 100 games.
Second, it has dreadful Drag Factor scores from two players while everything else checks out out really nicely - With the exception of the fact Carlos Gonzalez appears on this list at all. We'll have to save DJ LeMahieu for another day and why the defense he provides makes his presence on this list more tolerable, but right now, let's put the microscope back on Culberson.
While his Drag Factor score is alarming, the number alone in this case doesn't quite convey his awfulness. Last year when I did some research on this topic, I kept a sheet of all the players for the Rockies who accumulated Drag Factor scores since 2004. Since Culberson's season was so terrible, I wanted to see where he ranks against others who were miserable at the plate for this franchise and were still allowed to keep going up there because the club didn't have a better option. Here's the list ...
I put in all the players who accumulated a score over 2.5. Culberson comes in sixth, but right away something should jump out at you: Unlike everybody else on this list, Culberson achieved this dubious distinction in less than 250 plate appearances. History says it's really, really hard be as bad as Culberson was in 2014 and keep getting playing time (Clint Barmes being the exception), which is why it's completely fair to criticize the Rockies for allowing this out machine to take a minimum of 27 plate appearances in all six months this season. This wasn't a guy who came up in July and started playing every day after Tulo got hurt when the team ran out of options, this is a guy who consistently wormed his way into the lineup from start to finish.
One of my favorite, well ... least favorite Charlie Culberson stats this year is that he appeared in combined 20 games against the White Sox, Indians, Twins, Padres, Cardinals, and Nationals, and recorded a grand total of ZERO hits. Not one bloop that fell in against these six teams for him. Not one seeing eye ground ball found a hole, and of course he wasn't good enough to record a conventional hit. There's bad, and then there's that.
How it happened
I could just start wrapping this up here, but I'm going to provide a little bonus section in this review as there's one other thing I wanted to dive into.
Surprisingly enough, the way Culberson got to these atrocious numbers is quite interesting, and it also suggests he could be much better at the plate if he improves one very important skill. Here's a few figures to think about.
According to fangraphs, Charlie Culberson swung at the pitches he saw 52.9 percent of the time. That makes him an aggressive hitter, but not an ultra aggressive hitter. On average, the league swung at 46.7 percent of pitches in 2014.
Now here's where it gets interesting. When pitches were in the zone, Charlie Culberson swung at them 62.6 percent of the time, which is actually less than the league average of 65.6 percent of the time.
If you've already put those two parts of the equation together, you know what's coming next. When pitches were outside of the strike zone, Culberson swung at them 45.1 percent of the time. The league on the other hand only swung at those pitches 31.3 percent of the time. Here's a link to the players who led that category and recorded more than 200 plate appearances in 2014. As you can see, Culberson ranks fourth in all of baseball at swinging at pitches out of zone. However, if you dig deeper, it's actually worse than that because the three players ahead of him are all ultra aggressive hitters who just swing at most of the pitches they see in general.
As a result, they swing at more strikes; but they're also just better contact hitters in general and are able to get away with this sin. Pablo Sandoval, A.J. Pierzynski, and Salvador Perez made contact with 84.6, 83.2, and 85.5 percent of the pitches they swung at respectively. Meanwhile, Culberson as the next man on the list only made contact with 73.4 percent of the pitches he swung at.
See the problem here? Culberson's not a contact guy. He's a player that's trying to find the right pitch to hack at and hit it. The issue is Culberson has ZERO pitch recognition skills!
With all of the player and league average numbers fangraphs gives us, we're able to deduce perhaps the most important statistic explaining Culberson's ineffectiveness at the plate. When the league as a whole chooses to swing at a pitch, they swing at a strike 63.1 percent of the time. However, when Charlie Culberson chooses to swing at a pitch, he only swings at a strike 52.2 percent of the time, which I'm pretty sure is the worst in all of baseball although I only ran the numbers on the obviously suspicious players since I had to crunch the numbers myself.
In other words, Culberson's ability to tell whether the pitch is going to be a ball or a strike coming out of the pitcher's hand is essentially nonexistent. A player would be nearly as successful swinging at strikes and laying off balls if they used a coin flip to determine their course of action prior to each offering. That's really, really, really embarrassing for a major league hitter.
Culberson's still just 25, and pitch recognition is actually a skill you can keep improving into your thirties. So it's possible he can become a much better player than he was in 2014. The problem is he was so, so awful in 2014, that it's unlikely he'll ever be anything more than a replacement level player even if he figures out which pitches he should be swinging at.
2014 Grade: F
Is there really any other appropriate grade here? No explanation needed!
What to expect in 2015
Hopefully, you can expect to see him in something other than a Rockies' uniform. Despite the room for improvement at the plate and his defense not being as awful as the picture I chose for this piece might suggest, the Rockies need to find backup infield help that doesn't involve ineptitude to this degree at the plate. Heck, I'd even prefer the Rockies to give Rafael Ynoa a shot at this role before bringing back Culberson for another try.
If the Rockies want to keep him in Triple-A to work on things (because he can get at least a little bit better), that's fine, but there better be a wide layer of more reliable depth between him and playing time anywhere near the major league roster.