Charlie Culberson Takes the Mound

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Charlie Culberson had quite the interesting 2023 season. Like many mid-30s journeyman infielders, he started the year in the minors, unable to secure a big league guarantee. After six weeks playing for the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers (with a .489 OPS), a spot on the Braves roster opened up when Ehire Adrianza hit the injured list, bringing Culberson back to his hometown team. As an onmipositional bench player, you could generally picture him as a giant bag filled with different-sized gloves, giving starters rest late in games for a team that was kicking the snot out of their opponents every night. But surprisingly, he played exactly zero innings in the field, letting his arsenal of leather collect dust in the dugout for a month. I can’t even say for certain whether he brought a bat with him from Gwinnett; he took just one trip to the plate (hitting a single) and may very well have borrowed a teammate’s.

Such infrequent usage of a bench player is unorthodox, to say the least. Roster spots are valuable for platoons, rest days, and stuffing the bullpen with arms, so it’s not exactly great value to devote a 26-man slot to someone who appeared in just one of the 263 team innings he was around for. But the Braves have a way of doing things that works for them. They finished dead last in position players used per game, with nearly their entire starting lineup playing every game they were healthy for. Culberson remains in Atlanta’s organization on a minor league contract, and I’m sure he’d like his next big league opportunity to consist of more than a single at-bat. With a career wRC+ of 76 and negative defensive value despite playing every position, he might not get another chance to make a roster as a hitter. Instead, Culberson has decided to make a late-career switch – to the mound.

The tricky thing about talking about Culberson the pitcher is that we don’t have all that much information to work with. He hasn’t been a regular pitcher at any point in his 17-year pro career. He may have pitched in high school, but many sources, including his county sports Hall of Fame induction page, make no mention of it. Culberson did throw off a mound at a Perfect Game event, although most position players do so on the showcase circuit; his PG scouting report makes no mention of pitching. He certainly has a gifted arm, though, winning a Baseball America award for best infield arm as a prospect while boasting 78th-percentile infield throwing speed in the Statcast era.

Pitching is a relatively new endeavor for Culberson, but baseball has seen a few players at a similar stage of their careers make the transition before. Brooks Kieschnick is likely the most notable such player this century – after a few unsuccessful stints as a fifth outfielder, he put together two league-average seasons as a middle reliever for the Brewers. More recently, former Blue Jays and Tigers outfielder Anthony Gose leveraged his cannon arm into a new career as a pitcher, touching 101 mph from the left side. Historically, we’ve seen a few lightly used two-way players who generally stuck to one side as their careers progressed. Culberson fits the general mold of a converted position player, a live arm with a stagnating career at his primary position.

Careers of 21st Century Converted Position Players
Name Plate Appearances Batting WAR Batters Faced Pitching WAR
Brooks Kieschnick 336 -0.2 425 0.5
Jason Lane 1366 2.3 39 0.1
Anthony Gose 1252 1.8 116 0
Charlie Culberson 1312 0 ? ?

So let’s see what happens when Culberson takes the mound. He was first summoned to close out a blowout loss back in 2018, and his first pitch looked like this:

If you’ve watched position players pitch in the past few years, that offering from Culberson may have been a surprise. You might be used to seeing pitches more like those thrown by fan favorite utilityman Willians Astudillo, who generally lobbed meatballs that wouldn’t even break the speed limit on nearby streets and whose on-mound exploits have been featured in four separate videos on MLB’s YouTube channel. Position player pitching was once far more infrequent and taken far more seriously, but those days are long behind us:

Look, it makes sense why position player pitchers aren’t throwing anywhere near max effort anymore. In a blowout, there’s really no difference in win probability between losing by seven or nine, and Astudillo doesn’t have a baseball DeLorean that rewinds time back to the first inning if he throws 88 mph (though if he did, I’d imagine it might look like this). But it can still be frustrating to watch beer league softball in the middle of a major league game, especially since we know the players could throw a lot harder if they wanted to.

This is all to say that if you turned on the game to see Culberson throwing in the low-90s, it would be easy to mistake him for an actual pitcher. Even the batter, Chris Iannetta, didn’t see that coming, as he lazily half-swung for strike one. Culberson finished that inning having allowed one run and has had seven scoreless appearances as a pitcher since, continuing to throw with all his might. Each of his 98 fastballs have registered above 87.5 mph, and his fastest pitch clocked in at 93.7 mph, just a hair shy of the average heater thrown in 2023.

Throwing like a normal pitcher immediately puts Culberson on the Mount Rushmore of position player pitchers, but the fastball isn’t his only offering. He’s thrown a handful of breaking balls of indeterminate classification (Statcast calls a few sliders and a few curveballs), including this one that netted him his first (and, to this point, only) career strikeout:

That pitch had some serious bend to it, breaking 13 inches to the left as it nailed the bottom corner of the strike zone. Culberson has a natural feel for spin, averaging 2,400 rpm on fastballs and 2,550 with breaking balls, and once hitting 2,672 rpm in an at-bat that coaxed a fly out from Juan Soto. Does that make his breaking ball great? Well, not really. While his limited sample of curveballs had impressive sweep, they were severely lacking in the type of downward movement you’d expect, up to eight inches below league average according to Statcast.

From this eight-game sample, Culberson doesn’t look like a big league reliever – but that’s a rather silly thing to say about someone who’s never been a pitcher until now. Of course the second baseman who probably learned a curveball grip from the first guy he could find in the dugout isn’t the next coming of Trevor Hoffman; he was never supposed to be. But even in this limited set of appearances, Culberson has a much stronger pitching foundation than your average 35-year-old position player, even when they do let it fly for an inning. He finds the strike zone with decent accuracy, and his ability to spin the ball inspires confidence that his curveball can be a legitimate big league weapon if it can be re-shaped to have more downward bite. From purely a stuff perspective, Culberson might already be a better pitcher than a few actual relievers.

Charlie Culberson Pitch Data
Pitch Type Velocity Induced Vertical Break Horizontal Break PitchingBot Stuff Grade
Fastball 89.8 mph +12.7 in -4.3 in 40
Breaking Ball 78.6 mph +2.2 in +11 in 38 or 46*
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
*PitchingBot evaluates his breaking ball as a 38 if classified as a slider, 46 if classified as a curveball

If Culberson successfully reinvents himself as a hurler – say, getting both his pitches up to league average in quality – he won’t be guaranteed a spot in Atlanta’s bullpen for the season. ZiPS projects the team to have 10 relievers at or above the league average by ERA, and while I don’t have a pitching projection for Culberson, it’s not exactly controversial to forecast him with some big question marks. But injuries happen, and roster churn is inevitable as the season goes along. Excluding position players, the 2023 Braves had 31 different players take the mound at some point. And if he doesn’t make it with Atlanta, Culberson could end up on a team with a less glamorous bullpen projection in a small trade or waiver claim.

In the grand scheme of things, Culberson’s conversion isn’t all that significant. This isn’t Mike Trout waking up one day and deciding to become Gerrit Cole, or Shohei Ohtani waking up one day and deciding to be, well, Shohei Ohtani. None of Gose, Kieschnick, or the other hitters-turned-pitchers throughout history were ever big names in either role, but their pitching allowed them to extend careers that were hanging on by a thread. Culberson is no stranger to picking up new positions on the fly, being shuttled to and from the minors, and not knowing what team he’ll be on in just a few months’ time. In that sense, he exemplifies the true journeyman, doing anything to stick around. Culberson’s time on the professional baseball grind is old enough to drive a car (and a plane, apparently), and he doesn’t intend on it ending just yet.

Kyle is a FanGraphs contributor who likes to write about unique players who aren't superstars. He likes multipositional catchers, dislikes fastballs, and wants to see the return of the 100-inning reliever. He's currently a college student studying math education, and wants to apply that experience to his writing by making sabermetrics more accessible to learn about. Previously, he's written for PitcherList using pitch data to bring analytical insight to pitcher GIFs and on his personal blog about the Angels.

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3 months ago

Crazy that the average fastball is 94 now. That used to be gas in the 80s.