Toolshed: Braves' Cumberland rising up

Atlanta's No. 29 prospect among Minor League leaders in fly balls

Brett Cumberland has 17 RBIs in his last six games for Class A Rome. (Chris Robertson, KZONE images)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | May 26, 2017 11:35 AM

The Rome Braves really needed a fly ball Thursday night. With one out and the bases loaded in the top of the 10th against Augusta, a grounder might not have gotten the job done and, at worst, resulted in an inning-ending double play.

But up to the plate stepped Brett Cumberland, and relief likely washed over the R-Braves dugout. The switch-hitter hadn't hit a fair ball on the ground in his last 24 plate appearances -- a stretch dating back to Sunday when he poked a rolling single to right field. Batting from the left side, Cumberland lined a 3-2 pitch to right for a bases-clearing double, and the Braves went on to win, 6-2.

"Ultimately, I'm just looking for a pitch to hit hard," Cumberland said. "I'm not too concerned about how much I'm getting in the air versus the ground. Obviously, I'd like to hit more in the air, but unless I'm noticing that most are on the ground, then I'm not going to get too caught up either way. It's more important to me to be driving to all parts of the field."

The Braves' No. 29 prospect may not pay much attention to those splits, but the numbers speak volumes. Cumberland ranks second among all Minor Leaguers with 60.3 percent of the balls he puts in play going into the air. Oklahoma City slugger O'Koyea Dickson (62.9) is the only other Minor Leaguer above 60 percent. Among Class A hitters, his ratio of 0.47 ground balls per fly balls is second lowest, trailing only Dayton's John Sansone at 0.46. 

Video: Rome's Cumberland clubs one

There are a couple ways to slice these numbers. Fly balls are obviously more likely to result in home runs, and players with high fly ball rates give themselves a chance to post higher slugging percentages. That's happened of late with Cumberland, who has four homers and three doubles over his last six games for an even 1.000 slugging percentage in that span.

But fly balls can also result in lower BABIPs, meaning lower batting averages. Put simply, the more balls hit the air, the more chance of lazy fly balls that are easily caught. Cumberland learned that lesson early as he entered Sunday with a .187 average through 26 games, a number dragged down by a .273 BABIP.

It's no coincidence that the Major League leader in fly ball rate is Ryan Schimpf (63.9 percent), who owns a .163 average and .153 BABIP in 43 games but also leads the Padres with a .259 isolated slugging percentage.

Because of the nature of his at-bats, Cumberland knew his other numbers would bounce back as they have this past week. He's now hitting .232/.431/.495 with six homers and eight doubles over 137 plate appearances for Rome and ranks sixth in the South Atlantic League with a .926 OPS.

"My confidence has been there all season," he said. "But it's starting to show. I always thought I've been seeing the ball well and making good contact. The balls just needed to fall into place, and they're starting to do that."

To fully understand Cumberland's game, one can go back to his days at Cal, specifically the summer between his freshman and sophomore years. The catcher had hit .254/.405/.429 with seven homers and 10 doubles in 56 games with the Bears as a freshman -- solid numbers but ones that he admits could've been better had he not tried to play through left wrist and thumb injuries in the second half. Those maladies kept Cumberland from playing in any of the country's various summer collegiate leagues, but they didn't keep him from working on his swing. Through some of his Cal teammates, he was pointed in the direction of private hitting coach Craig Wallenbrock, and the pair got to work on what the switch-hitter could do better.

"I wanted a little bit of a different gather in my swing and liked to add a little more lift," he said. "We watched a lot of videos of big leaguers like Miguel Cabrera, Josh Hamilton, Joey Votto, Josh Donaldson -- elite hitters like that. I really like Miggy because of the load and gather he puts into his stance. Then, I wanted to see what lefty hitters I could learn from, so we looked at Hamilton when he was in his prime with the Rangers. I took stuff from all of them and started playing with things."

The results came quickly for the California native. In his sophomore year, Cumberland was named Pac-12 Player of the Year after hitting .344/.480/.678 with 16 homers, a triple and 10 doubles in 52 games. His home run total had more than doubled, while his isolated slugging percentage jumped from .175 to .333 in just one year. Cumberland said part of that was getting healthy again as well as maturing and getting stronger, but he didn't deny that all the tinkering had a direct effect. As a Draft-eligible sophomore, he was taken 76th overall by the Braves last June and signed for $1.5 million.

If Wallenbrock's name sounds familiar, it's because Cumberland isn't his most famous client. He helped J.D. Martinez go from a player who was released by the Astros to an All-Star slugger with the Tigers. A quick Google news search shows Wallenbrock being credited with adjustments that helped Major Leaguers Matt Joyce, Jason Castro and most recently Dodgers breakout slugger Chris Taylor. 

Of course, it's more than just his fly balls that will carry him up the chain in a talented Braves system. His 16.1 percent walk rate ranks third in the Sally League, helping him top the circuit with a .431 OBP. He also has offensive weaknesses, namely a 27 percent strikeout rate, and defensive bugaboos that have him behind No. 28 Braves prospect Lucas Herbert on the Rome catching depth chart. (Cumberland has started 10 of his 32 games behind the plate with the rest coming at DH.)  

But as Cumberland continues to hone his skills, the 21-year-old is happy to see the hits come with more regularity.

"It's been really nice," he said. "This whole year through even Spring Training, I feel like I've been seeing pitches really well and getting on-base like I want to. The average hasn't been there, but the whole time I've tried to trust the process. I wasn't getting too down on myself, and I won't get ahead of myself either."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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