So, you’re Charlie Culberson, the Swiss Army Knife of baseball players, a plug-in guy who fits just about any outlet. You’ve got more uses than duct tape.
At some point in what is now a seven-year major league career you have come to certain conclusions about your lot in life. You’re just not going to be Every Day Charlie.
“My whole career in the big leagues, when I’ve been here, was as a utility player, never have been a starter. I’ve had to adapt to this role,” the Braves’ most utilitarian of utility guys said.
“There have been times early on when I wasn’t good at it,” he said. “It was tough. If you have a couple at-bats in the week and you go 0-for-2, 0-for-3, you’re thinking, ‘Man, I was 0-for-the-week.’ And sometimes that’s tough to grasp. There have been times when I haven’t started for a month straight and had a few at-bats sprinkled in there, but sometimes that’s just how it is. You try to stay ready for yourself and ready for the team.”
So, you’re Charlie Culberson’s manager, what do you do? The guy is absolutely killing it, hitting .469, granted in only 33 plate appearances. He’s knocking in runs (10 RBIs) and hitting the ball hard (five extra-base hits, including three homers). He did it again Wednesday night. A late-game defensive sub for left fielder Austin Riley, Culberson’s eighth-inning, two-run home run provided needed breathing room in the Braves’ 4-0 win over St. Louis. Thursday, with one more at-bat, he stroked a single.
You scratch your head and you kind of joke about it, because, well, what else are you going to do when he’s going like this?
“His at-bats this year have been amazing, if sporadic,” Brian Snitker said. “I told him I feel like I don’t want to play you (too much), I don’t want to put you in a slump, because he’s been so good off the bench.” (But for the record, in three starts this year, he’s hitting .545).
Thus far this year, his second with the Braves since turning out to be the most important component of a trade that sent Matt Kemp back to L.A., Culberson has established himself as one of the more productive and versatile bench players around.
He ranks second this season in the majors in hits off the bench (six), and second in extra-base hits and third in RBIs (five).
Last year wasn’t so bad either, when he established career bests in games (113), at-bats (296), hits (80), home runs (12) and OPS (.792).
Just how hard is the task of shaking off long periods of idleness and performing on cue? How difficult is the role of being a one-shot guy in a game that offers others the promise of the night’s next at-bat?
“Pretty difficult,” Snitker said.
“It takes a special guy to be able to handle all that and be as productive as he is, too. He keeps himself ready and prepared, he knows his role and is willing to do anything. We’re lucky to have a guy like that,” he said.
How important is it?
“It’s beyond words. You just don’t have that, somebody that versatile and is willing to do that every game,” Snitker said.
On defense, Culberson this season already has played at both corners of the infield and in left field. There will be more. Last season he played all four of the infield positions as well as left and right field. In a real pinch, he could even catch.
It’s little surprise that a fellow excelling in the utility role considers himself a patient, laid-back sort. That extends beyond the dugout into real life, where, he says he’ll keep himself balanced listening to soul-soothing music and dabbling in yoga the past couple of years. With the right approach, raising three kids can be good for the attitude, too.
When he describes himself, Culberson seems to be outlining the perfect disposition for a bench player: “I always thought I’ve been a pretty relaxed and patient person and (his kids) have taught me a lot of things about life that have helped me in baseball, too. Just be as patient as possible and willing to do anything you can to help other people out. Just understand the different situations you’re in.”
And the secret to thriving as a player off the bench doesn’t seem all that complicated when Culberson is the one revealing it. Could be a reason he’s so successful at it.
“If you put the team first – as cliché as it sounds – typically good things happen,” he said. “If I can go out there and rattle off a few starts to spell some guys when they need days off, great. And if they’re doing well and they’re healthy and things are good, then I’ll be on the side waiting my turn. I just try to keep it as simple as possible.”