Charlie Culberson isn’t enamored of the nickname he’s picked up this season. Complimentary as it may be, it’s a bit much for a humble utility player from Calhoun, Georgia — especially one who knows that the idea of “clutch” has largely been debunked. Which isn’t to say he’s been irrationally dubbed.
His overall numbers this year are solid, but they’re nothing to write home about. In 287 plate appearances, Culberson is slashing .280/.330/.494. It’s his flair for heroics that has led to the sobriquet “Charlie Clutch.”
“I had the couple of walk-off homers back in May and June, and people just kind of ran with that,” explained Culberson, who is in his first season with the Atlanta Braves. “It sounds good — it works well with the two Cs — but it’s not something I would give myself. I think you’re going to come off as a little conceited if you put ‘clutch’ next to your name. And if you think about it, it’s kind of a pressure thing. ‘Clutch’ is a pretty strong word, especially in sports.”
I pointed out to Culberson that the walk-off bombs aren’t the only impactful hits he’s had this season. In 71 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, he’s slashed a healthy .375/.437/.641. With two outs and runners in scoring position, those numbers — in a small sample size of 32 chances — are a stupendous .464/.559/.786.
“I’ve noticed that,” admitted Culberson. “But I’ve played probably half as much as everybody else, and a lot of it comes down to opportunities. The year has gone pretty well for me. Still, ‘clutch’ means you come through in certain situations, and I understand that it’s not really a real thing. All I can do is hope to keep it going.”
Following Culberson’s game-winner on June 3rd, which came in a pinch-hitting appearance, MLB.com’s Mark Bowman informed us that Culberson had just become the only player in MLB history with four walk-off shots and fewer than 30 career home runs. At the time, the 29-year-old had just eight dingers as a big leaguer.
He’s since added 10 more, giving him 12 on the season — by far a career high — and the power surge hasn’t come from muscling up. Rather, it’s come from calming down.
“I attribute it to relaxing more at the plate,” Culberson explained. “Some guys develop a swing and they stick with it. For me, along with bouncing around with teams and having a lot of hitting coaches, I’ve always tried to figure out, ‘What is my swing? What works and is going to keep me consistent? What is going to keep me in the big leagues?'”
Culberson credits his current hitting coach, Kevin Seitzer, with helping him turn an abysmal start into a successful season. And abysmal might be an understatement. He went into the month of May with three hits in 27 at-bats. Four weeks later, he was still straddling the Mendoza Line. Given his nondescript track record, his job security was, in a word, tenuous.
Then came, spring-boarded by Seitzer’s guidance, the creation of “Charlie Clutch.”
“We figured out what would allow me to be more consistent and barrel up more balls across the zone,” said Culberson. “Again, it was just relaxing at the plate — relaxing my body, my hands, my shoulders, and being ready to hit. That small adjustment has allowed my swing to be freer. It’s allowed my swing to just happen, which in turn has allowed me to drive balls I should be driving.”
Given the road he traveled to get here — Culberson’s resume is admittedly that of a journeyman — his sudden success has attracted skepticism as well as plaudits. While some see him as a pleasant surprise in the midst of a career turnaround, others see him as a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon, a return to obscurity almost assured. Begrudgingly, Culberson accepts that fact.
“Sometimes when a player starts to do well, people will put him down,” shared Culberson. “And I’m OK with that. But when someone can make an adjustment and things go well… all of a sudden, people point to previous seasons. For instance, last September I had 15 at-bats with Dodgers after being in Triple-A all year. There have been things written about me saying, ‘Oh, he only did this last year, and only this before that.’
“Honestly, it’s nice to see good things written about you. I’m not going to lie. At the same time, I can take the negative comments. My career hasn’t been the absolute best. I understand that. But I am where I am today, which is pretty cool. I’m home now. Atlanta is home for me, and the adjustments I’ve made have allowed me help my team win some games. This has been a pretty special season for us.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.