Culberson changing tactics for Spring Training pitch

Braves fan favorite hoping to crack roster as a reliever

January 22nd, 2024

This story was excerpted from Mark Bowman's Braves Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Being a position player who made a few pitching appearances didn’t make  a novelty. But being a utility player who wasn’t utilized at all over a two-month stretch certainly did. 

Culberson didn’t appear in a single game while part of Atlanta’s roster from May 19-June 18. He returned to the Braves at the end of June and appeared in just one game before he was replaced by Nicky Lopez at the end of July.  

The writing was on the wall for Culberson. Either expand his capabilities or face the prospect of retiring at 34. 

So, when Culberson rejoined Triple-A Gwinnett in August, he asked the Braves for a chance to begin pitching. This marked the start of a journey that will accelerate during Spring Training, when the fan favorite heads to Minor League camp with the hope of proving he could soon become a Major League reliever.

Culberson has spent this winter working out at the Maven Baseball Lab, located on the west side of Atlanta. Max Fried, Spencer Strider and A.J. Minter are among the others who have recently worked out at this location.

“I’d love to say I’m a reliever first, and that there is also the option for a team to say, ‘Hey, go play shortstop or left field to gain some flexibility,'” Culberson said. “But the focus has to be on pitching, and that’s where my focus has been, really, since August.”

Culberson has created a lot of memories while playing for the Giants, Rockies, Dodgers, Braves and Rangers over 11 big league seasons. He hit the walk-off homer that legendary broadcaster Vin Scully called during the final regular-season broadcast of Scully's career. Culberson came to Atlanta before the 2018 season and tallied a few clutch homers while helping his hometown team win its first division title since 2013 that same season.

Culberson served as a valuable backup during the 2018 and ’19 seasons, and he was also one of the team’s most likeable players. Fans, media, coaches, teammates and executives appreciated his friendly, upbeat personality. His easy-going approach allowed the Braves to bring him back last year with the understanding he’d only play if there was an emergency. 

Now, Atlanta is giving him a chance to prove he can be more than just the guy we saw throw mid-90s fastballs in a few mop-up appearances.  When he rejoined Gwinnett in August, he was placed on the development list. This gave him a chance to spend approximately six weeks developing his mechanics and conditioning his arm to pitch.

Culberson was encouraged when the Braves allowed him to make three appearances before Gwinnett’s season concluded. He scattered six hits and allowed two runs over 2 2/3 innings, striking out four and issuing just one walk. 

Each of the six hits were singles, and the one walk came after he missed with a 3-2 pitch to the first of the 15 batters faced during this three-game span.

“I wasn’t just working on my fastball,” Culberson said. “I was working on my slider and my cutter, and I tried a couple split-changeups. My very first pitch was a slider for a strike. I wasn’t perfect, but I was able to throw offspeed pitches for strikes, some down in the zone with two strikes and with decent spin.”

Culberson tallied a strike with eight of nine sliders he threw while facing a bevy of left-handed hitters during his second appearance. He worked on his cutter more during his third appearance, and he continued to get good responses from hitters. 

When Atlanta competed in the National League Division Series against the Phillies, Culberson was pitching to some of the position players the club wanted to keep ready in case they were needed during the postseason.

“It was positive for me to actually go out there, look like a pitcher, get good outs and make good pitches,” Culberson said. “I got good feedback just from the batters’ reactions. It was like, ‘This guy is actually trying. I'm not going to face him like a position player. I'm actually going to prepare like he's a pitcher, too.' I feel like I started looking more like a pitcher.” 

Culberson will be in Minor League camp this spring, but the Braves want him to be among the early arrivals so that he will be ready to pitch in games once the Grapefruit League season starts. He’ll certainly have a lot of folks pulling for him as he attempts to beat the odds by proving he can be an effective big league pitcher.

“I just want to let them know that it's not just me showing up thinking that I can just do it,” Culberson said. “I’ve put a lot of time and effort into this. I’ve invested in myself to try to make this work.”