A few weeks before the start of the season, Charleston RiverDogs shortstop Cito Culver approached the powers to be within the New York Yankees organization to talk about his second full season of professional baseball.
Culver wanted to stop being a switch-hitter and concentrate on hitting from the right side this summer.
Culver had been a switch-hitter from the first time he had picked up a bat as a kid. His ability to switch hit is partly what made the Rochester, N.Y., native a can’t-miss prospect and the Yankees’ first-round pick in the 2010 major league draft.
But last summer, during his first full season of professional baseball with the RiverDogs, Culver struggled at the plate, hitting just .215 with an on-base percentage of .321.
Going into this season, Culver knew he needed to get more confident at the plate and approached the Yankees about becoming a full-time right-handed hitter.
“From my understanding, the Yankees were going to come to me about being just a right-handed hitter, so I just sped up the process,” Culver said. “It was a mutual decision. I had been a switch-hitter my whole life and I just didn’t feel comfortable at the plate from the left side all last season. I tried to battle through it, but unfortunately it didn’t work out.”
His rookie season was a “learning experience.” Culver had never played in so many games during a season and the grind of showing up at the park every day took its toll, mentally and physically.
“It was frustrating not to be the player you know you can be,” Culver said. “Last year was the first time I’d ever struggled playing baseball. But looking back on it, I learned a lot about myself and all the work that goes into being a professional.
“I know I’ll be a better player because of what I went through last year.”
While Culver’s statistics are not significantly better this season — he is hitting .220 with three home runs and 12 RBIs going into the RiverDogs’ game against Greenville tonight at Riley Park — his comfort level at the plate has increased dramatically.
“He’s a much more confident hitter,” said RiverDogs hitting coach P.J. Pilittere. “He’s improving every day. He’s not getting frustrated, which is huge when you make a move like this.
“He’s not getting beat down mentally, which is really impressive to me. He’s not worried about his numbers too much. He’s doing a really good job of sticking to the process.”
Facing breaking balls from right-handed pitching has been the biggest adjustment for Culver.
For the first time in his baseball career, breaking balls are moving away from him.
“It’s different — I’m getting more and more used to it as I get more at bats,” Culver said. “It’s a process. I’m more concerned about the process than the numbers. I know I’m getting better.”
Going from a switch-hitter to a right-handed hitter isn’t the only change Culver has made this season. He’s worn the No. 2 jersey ever since he was a kid — honoring Yankees shortstop and team captain Derek Jeter. Culver idolized Jeter and the Yankees growing up. This season, he switched to No. 23, the start of what he hopes is the beginning of creating his own identity.
“I’ve always looked up to Derek and that’s why I’ve worn No. 2,” Culver said. “I kind of wanted to do my own thing and create my own name. Of course I want to emulate my game after Derek, but I don’t want to take it too far. That’s his number and I’ve got to start something for myself.”
What hasn’t changed about Culver’s game is his defense. For the second straight season, Culver is among the top defensive shortstops in the South Atlantic League. Culver leads all shortstops with a .965 fielding percentage, committing just seven errors in 200 chances. As an 18-year-old rookie last summer, Culver was second in the SAL with a .958 fielding percentage.
“I take pride in my defense,” Culver said.