There’s nothing small about Bill Cullen’s game, that is, other than Cullen himself. Listed at 5-foot-9, the VCU center fielder manages to pack quite a punch into his 180-pound frame.
A left-handed batter, Cullen summons uncommon power through strong hands and hummingbird bat speed. Cullen generates so much energy at the plate, he’s been known to send his own dugout running for cover. Coach Shawn Stiffler says he’s been tempted to use the trash can lid as a shield against Cullen’s foul balls.
“He has probably the best bat speed of anyone I’ve ever coached,” Stiffler says.
The good news for those ducking in the third base dugout is that Cullen spends the majority of his time thumping baseballs into the ample fairways provided between the lines at The Diamond, VCU’s spacious home field.
That’s when the fun really begins.
The Diamond, cavernous by college baseball standards, allows Cullen to showcase arguably his most dynamic skill: his speed. In 59 games last season, Cullen hit .347 with 25 doubles, five home runs and tied for the national lead with nine triples. The Diamond may cost Cullen a few home runs, but its alleys are as wide as airport runways, ideal for a gap hitter with good wheels. In other words, the place was practically built for guys like Cullen.
“That’s one of the main reasons I chose to come to VCU,” The Thomas Dale High School graduate reveals. “I was never really this big power guy. I was more of a gap guy, so I would be able to bring my doubles and triples totals up.”
“He literally hits the ball so hard, and he runs so well, anything that he hits that isn’t directly at an outfielder gets to a place in The Diamond where he can turn it into a double,” says Stiffler.
A junior, Cullen bats leadoff for the Rams. It’s his job to set the tone for the offense early in the game. But that’s where Cullen’s skill set and that of an average leadoff man diverge. As a sophomore, Cullen slugged .571, which ranked fifth in the Colonial Athletic Association. You don’t do that with drag bunts down the first base line.
“He’s not your typical leadoff guy,” Stiffler admits. “He’s in there to take the first pitch of the game and drive it off the wall.”
Stiffler says one of the main reasons Cullen continues to hit from the No. 1 hole is to get him an additional at-bat each game. The strategy appears to be paying off. Cullen drove in 40 runs from the leadoff spot last season for a VCU offense that ranked fourth in the league in runs scored.
In two seasons, Cullen has hit .337 with 102 runs scores and 56 extra base hits. And he’s not toiling for VCU in a vaccum. Cullen is making people notice him. Baseball America named Cullen the Atlantic 10 Preseason Player of the Year, while College Sports Madness and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association both tabbed him Preseason Second Team All-America.
Cullen, while flattered by the high praise, says it won’t change him much. He’s still going to adhere to the principles that made him VCU’s best hitter, a disciplined approach that boils down to thousands of reps in the batting cage.
“It does put the expectation out there that I have to perform well, but I’m not going to let it dictate what I do,” Cullen says.
Stiffler says Cullen beats him to practice every day. When the VCU Coach steps out onto the nearly empty field, he usually finds a group that includes Cullen and his fellow slugger, Joey Cujas, logging business-like sessions off the tee and in the cage.
“The neat thing about Billy, and I’d include Joey Cujas in this, is that they’re our two hardest workers,” Stiffler says. “He’s extremely focused on just getting his game better all the time.”
That includes a summer ball stint in the Alaska Baseball League for the Mat-Su Miners in a town northeast of Anchorage. Between day hikes on glaciers, whitewater rafting and salmon fishing with teammates in the Alaskan summer’s nearly 24-hours of daylight, Cullen hit .312 and ranked second in the league in homers (8) and RBIs (31).
Cullen’s spike in power numbers over the summer are proof of the junior’s continued efforts in the weight room. Originally a 155-pound freshman, Cullen has managed to add 25 pounds, including 10 this year alone.
Once upon a time, Cullen was also a standout high school pitcher, a southpaw with a mid to upper 80s fastball. The plan had been to eventually work him into the Rams’ pitching staff, but Cullen won the center field job as a freshman and never stopped hitting. Eventually, late VCU Coach Paul Keyes and Stiffler decided the Rams had enough pitching depth, and there was no sense in messing with a good thing.
Now, more than ever, the soft-spoken Cullen is prepared to carry a big stick for a VCU lineup that returns seven of its nine regulars from last season. He may also earn additional attention from pro scouts. In seasons past, Stiffler says, scouts would come to watch the big arms of former star pitchers Blake Hauser, Kyle Haynes and Kyle Pelchy, only to be captivated a certain undersized center fielder who raps laser line drives and can get from home plate to second base in the time it takes you to unwrap a ballpark hotdog.
That won’t be the case this year, as Cullen – who, in addition to his lethal bat, is also a plus center fielder with a strong throwing arm – has established himself as one of the best position players in the Mid-Atlantic region. Scouts will be coming to VCU games specifically to see him.
“I think some of the draft stuff and some of the accolades have caught him a little bit by surprise,” Stiffler says. “But they haven’t caught our coaching staff by surprise because we, since his freshman year thought, this kid’s got tools that are unbelievable for his body size. There isn’t anything he can’t do.”