Name: Kellen Kulbacki
DOB: November 21, 1985
"The first swing I saw he hit a home run," Padres director of scouting Bill Gayton said. "The next swing he hit a home run."
After some early struggles with short-season Eugene of the Northwest League, Kulbacki put together a torrid month of August, hitting .356 with six homers and 19 RBIs over his final 25 games to boost his average above .300 for the year. He had an extra base hit in nine of his final 11 contests.
"There is a tremendous adjustment to playing everyday instead of Friday, Saturday, Sunday," Eugene manager Greg Riddoch said. "He ended up hitting .301. We stayed on that to see where he was. I had all the stats figured out. Grady (Fuson) accused me of giving in to him. He said, ‘You just wanted him to hit .300.' I said, ‘You wanted him to hit .300 too.' After he got a hit, I took him out of the game; he did not play the last game because we wanted him to get a chance to hit .300. That is what it is about."
He ended up batting .301 with 24 extra base hits, including eight bombs, and 39 RBIs over 61 games. He also drew 27 walks but struck out 56 times.
Assimilating to professional ball wasn't easy on Kulbacki. His adjustment to the wood bat did not go smoothly, as his timing was off and he had trouble catching up to a good fastball.
He didn't appear to be the same hitter that set a James Madison record with 56 walks while notching a .785 slugging percentage.
Wooden bats required Kulbacki soundly hit each ball and the cheap hits that come with the aluminum is nullified. Plus, there is a different feel altogether to the wood bats and pitchers generally come into short-season far more advanced.
"He is a guy that never showed me he could hit a good fastball on the inner half," former Padres minor league field coordinator and current MLB scout Bill Bryk said. "He never really turned on a ball – on a good fastball.
"He is the kind of kid that has good enough makeup to figure some things out and do that. With that being said, I think he will still play in the big leagues and be a major league contributor."
A late trigger put his hands into hitting position as the pitch was on the way, giving him less time to react to the ball and pick up its spin. He wasn't able to stay back on the breaking ball and would wind up guessing. He also had a double toe-tap that sapped some of his power as he leaked forward with his body, not getting the smooth follow-through that would allow him to drive the ball with authority.
Through much of the first half of the year his hits came on balls away. Because he was late arriving to the zone, he still had the muscle to pepper the ball the other way.
"With him it was just pitch selection and recognizing what they were trying to do to him," former Eugene hitting coach and current AZL Padres manager Jose Flores. "Kulbacki was always in that ‘driving in' frame of mind sitting in the four or five-hole, knowing there would be runners on to drive in. He needs to be more selective on what he is trying to do with runners on and no runners on.
"There were days he would first-pitch swing in four consecutive at bats. He needs a little more patience and when he gets into a fastball count that he has to be ready to recognize it and put a good swing on it.
Things turned around after a fateful pop out on July 15. Kulbacki skied one to second base and put his head down and jogged to first. He was immediately pulled by manager Greg Riddoch for not running it out.
After a night off, Kulbacki pounded out four hits and never seemed to look back. His whole game reached another level in fact, as his defense also improved significantly.
The message was sent and heard loud and clear. Being a professional meant laying everything on the line and not giving away at bats.
"He came on strong and ended up with eight home runs and 40 RBIs," Riddoch said. "That all came the second half of the season."
He abandoned the toe tap and brought his hands slightly back to be in a more relaxed hitting position from the start. His balance improved as a result, and Kulbacki was able to turn on the ball middle-in. Most of his late season homers came on balls he turned on – the same ones he missed early on.
Kulbacki was a much better hitter with the bases empty, as he locked into his pitch and didn't waver. With runners on base, Kulbacki would get anxious and try to adjust his game – being more aggressive and chasing pitches outside the zone.
His pitch selection improved tremendously in late July. Instead of chasing out of the zone and first-pitch swinging, as he had a habit of doing early on, Kulbacki slowed his approach down and let the bat head and his quick wrists do the work.
"When he came on at the end and starting getting his home runs, the majority of the homers he hit were solo shots," said Flores. "Why? He was jumping on that first pitch fastball or jumping on a fastball count. He started reading it and reacting to it.
"For him, it is a matter of being confident. Once you gain that confidence it is tough to give that back because you know what you are looking for, what you are seeing, you are recognizing and attacking it. His hitting was a lot more pitch recognition, knowing what you want to hit when ahead in the count and being ready to hit every pitch – assuming every pitch will be a fastball."
His defense was shoddy early on – breaks on the ball were a half step behind and he didn't seem to have the hustle. By late July, Kulbacki found his home in left field and was diving for balls and coming up with many that eluded him early on. His defense continued to be sound during Instructs.
"His defense got better and I think he dove and caught eight balls in the second half," Riddoch said. "I don't think he had any in the first half – he missed them or didn't dive for them."
"I really like Kellen Kulbacki," former Fort Wayne and current AZL Padres hitting coach Bob Skube said after seeing him in Instructs. "He has done a good job."
"He has really come along," Flores said. "Outfield-wise, he has improved 100 percent. That was one of his flaws, I thought. He wasn't really fast in reacting to balls in the outfield. His first step quickness – he has made some unbelievable plays in the outfield.
He lacks speed and won't ever be a threat on the basepaths but is smart and instinctive. He will leg out the double and after not running out a pop up has learned that he has to hustle every time down the bases. Given his makeup it is a lesson he won't forget.
"He is going to be someone to watch," Flores said.
ETA: Kulbacki may be part of the 2008 prospect push, meaning he could begin the year in Lake Elsinore, skipping over Low-A Fort Wayne. If he is able to take the lessons he learned with his hitting into Spring Training it won't be a stretch. If he finds himself struggling with timing it could be Fort Wayne is more appropriate. He will be given the chance to show he has succeeded. From there, he should have a strong year and the 2009 season will tell how his future will fare.
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