Padres Prospect Interview: Kellen Kulbacki

San Diego Padres prospect Kellen Kulbacki has had slow starts in three straight years. Injuries have played a part in two of those and there is no doubting how the second half of his season usually ends up – how about 19 homers in a 54-game span?

Can you detail the events of the shoulder injury last season and how the whole process went from initial twinge to surgery.

Kellen Kulbacki: We started by shutting it down after feeling the initial discomfort. We shut it down for a couple of weeks. I didn't get back in there 100% until the end of August. I got to catch the last week or two of the season. The sling starting feel well.

I wasn't having problems with it and then we got into the playoffs. Then we went to Lancaster the first playoff game. I dove for the ball in the outfield and I sublefted my shoulder. It dislocated and popped back in. I called the doctor there he took a quick look at it. Then I went down to san Diego to get the MRI.

I had surgery two days later. It was a tough end of the season, since our team was doing so well, I wanted to be there with the team, but…the shoulder issue, and I couldn't make it. For me, the team didn't finish as well as we could have. We lost in the playoffs. But we had a great season. That was something that hopefully we can bring into this season.

How do you feel today? How is your shoulder?

Kellen Kulbacki: The shoulder is doing well. I stayed out in Arizona to rehab it until the middle of November. Then I went home to continue rehabbing it, to spend some time at home and relax, and reflect on the season that I had. I didn't pick up a bat at home, but came out to Arizona in the middle of January. I just wanted to make sure that I gave it ample time to heal properly. Obviously, since it was the offseason, I had enough time to where I didn't have to rush. I think that that was helpful.

Now it's just the strength that's an issue. I wasn't able to condition and strengthen my upper body the way I would have liked to. But that's just how surgeries go. I keep just doing the things that I need to do so that I don't get pushed back with any setbacks. The big thing for me is just to stay healthy with it. Not push the limits and do what I can to stay healthy.

For the last two years you have gotten off to slow starts before really turning it on down the stretch. What has been the difference that gets things going?

Kellen Kulbacki: I think that for me I looked back on it, on my career even before my professional career started, I look back to my summer in the cape cod league and I look back at the slow start I had there and for me, I'm just starting to grow as a player and I look at it as more of me taking time to learn and make the adjustments that I need to and in baseball.

You're going to fail and it's part of the game. I've had trouble accepting that. I've gotten off to a slow start and put pressure on myself in Eugene and put pressure on myself in Fort Wayne and Lake Elsinore.

With the injury last year, starting off in Fort Wayne was kind of like my spring training. My timing wasn't there. My bats weren't there. I didn't get in any spring training games to get my rhythm and timing. I was focusing more on mechanics. The physical part of my swing instead of focusing on how to hit and my approach to the game.

My confidence never left. But to learn how to play in professional baseball is different than anything that I've ever done before. You are going to fail and need to make adjustments. My goal for this year and for the rest of my professional career is to make those adjustments so I'm not so slow for as long as I was last year because those two-three months were a struggle.

But when I finally took a step back I realized how much pressure I was putting on myself and how I was letting things affect me that I didn't really need to worry about is when I started seeing more success with it. That's one thing that I can keep in mind my entire professional career.

You get promoted from Fort Wayne at a time where you don't necessarily merit it. What did that say to you that the organization believed in you despite your struggles and sent you up a level?

Kellen Kulbacki: I started off in Lake Elsinore and I was unfortunate, with the timing of things, the injury of Shane Buschini it just seemed a better fit. When I left Lake Elsinore it was made to seem that I was leaving just to put my work in.

I'm not saying that I deserved the merit, because I obviously wasn't performing but they instilled in me the confidence that they were going to bring me back up to Elsinore. Mentally, I told myself that it was a fresh start and to let go of what happened in Fort Wayne. I didn't obviously start off as well as I wanted to, but I was fortunate enough to have people to work with me and help me work on the things that I needed to work on. It just kind of clicked.

When you are swinging the bat so well, does it create a different mindset where you feel like you can hit anything and does that ever interfere with your approach and taking pitches outside of the zone?

Kellen Kulbacki: Confidence is one of those things that when you're not doing as well as you'd like to and not getting results, you start looking at the wrong type of outcomes. You start looking at the stats and you batting average. The thing is Greg Riddoch – I was with him in Eugene – the knowledge and wisdom that he brings to the table for this organization is amazing. When he talks, I take heed. Mentally, he's there too. Baseball is such a mental game. I've been seeing a sports psychologist since I was in college and the mental aspect of how I've grown into the player that I am. Whether I'm going 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, I keep the same even keel and I saw a big improvement focusing on the process oriented goals instead of the results oriented goals.

Did the injury force you to change your swing mechanics at all?

Kellen Kulbacki: No, not necessarily. I felt fortunate to be able to come out to Arizona early and work out with Jimmy (Lefebvre) even before the major leaguers came in so there‘s one-on-one time with him and we studied the game. He taught us the game in a way that hadn't been taught or educated before.

I was such a raw player coming into college and the professional levels. I didn't have that knowledge he did. Just sitting with him talking baseball, or doing the drills has made my swing change on its own. I'm now hitting with two hands and not because of my shoulder, but because of the consistency of my bat path. The consistency of hitting an outside corner pitch to an inside corner pitch. That's just the relaxed approach that I have now. I credit a lot to him because I never thought that I could pop. I just want to keep working with him and keep improving because he made me realize that you can change your swing and it works.

You hit 19 homers during a 54-game stretch in 2008. What was the key to that success?

Kellen Kulbacki: I really felt comfortable in my approach. I was really learning the mental approach that I needed to at the plate with the help of Shane (Spencer). He brought so much knowledge as a hitter. You learn the pitcher's tendencies, in certain counts you learn to look for different pitches. It's one thing to learn and another to really try to apply them. I really tried to stay conscious of that. When you get into a comfortable approach. You know that you can hit anything that a pitcher throws at you. When you know that and you're locked in and you feel it in your swing. Knowing that I had that confidence and knowing that if I got out it was because I got myself out and not because the pitcher got me out. Just to have that confidence and that mentality game after game really helped me in my successes last year.

One of the things that the coaches mentioned needed work was your ability to go back on balls hit over your head. How can you improve in that area?

Kellen Kulbacki: The biggest thing is to keep working. The offensive part of my game is one of my strengths but that doesn't mean that I should lose that intensity or focus on getting better in the other aspects. I wanted to make sure this year I worked on keeping my speed and agility up in the outfield. The defensive part of my game is something that I need to work on everyday to get better. Just backing up and believing that I can get better is the one thing that I am going to keep focusing on.

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