As a highly touted outfielder and 2006 Co-Collegiate Player of the Year, Kellen Kulbacki was selected with the 40th overall pick in the 2007 draft by the Padres. Kulbacki has always shown great production with his bat, but had a horrible time at Low-A Fort Wayne to begin the 2008 season. After moving back up to High-A, things clicked for Kulbacki as he proceeded to light up California League pitching. Walloping 20 homers and posting an OPS of 1.017 in 304 at-bats at this level put Kulbacki right back on the map, and the future looks very bright for this young and talented offensive force. I got a chance to talk to Kulbacki about his struggles in the Midwest League, success in the California League, and how comfortable he feels in right field.
Brett Sullivan: After your freshman year at James Madison University, you started seeing a sports psychologist. How much did this help you going forward?
Kellen Kulbacki: I started seeing Wendy Borlabi in the fall of my sophomore year to help develop my mental skills as a baseball player. The mental practices and things we discussed about helped a tremendous amount and allowed me to begin developing strategies that not all players use and gain a mental edge. And in the game of baseball, as challenging and mentally frustrating as it can be, any type of edge you can get will help a great amount.
BS: As a sophomore at JMU, you put up a monstrous season and shared the prestigious Collegiate Player of the Year honors. How much did winning this award mean to you?
KK: Looking back to this day, the award still leaves me thinking, “did that really happen?” It’s one of the most prolific awards I’ve achieved in my career, and one that I value a lot. I’m thankful most for the coaches and all the support I received that year from everyone around me, because I wouldn’t have achieved what I did that year without them.
BS: You were taken 40th overall in the 2007 Major League Draft. Were you taken where you thought you would be, and how did it feel to finally reach your dream of playing professional baseball?
KK: I was at home, with my family and some close friends. It was an exciting time for them as well as me. The draft is a crazy thing, and you never know what could happen until it actually does. I was hearing different things about possibly going earlier, but I am happy with the way things worked out, and extremely to be happy as a Padre. It is a feeling hard to explain when I got the call from San Diego, but it was one I’ll never forget. To know all the hard work put into baseball since a little kid paid off is a very satisfying feeling. But now the journey has just begun and that’s one thing I have to always remember.
BS: Throughout your entire baseball life, I'm sure you've pretty much always killed the ball. What was it like to struggle so badly this year at Fort Wayne?
KK: It was a tough and frustrating time for me. I did my best to stay positive about the situation and to know things were going to work out, but it was hard when I wasn’t seeing any type of change. I knew I’d get 400 or more at-bats and that 4 in one game doesn’t matter. But when those hitless games start building up, it’s tough to keep positive. Fort Wasn’t a bright time in my season, but I took a lot away from the experience, and have learned a lot about adjusting sooner the next time I hit a slump.
BS: Even with these struggles, the Padres organization thought it would be best to move you from the tough Midwest league, to a higher level but better hitterʼs environment in the California league. What was your initial reaction when you learned you were being promoted?
KK: I broke camp and started the season in Elsinore, just on the disabled list. But I started the season on Elsinore’s roster, and went down to Fort Wayne because an outfielder was injured. But moving back up was a new start for me, and time to move on from Fort Wayne and to make the adjustment in the California League.
BS: After your promotion, you really took off. What were some things that led to your exceptional production in the California League?
KK: Some of the major things that led to more success was finally becoming comfortable with my swing, staying healthy, and learning how to become a smarter hitter. Most importantly, I was more in control mentally and stayed more positive and consistent than I was in Fort Wayne.
BS: For Lake Elsinore, you walked nearly as many times as you struck out, which is very rare for a power hitter. How do you maintain your plate discipline even though your swing has much power behind it?
KK: I try to stay patient at the plate, yet smart and aggressive at the same time. It is the philosophy that our hitting coaches work on with us, and it has truly seen results on seeing pitches and not chasing the pitchers pitch in certain counts.
BS: You've spent most of your time in the minors at right field. How comfortable do you feel in right, and do you think you will be able to stick there next year and beyond?
KK: I grew up playing center field all through high school and half of college before I moved to right field. I still have more work to do in right until I feel extremely comfortable, but I am working hard to improve and get better. I don’t worry much about if I can stay in right, because I am willing to play wherever they need me to play.
BS: It isn’t common for a left-handed hitter to have more success against left-handed pitchers, but for you it hasn’t been a problem this season. Do you feel just as comfortable at the plate against lefties?
KK: Whether at the plate against a lefty or righty, I try to keep the same mentality and not let that affect my job. I try to understand the situation I’m hitting in, to see a good pitch to hit, and to not try and do too much with it.
Brett Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.