When I talked with Mississippi Braves third baseman Kyle Kubitza the other day, the first thing I said to him - other than “Hi” – was “you have the most bizarre stat lines I’ve ever seen.” That got a laugh, but it is exactly his unique approach to hitting that has carried him this far in baseball… and he certainly hasn’t run out of future stops yet.
Kyle is a lefty-hitting, right-throwing 24-year-old that the Braves drafted out of Texas State in the 3rd round of the 2011 draft. He’s lately been wearing the same #39 he donned in college. He’s from Colleyville, Texas – a suburb of Fort Worth and was born in nearby Arlington. He stands 6’3″ and is listed at 215 lbs.
When we last checked in on Kyle, Ryan was suggesting him as a possible future platoon partner for Chris Johnson. After this season with Mississippi, I’m wondering for perhaps some bigger aspirations – if one issue can be dealt with.
So let’s take a quick look at those stats. In 2014, Kyle…
- Led the entire Southern League (tie) in walks (77)
- Was 3rd overall (tie) in strikeouts (133)
- 9th in plate appearances
- 7th in hits (130)
- 8th (tie) in doubles (31)
- 2nd in triples (11)
- 9th among qualifiers in batting average (.295)
- 4th in OPS (.875)
- 1st in OBP (.405)
That’s a pretty stout list for a full season – clearly.
So I prefaced my question to him in this manner: ‘you walk 15% of the time, strike out 25% of the time, yet when you opt to swing… you get hits. How does that work? How did that approach come about?’
I sensed that he gets that question a lot, for he had a ready answer. “It’s just something I’ve always done,” he said. He went on to explain that he’s just looking for particular pitches to hit – and from an early age, he was taught to swing hard. But as is fairly evident, if he doesn’t get what he’s looking for, he doesn’t offer.
It’s a Discipline Thing
That approach takes a remarkable sense of discipline to achieve. I related to him that Tim Hudson did a rehab stint down at Rome a couple of years ago (second week of April, 2012) and was shelled. He was quoted at the time saying that you can’t ‘set up’ those (A-ball) hitters because they swing at everything. Oddly enough, Kubitza was on that particular Rome team, and remembered the same story. Yet even back then, Kyle was doing exactly the same thing he’s doing today: 14% walks, 24% K.
It’s apparent that the Braves see merit in his approach as well: for in that low-A ball season of 2012, he hit just .239. At high-A Lynchburg last year, he was at a .260 clip. They have not just waited out his ‘growing pains'; they’ve continued to promote him through the system despite them.
But something has ‘clicked’ this year… and strangely, it could be related to the better pitching that you get at the AA level.
I admit having had some concerns about Kubitza at AA in 2014 – fearing that the better pitching would actually hurt him by increasing the strikeouts and reducing the walks. That did seem to be playing out over the first couple of weeks this year: in his first 5 full games, he struck out twice each while walking only once. Then things started to change: and the change date was just before an April 26th game at Pensacola.
Kyle had already started hitting by that point – 2 hits on April 22nd started a 4 game hit streak. But even while he struck out twice on April 26th, he also hit a pair of solo home runs. From that point forward, his average started climbing.
He still strikes out often – he had one 4K game this year (July 1st) – but usually it’s once, maybe twice.
All the while, Kyle is still getting his hits, demonstrating what he described to me as a ‘gap-to-gap game’. This past weekend I saw him drill two doubles… one of them hit with authority to the left- (opposite) field corner, the other an RBI gapper to left center. I missed the real highlight late in their Sunday doubleheader: an inside-the-park home run to the center field wall. Kyle did finish the season with a flourish on Monday: 2 for 3, no strikeouts… and a walk.
That power is a recent addition – but should be within the capabilities of his size. This year, he belted 10 balls over the wall for home runs, a career high. That crazy-high count of 11 triples is also a good indication of his gapper/line-drive power… and good speed, of course.
So ironically, the better pitching may have meant better pitches to hit… and that advantage has been taken.
Great: so what’s the problem?
In a word: defense.
He wasn’t the worst third baseman in the league – there were a couple of other players with more errors per game – but Kubitza did struggle mightily with his glove (or maybe his footwork, from my limited observations). That could be a problem going forward, though he still has a couple of years to work through that (although his error counts over the past 3 years are 20, 25, and 25). Currently, no major league third baseman has more than 25 errors, so if there’s reason to hesitate in calling Kyle a future major league 3rd baseman, his glove work is that reason.
Take this for what it’s worth, for this writer is not a scout by any means. Nonetheless, what I see on offense from Kyle Kubitza in 2014 was a breakout year in which he excelled for average and line-drive power. He has the power potential of a Chris Johnson (probably a bit better) with more line-drives and much better running speed. He uses the whole field as do many of his current teammates. The strikeouts are somewhat annoying, though are offset if his hitting average and walk rates stay high. Better pitching might continue to drop the strikeouts marginally, as he clearly has superior pitch recognition.
Limited HR power does not suggest Kyle for a future as a DH, so his defense needs to improve to allow him to stick at the majors. The Braves have tolerated that - with a lot less offense – from Edward Salcedo, so I believe they will remain patient with Kyle as he works on that part of his game.
Whether Kubitza gets to AAA in 2015 may depend on what happens with Salcedo, who is slated for the Arizona Fall League: seems they still haven’t quite given up on him yet.
Stat lines are funny things. Sometimes you have to take a second look to see what they really mean.