A Conversation With San Francisco Giants Pitching Prospect R.J. Dabovich

R.J. Dabovich was a strikeout machine in his first professional season. Overpowering the opposition with a two-pitch mix, the 23-year-old right-hander fanned 62, and allowed just 15 hits, in 32-and-a-third innings between High-A Eugene and Double-A Richmond. The 2020 fourth-round pick out of Arizona State University put up those numbers in 31 relief outings, a workload that was truncated by five weeks on the shelf due to a mild back strain. Currently the No. 26 prospect in the San Francisco Giants system, Dabovich represented the Scottsdale Scorpions in Saturday’s Fall Stars Game.


David Laurila: You had the highest strikeout rate (48.8%) in the minors this year. Are you at all surprised by how dominant you were?

R.J. Dabovich: “I am a little bit. I mean, I’d never really been ‘a strikeout guy.’ At Arizona State, I was a starter in my sophomore year and was like eight or nine Ks per nine. Nothing too crazy. Moving to the bullpen bumped it up a little bit [13.1 per nine], but nothing like it was this year.

“After I got drafted by the Giants, I was given this pitch plan for what they wanted me to do. They said that my K-rate would increase, but I had no idea it would jump like it did. So I definitely surprised myself by how well I executed my plan, the plan they made for me.”

Laurila: How did you end up moving to the bullpen at ASU?

Dabovich: “[Then-pitching coach] Jason Kelly felt that my path was going to put me in the bullpen. I was a little upset at first, because everyone wants to be a starter and pitch on Friday night. But when he said that I could impact the team over three games instead of just on Fridays — plus, it kind of helped my development as he saw me as a reliever in pro ball — I was all for it. And my stuff ticked up a little bit, so it turned out for the best.”

Laurila: Did you see yourself as a power pitcher at the time?

Dabovich: “More or less. I had a power fastball back then… for college, anyway. I was 94 to 97-98 [mph].”

Laurila: That was with a four-seamer, correct?

Dabovich: “Yes, and that’s when I really started getting carry on the four-seamer. That fall is when we first started talking about, ‘Hey, if you just turn your hand over a little bit, a little more towards that 12 o’clock axis, you’ll get a little bit more carry. That will help your breaking balls play a little bit better.’

“I forget his exact title — pitching analytics or quality control — but that guy helped me see that when I was on the Cape the previous summer, I got more swing-and-miss when I had that carry on the fastball than I did when I had a little more sink. So we hammered that the entire fall, and the entire spring leading into the COVID-shortened year. That was the jumpstart of my fastball.

“In college, I didn’t have a power breaking ball. I had kind of a loopy curveball and a short, tight slider. When I got drafted, the Giants wanted to morph the two and make a hard downer slider. It’s technically a curveball, but it’s a firmer curveball in that 84 to 86-87 range. It pairs really well with my fastball to mess up the swing decision for the hitter. That’s what I go for more than anything: messing up the swing decision process. That’s what leads to the strikeouts.”

Laurila: You were introduced to pitching analytics in college, and have progressed from there…

Dabovich: “Yes, that’s when we started touching on it. After the COVID draft, I went to this gym — Push Performance, in Guadalupe [Arizona] — and the pitching guy there had a really good understanding of analytics. He kind of refined my little bit of understanding to a little bit deeper understanding. And again, the Giants helped me with the pitch plan. That’s where we really drove into the analytics side of it.”

Laurila: How did you go about improving the carry on your four-seamer?

Dabovich: “Finger-placement change a little bit, and then trunk position was a big one for me. I was really upright. It was always coming out at 1:15-1:30 on the axis. It was really as simple as thinking of a side-crunch, almost — like, crunching my left side and getting the trunk-tilt to kind of where 1:10 turns into 12:30-12:45.”

Laurila: Do you get a lot of carry?

Dabovich: “I averaged anywhere from 19 to 21 [inches], and when it’s really good, it’s in the 22-23 range. So I’d say I get pretty decent ride on my fastball. I get above barrels.”

Laurila: What about velocity?

Dabovich: “It’s anywhere from around five to seven, up to eight, nine. I think I had a 99.8 this summer. Here [in the AFL] it’s been right around that 96-98 range. There have been some fives, but I like to tick it up a little bit if I can. It’s always cool to throw a little bit harder.”

Laurila: Circling back to your breaking ball, how did you go about making it better?

Dabovich: “The thought process is that the harder I throw it, the less time a hitter has to make a decision on it. For me… my hand is very square, so it stays right behind the ball. That’s why I get that ride on the four-seam. That was always my problem with the curveball: I couldn’t get on top to get that top-ward spin on it.

“The Giants had me basically turn my hand — spike my finger and put my middle finger towards the left-hander’s batter’s box. We call it a palm forward spike curveball. That’s the official name they described it as. Basically, it’s keeping the palm forward and just ripping down the seam, throwing it as hard as I can.

“At first, it was like a gyro slider — it spun like a bullet and dropped — and eventually I started just feeling it in my hand. I was getting a tiny bit on top of it, to get that downward spin and a little bit of bite at the end.”

Laurila: The Giants didn’t want a gyro…

Dabovich: “It’s not so much that they didn’t want it, but rather that it’s better when it has a little bit of topspin. With topspin, I can throw it at the top of the zone as well at the bottom and get kind of the same effect. When it’s gyro it will just spin at the top and hang up there. At the bottom it still works, so if it sometimes turns into a gyro it’s not the end of the world as long as I throw it down. But when I want to land it for a strike, it has to have that topspin.”

Laurila: Is it a high-spin breaking ball?

Dabovich: “Nothing crazy. It’s probably right around 24-to-26. It’s nothing like 3,000 [rpm] or anything special like that. And on Rapsodo, it kind of doesn’t look like that good of a pitch. It’s negative-four break and 30% spin efficiency — or whatever it may be — but the way it plays off my fastball, and the way it tunnels with my fastball, it does get the swings-and-misses.”

Laurila: Do you have a third pitch in your repertoire?

Dabovich: “As of right now, no. I want to perfect this two-pitch mix and see where that takes me, then make adjustments from there. If I need to add a third pitch, I’ll talk to [Coordinator of Pitching Sciences, Matt] Daniels and [Director of Pitching, Brian] Bannister and see what they think. But as of right now, it’s perfecting the two-pitch mix, being confident in it, and using the fastball at the top of the zone and the curveball at both the top and bottom of the zone. It’s about having a 50/50 mix as much as I can, and just attacking hitters.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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2 years ago

A great article. Thanks.