The SF Giants drafted R.J. Dabovich just over a year ago, but the right-handed pitcher is already on a fast track to the major leagues. After starting the season at High-A with the Eugene Emeralds, the fourth-round pick out of Arizona State quickly laid waste to the competition. Dabovich allowed just eight baserunners across 12.2 innings pitched before he was promoted to the Richmond Flying Squirrels at Double-A. He’s dealt with a couple of difficult outings but has generally looked comfortable as their closer.
In an interview with Around the Foghorn, Dabovich discussed his evolution as a pitcher, particularly over the past two years. Dabovich transitioned to a full-time relief role less than a year before turning pro. Now he looks like one of the best bullpen arms in the Giants farm system.
SF Giants prospect R.J. Dabovich on his move to the pen
Dabovich began his collegiate career at Central Arizona College, where he starred as the team’s ace in 2018, recording 1.81 ERA across 69.2 innings pitched. Recruited by nearby Arizona State to join the Sun Devils rotation in 2019, he faced some setbacks. “The start of my sophomore year, I got hurt and moved to the pen as a rehab stint and then started in the regionals,” he said.
Another injury that summer put Dabovich in a similar situation at the Cape Cod League, where he completed just 19.1 innings over seven appearances (four starts). However, in his abbreviated outings, Dabovich showed off more consistent high-end velocity that got the attention of MLB scouts and his coaches. Back on campus that winter, ASU pitching coach Jason Kelly, who became LSU’s pitching coach earlier this month, approached Dabovich about making a change. “Jason came up to me and told me he knew I wanted to be a starter but that he thought my stuff played better out of the bullpen,” Dabovich said. “When he told me he thought it would help the team win, I was on board.”
Alongside his move to relief, Dabovich also began rehauling his mechanics, hoping to make them more repeatable and produce the pitch shapes he wanted. Before the COVID-19 pandemic cut the college season short, those changes seemed to be paying dividends. In nine appearances, Dabovich recorded a 0.77 ERA, four saves, and struck out 17 hitters in 11.2 innings pitched. While he was happy with most of his results, Dabovich did struggle with control, issuing nine walks, something he thought was a side effect of adjusting to his new motion.
SF Giants prospect R.J. Dabovich on his development as a pro
Even with the abbreviated spring season, Dabovich positioned himself well for that summer’s draft. Almost assured to be selected in the top ten rounds, the Sun Devils’ closer was one of many prospects impacted by MLB’s unilateral decision to cut the draft to five rounds. Ranked the 130th best prospect in the class by Baseball America, things seemed in Dabovich’s favor. However, with teams making just 160 selections (as opposed to more than 1,200), it was far from a certainty.
The Giants ultimately selected Dabovich with the 114th overall pick, signing him for a well-below slot $197,500 signing bonus. San Francisco used the pool money they saved from signing Dabovich to help the team sign pitching prospects Nick Swiney and Kyle Harrison to above-slot deals without incurring any penalties. Yet, while Swiney and Harrison received far more attention, Dabovich has quickly proved he’s a legitimate prospect as well.
Soon after signing, Dabovich began corresponding with the Giants player development staff. They immediately went to work shaping his fastball and hammer curveball into the most dominating two-pitch mix they could create. He’d already made quite a bit of progress working out on his own leading up to the draft, seeing significant improvements in his velocity. “I threw hard, but never that hard. I had hit 98 mph one time before, but the big break with COVID let me grind every day in the gym to build velocity and hit those 99 and 100s,” he said. Just as importantly, the floor on his velocity was increasing too, rarely dropping to 95 and never dropping below 94 mph.
Dabovich continued developing comfort with his new mechanics, giving him confidence that his pitch arsenal and command had taken huge steps forward. Beyond his velocity, he also refined his breaking ball, a sharp power curve to tunnel well with his high-90s heat. So when he arrived at his first professional spring training this year, he was ready to put his work to the test.
After Dabovich’s quick stint at High-A, he became the first member of the Giants 2020 draft class to reach Double-A. Since becoming the Flying Squirrels’ closer, he’s recorded five saves in five attempts but has recorded a 5.91 ERA. However, FIP and xFIP (metrics that attempt to estimate a pitcher’s ERA) both suggest Dabovich has actually been as dominant at Richmond as he was in Eugene (2.98 FIP and 1.64 xFIP at High-A versus 2.48 FIP and 2.60 xFIP at Double-A). Even against more advanced hitters, Dabovich is racking up punchouts at an incredible rate, striking out more than 40% of his opponents.
SF Giants prospect R.J. Dabovich’s path to baseball
If you talk to him now, you would never guess Dabovich’s passion for baseball came later in his childhood than most. In fact, the flamethrower says, “I did not really like baseball as a young kid. I liked basketball and football mostly.” Then, when he was 10, a group of his friends got him on the diamond. “In fourth grade, a couple of my best friends were going to play baseball and invited me to play. We had that team, six of my best friends playing together,” he explained. “Then that summer, one of my best friends passed away in a freak accident. It was hard for all of us. But the team became really close, and we kept playing together every year.”
Baseball went from an excuse to hang out with his friends to the focal point of his childhood in an instant. Perhaps that’s why Dabovich has always been able to approach the game with such an open mindset. Even after dominating his first professional assignment, he is still making a point to get as much advice as possible from his teammates. “I’m not trying to emulate anyone, but advice wise I’m talking to everyone I can,” he said. “I’m green, I’m a rookie, and I’ve only really been a reliever for a year and a half.”
SF Giants prospect R.J. Dabovich’s future
While he’s new to the bullpen, Dabovich has quickly embraced the high-pressured situations a closer faces. Between his time in the minor leagues and Arizona State, Dabovich has recorded a save in 15 of his 35 relief appearances. He wouldn’t have it any other way. “I love pitching in high-leverage situations,” he said. “I think it brings the best out of me.”
As relievers become more consistently prone to platoon splits, Dabovich has avoided those issues thus far in his career. Left-handed batters are posting an abysmal .450 OPS against him and have actually struck out at a slightly higher rate than righties (51.2% of plate appearances versus 50% of plate appearances). The fact is, Dabovich is checking nearly every box necessary to become a trustworthy big-league closer.
With relievers like Camilo Doval, Gregory Santos, and Kervin Castro already on the 40-man roster at Triple-A while more proven veterans like Jay Jackson have just received big-league promotions, it might be too aggressive to see R.J. Dabovich cracking the SF Giants bullpen in 2021. At the same time, as Double-A hitters continue to be overwhelmed by his arsenal, it’s hard to see him not pushing for an opportunity at the highest level at some point in 2022.