Questions have swirled around Arizona State’s baseball program the past few years, and for good reason. Last season, most of the defects on the diamond involved pitching and defense. As head coach Tracy Smith searches for solutions in his make-or-break year, sophomore RJ Dabovich may help create stability in ASU’s starting rotation.
Who is RJ Dabovich you ask? The leader of the ASU’s pitching staff, junior righty Alec Marsh shared his opinion on Dabovich since his arrival in Tempe:
“Dedication and hard work. That guy wants it more than anybody, and I think we’ve got a couple of guys like that who are just head down, doing their job everyday and taking care of their bodies,” Marsh said. “He’s more than ready, I think he’s going to have a huge year, he’s going to be huge for us, 100 percent. I’m really excited to see him pitch, I love watching him pitch. He’s been progressive been getting more competitive which is cool to see. He’s a really hard worker and I like the dude a lot.”
Dabovich transferred to ASU over the summer from Central Arizona. The 6-foot-3 right-handed pitcher had a 9-3 record with a 1.81 ERA over 69.2 innings in his freshman year for the Vaqueros.
Born in New Mexico, Dabovich spent most of his life in Pueblo, Colorado, which is nearly a two hour drive south of Denver. Coming out of Pueblo West High School, the Sun Devils didn’t show a large amount of interest in Dabovich. However, after seeing his arsenal of a mid-to-high 90s fastball, changeup, curveball and slider, that bolstered a () K/9 rate at Central Arizona.
The incoming sophomore praises his fastball as his best pitch, a fastball that is one of the top heaters on the team along with potential closer, freshman Blake Burzell. Dabovich touched 98, while Burzell was clocked in a notch higher.
How does a pitcher with this type of stuff end up at a junior college?
The plan for Dabovich out of high school was to head to Wichita State, but when the pitching coach he’d plan to have during his recruitment left, he figured the JUCO path was what was best for him.
Although, Arizona State wasn’t the only option for Dabovich after his year in Coolidge. The Kansas City Royals selected him in the 18th round of last year’s draft. Dabovich didn’t hear about his selection by a call from the Royals.
“I was hanging out, eating cereal and I got a text message from one of my Central friends, Clayton Keyes, and he was like, ‘bro, congratulations.’ I was like what do you mean? He was like you just got picked, and it was all over Twitter, that was that. It was exciting, life changing,” Dabovich said.
The financial security wasn’t there for Dabovich, as well as him betting on himself to improve his draft stock in Tempe. Thus, the reason why he is currently a Sun Devil.
The transition to Division I baseball from JUCO may seem painless, but it’s just the opposite. For Dabovich, it’s more of a restart.
“It was almost like I was a freshman again,” he said. “It was like I had two freshman years because junior college and Division I are two different levels academic wise, responsibility wise, but it was pretty smooth for the most part.”
He continued about his progression into a Sun Devil, how Marsh, the leader of this unproven pitching staff that contains five freshmen, has helped Dabovich during this period with the move from Central Arizona:
“He kind of helped me in the beginning to understand what ASU baseball is about, and how it’s a little bit different than junior college,” he said. “He’s made the transition easier for me just talking to me seeing him as a leader.”
Yet, Marsh mentioned it was Dabovich himself that was helping him and the other pitchers at ASU:
“It’s funny, he came in and he was the dude who was doing everything. He was kind of teaching us some things. He’s the type of dude that came in and knew what he was supposed to do, he knows how his body works, I think if anything he’s taught me a lot,” Marsh said. “He’s taught a lot of the other guys a lot too. I think he’s one of those natural born leader guys, who just leads by example.
“For him, we just talk about fine tuning things when we’re pitching, we help each other out, it’s just knowledge on knowledge. I don’t need to babysit him at all, he knows what he’s doing.”
In the next few weeks before ASU’s opener against Notre Dame on February 15, Dabovich can cement himself as the third piece of the weekend rotation together with Marsh and sophomore right-handed pitcher Boyd Vander Kooi. Smith alluded to Dabovich being the current frontrunner for the spot, but needs to battle sophomore Brady Corrigan and freshman Erik Tolman, one of two left-handers on the staff, for the position.
“I just want to compete out there. Fill the zone, throw strikes, let my defense work. The biggest thing is be efficient,” said Dabovich on the competition for being the Sunday starter. “Being a Sunday starter or the third spot, or the four spot, whatever it is you just want to efficient. You want to get through as many innings as possible.”
Dabovich stated his bid to Sun Devil fans for what to is expect this season:
“I just want to offer someone that’s going to compete his heart out and always try his best. Just someone they can come watch do the right thing all the time and take care of all the small things.”
A culture change has been needed at ASU after the recent struggles, and Dabovich can be a piece of the puzzle toward that.