TEMPE, Ariz. -- Highly successful pitcher-catcher combinations do not come around often in baseball anymore, and Arizona State is lucky to have one of the deadliest duos in the country.
Southpaw Ryan Kellogg and backstop RJ Ybarra will both be sophomores this year, and both are packed with potential and immense value. Kellogg earned his spot as ace of the pitching staff this season, while Ybarra will be seeing his first full season of playing time barring anything unexpected. Despite stellar starts as freshmen, they both still have room to grow—which is a bad thing for the rest of the Pac-12 Conference.
Kellogg was the lone bright spot in the carousel of a Sun Devils starting rotation last season. It took him just 15 starts to lead the team in wins, as Kellogg went 11-1 with a 3.15 earned run average. His most impressive win came on March 23 at then-No. 4 Oregon State, when he threw the program’s first no-hitter in 20 years. In his press conference the following week, he acknowledged that he now had a target on his back and a desire to work even harder. He did so over the summer, logging a 3-0 record with a 1.36 ERA in six games for the Bourne Braves of the Cape Cod Baseball League.
One of the most impressive aspects of Kellogg’s game is his control of his pitches, and one pitch Kellogg has been working on since the last of his high school days is his cutter. Kellogg’s repertoire of pitches include a fastball that tops out in the low 90s, a curveball with great breaking action and a changeup—his go to pitch—that stuns batters at 75 miles per hour. Add a low-to-mid 80 MPH cutter and Kellogg becomes the most dangerous arm in the Pac.
“It looked really good this fall,” said Ybarra of Kellogg’s newly mastered weapon. “He had really good control of it, and it’s a dirty pitch. It’s going to be tough for batters to hit.“
Ybarra excels in the batter’s box, and gets the chance to prove it for a full season this year. He appeared in 37 games, just over half of the team’s schedule, posting a .313 batting average with five home runs and 22 runs batted in. Ybarra was also third on the team in slugging percentage (.509) and nearly averaged a hit-per-game (35 hits).
For a power hitter, Ybarra does not see a lot of walks. He likes to swing, and with the wide stance he has and the power he boasts, why would you blame him? There is one potential reason.
When Ybarra is not bashing baseballs into Tempe Town Lake, he strikes out often. His relatively low on-base percentage last season (.369) was due in large part to his striking out in 23 percent of his plate appearances. Power hitters like Ybarra typically have high strikeout rates, meaning they need a high walk rate to maintain a good on-base percentage. Ybarra’s walk rate was a very low 4.1 percent. To put his stats in perspective, last year’s leadoff hitter, Kasey Coffman, struck out just as many times as Ybarra but walked 30 times in 59 games, a team-high. The more Ybarra gets on base, the more the team benefits given his good running instincts.
Much of his improvement since last season has come on the defensive side. His arm strength is already established, so Ybarra spent the summer working on “catching the ball a little better, blocking a little better, and controlling the pitching staff,” which are responsibilities that are much greater than those he assumed last year.
With catcher Nate Causey returning for his junior year, Ybarra is expected to split time behind the plate, but he will serve as the designated hitter in games he does not catch. Ybarra was just third among catchers on the depth chart at the start of last season.
The Sun Devils begin the season on Valentine’s Day, Friday, Feb. 14 against Baylor at Packard Stadium.