Ybarra Settling In Behind The Plate
California prep looks to improve at his future position
In the two years since he first enrolled at Riverside (Calif.) Poly High, R.J. Ybarra has seen games from several angles. The rising junior watched opponents from first, third, behind the plate and even in left field.
"He's a coach's dream. He's a kid who can hit so well and you can put him in a lot of places on the field and he will play," head coach Leon Boeham said.
But, for all the versatility he has displayed the past two seasons, Ybarra is ready to settle in at one position. His squat, 5-foot-11, 200-pound frame suggests he projects as a catcher after high school, and Ybarra agrees.
"I love catching," he said. "I love being behind the dish. You are in control, and I just feel natural there."
Boeham knew he needed Ybarra's power in the lineup from day one, but Riverside has touted senior catchers the last two seasons. While neither of those players were coveted prospects, Boeham wanted to reward the fourth-year players with loyalty.
His solution? Put him third in the order and shuffle him around on defense. Ybarra, who started catching as a 10-year-old, accepted his other positions but was never as comfortable facing home plate as he was behind it.
"It's been frustrating," he said, "especially when you know you can do just as good as the guys in front of you."
And his lack of playing time at the position has hindered his progress, said Mike Spiers, Ybarra's travel coach with the ABD Academy. He agrees Ybarra will have the most success in the future as a catcher, but the rising junior is not fluid and has struggled to block balls in the dirt.
Ybarra's father, Ruben, has been throwing him balls in the backyard, hoping extra reps will help his son become more comfortable. But, perhaps most importantly, Ybarra will get more in-game experience this season as he becomes Riverside's full-time catcher.
And he will also be dedicating himself strictly to baseball for the first time. Ybarra has played football since he was 7 and spent the last two falls playing middle linebacker for the Bears. But the team went a combined 7-13 during that stretch, and Ybarra realized he didn't have a future in the sport.
That is not to suggest he didn't enjoy his time in pads.
"To be honest, it's a lot more fun than baseball because it's a true athletic game," he said. "When you get to varsity, under the Friday night lights; oh boy, it doesn't get better than that."
Ybarra said the slower pace of baseball can get boring, but he tries to take the same approach whether he is wearing a catcher's mask or a football helmet.
His favorite part of a game is when an opposing runner rounds third while an outfielder rifles the ball to him. Once he receives the ball, he turns and faces the runner, hoping he will attempt to bulldoze Ybarra.
"On the football field, if you're mellow you're going to get rocked," he said. "You can't sit back. I try to bring that same attitude and intensity to the baseball field."
Boeham agrees Ybarra has been one of Riverside's most passionate players, but he wasn't a great teammate his freshman year.
Hitting behind Blair Moore, now a San Diego State infielder, and Jacob Marisnick, a 2009 third-round pick and outfielder in the Blue Jays organization, Boehman described Ybarra as "flaky." He said Ybarra did not take games and practices as seriously as he should have.
But, in the past year, the coach has noticed Ybarra becoming more focused on improving. Whereas in his first year Ybarra would try to put on a show during batting practice, seeing how many balls he could launch, the sophomore-version of Ybarra used his warm-ups to practice opposite-field hitting.
"A lot of people looking from the outside-in don't realize how much passion he has," Boeham said. "He would play baseball 24-7 if he could. He's so intense."
Not having to worry about football, Ybarra dedicated this summer to baseball, traveling to the Tournament of Stars in Cary, N.C. and the World Wood Bat Championships in Cobb County, Ga. And once he got back home, Ybarra started workouts at Strong 101, where he is trying to improve his speed and strength with elastic band workouts.
Ybarra admitted this summer has been tiring and he has at times wished he could just relax with his friends. But, with the catching job finally his, he wants to do everything he can to improve.
"I'm consumed by baseball," he said. "If I could, I'd play every day. Going from tournament to tournament, that's just a sacrifice I have to make."