Right-handed pitcher Julio Eusebio is in a much different place this off-season than he was at this time last year. After pitching briefly in winter ball in the Dominican Republic last year, he returned home to New York to be with his ailing father. That led to him missing some of his off-season training and coming into Spring Training this year behind everyone else. His father is doing much better this off-season and Eusebio has been able to focus on getting ready for what he considers to be a big 2018 season.

When Eusebio first joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014, he showed up on the Spring Training roster without any transaction announcement. Until recently, we thought he was signed as an international free agent, even though his birthplace has always been listed as New York, NY since signing. Back in 2014 we had no clue who he was and had nothing to go on other than his age and position. There was a possibility that he was a player from the DSL going by a different name, which occasionally happens. There wasn’t any information available for him online, so we had to wait to talk to a front office member.

It didn’t take us long after we saw his name on the roster to look into who he was back then. We found out that he was signed that January in the Dominican, which is where the international signing part came from. That last part turned out to be wrong and there is much more to his background. The big problem with searching for information back then was that he goes by Ricky Eusebio, so searching “Julio” wasn’t providing any results.

Eusebio actually did grow up in New York, where he attended a private high school called St Raymond’s HS for Boys in the Bronx. He was an accomplished baseball player there, graduating in 2010. He then went on to attend Odessa College in Texas, where he continued his baseball career. He pitched for two seasons, throwing nearly 100 innings total. His stats don’t look great, but his team played in a very high offense environment. Eusebio went undrafted out of the two-year college, but continued to practice baseball in the hopes of one day signing.

After training for all of 2013, the big break for Eusebio came when he was in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. He was at a place called  “La fuerza aérea” trying out for a few independent baseball teams. The Pittsburgh Pirates had some scouts at those tryouts and they signed Eusebio after seeing him pitch. He was far from home, but just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Eusebio made his pro debut in 2014 with Jamestown, which was the NYPL affiliate of the Pirates before they moved to Morgantown. He posted a 2.86 ERA in 28.1 innings of relief over 19 appearances, with 25 strikeouts and a 1.84 GO/AO ratio. He gave up too many hits, but was able to limit the damage. For someone who had two years off from game action between their pro debut and their last college game, it was a solid debut.

After spending the start of 2015 in Extended Spring Training, he joined West Virginia in June for his first taste of full-season ball. Eusebio did pitch one game for Bradenton in May, but that happens from time to time when the Marauders are short-handed in their bullpen. The Pirates will send a pitcher over from Pirate City to fill in for one or two days. The Bradenton outing was rough, but with West Virginia he had a 2.87 ERA in 31.1 innings, with 36 strikeouts and a .211 BAA. With a low walk rate and a high ground ball rate again, it looked like he was on the right path to move ahead in the system. We expected him to open up 2016 in Bradenton, but he took a sidestep in his career.

Eusebio Goes Through a Hectic Period

The 2016 season was an odd one for Eusebio. He was back in West Virginia and getting terrific results, but he was no longer a ground ball pitcher. Batters from both sides of the plate had trouble against him, combining for a .165 BAA. He closed out 11 of 11 save chances, coming up big in tough spots. The WHIP went up though, because Eusebio was walking a lot more batters. The control wasn’t up to his standards and he had the added fly balls, yet he finished with a 1.62 ERA in 50 innings, so it still looked like a strong season on paper.

From a stats standpoint, you love to see the low ERA and the batters having trouble picking up hits, but from a scouting standpoint, you don’t want to see a sharp increase in walks, paired with a sharp decline in ground balls. Compared to the previous season, he also saw a drop in his strikeout rate, though it was still at an acceptable level with nearly one per inning.

The main reason for the difference between 2015 and 2016 was that he was having trouble getting his pitches down in the zone. He was back to being a ground ball pitcher in 2017 because he relied more on his sinker than in the past and used his four-seam fastball less often. He was also doing a better job of hitting his spots this past season. That was an area where he struggled in 2016.

There was also another reason for the difference and that was that his mind was on his father, who was suffering from the effects of diabetes. Baseball at the pro level is a mental game as much as physical and you need to have the right mindset on the mound. Eusebio said that he had a better focus in 2017, studying the opposing hitters while looking for a weakness, taking things pitch-by-pitch, rather than worrying about what could happen if he didn’t make his pitch.

The better focus coincided with his dad’s health progress, which has continued to get better this off-season. Eusebio has been busy working out this winter while staying close to home, starting up his work right after the end of the season. He has been posting videos this winter on his Twitter, which is what caught my eye for this article. Eusebio has been training with Stephan Alemais, who he said is like a brother to him. The two of them grew up together and played against each other in high school. For conditioning purposes, Alemais is a great workout partner, as he showed last off-season while working with Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran.

What the Future Could Hold for Eusebio

We saw a glimpse of what 2018 could be for Eusebio at the end of 2017 when everything finally came together. A late start to his training last off-season meant he wasn’t ready when the season began. He pitched one game for Bradenton in April, but that was just another emergency appearance due to a short bullpen and him being an experienced pitcher over at Pirate City. It was just one game, but he breezed through a scoreless inning on seven pitches. Compared to his first shot in High-A in 2015 when he allowed three runs in 1.2 innings, it was a nice first step this past season.

He was with Morgantown when their season opened in mid-June, then quickly joined West Virginia after three scoreless outings. He threw 20.1 consecutive innings without an earned run from June 30th until August 21st with the Power. Eusebio finished his time in Low-A with a 1.00 ERA, a .167 BAA, a 1.18 GO/AO ratio and 34 strikeouts in 27 innings. On the season between his three stops, he had an 0.84 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 32 innings.

Eusebio took that late-season focus into this off-season and wants to be ready for any role in 2018. Besides the training to add strength and stamina, he is adding a changeup to his arsenal. You don’t often see a bullpen arm with more than 2-3 pitches, but Eusebio throws a 90-93 MPH sinker, along with a low-90s four-seam fastball and his slider, which he uses as an out-pitch. If he’s in a spot where he needs a strikeout, he will slightly adjust his grip on the slider, so it has more of a curveball action, giving him a second breaking ball. Add in that work-in-progress changeup, and he’s now coming at you with five different pitches.

The sinker is going to be the primary pitch for quick outs on the ground, while the slider is the strikeout pitch. He’s adding a pitch and working on improving the four-seam fastball this off-season as well, so you’re not just seeing a pitcher stick with what worked. Eusebio knows he needs to get better to continue to progress in the system. Just like every minor leaguer, his ultimate goal is to get to the majors and he knows it’s going to be hard work. He has already dealt with a lot of adversity this far between going undrafted and supporting his father as much as he can, so this is just another hill to climb.

He summed up his goals for 2018 nicely during our long talk by saying, “You’ll be hearing a lot from me this upcoming season. I have a lot faith and I trust the work I’ve been putting in. This year coming up I’m ready for what it has coming for me. That’s the mentality I used this year while pitching for the Power. I was just focusing on getting my job done having intent with everything I did. I’m following that up in this year coming up, but more prepared than before. I’m still standing here today because the Pirates believe in me, so this 2018 is my year to stand out.”

Eusebio is in the same spot he was at the end of 2015, except he’s a little wiser now from experience and adversity. He’s more of a pitcher now, rather than a thrower getting by due to his stuff. He knows this is a big season and he’s doing everything he can to take advantage of his opportunity. Julio Eusebio is ready to take that next step towards his ultimate goal and make sure fans know his name in 2018.

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