Baseball fans outside Colómbia probably have not heard the name Erick Julio, but anyone who has ever met the Rockies’ young pitching prospect could not forget him. Julio is one of the most genuine and enthusiastic baseball players in the world, and it is obvious from his exuberant smile and boyish looks that every day is a dream come true for him. He is also part of a rising crop of Colómbians in professional baseball.
Julio was signed to a $700k (£520k/€590k) bonus in 2013 by Colorado after being rated the No. 13 international prospect that year. The righthander had a superb debut in the Dominican Summer League in 2014 at age 17, showing excellent control, which has since become his hallmark. Julio had a 2.45 ERA and 53.6 percent groundball percentage in 13 starts. He added 45 strikeouts, while walking only 11 and surrendering only two home runs in 66 frames.
After missing all of 2015 and getting a late start to the 2016 campaign, Julio turned in another solid performance as the Rockies gave him an aggressive assignment. Despite being more than two years younger than the average player, the 6-1, 175-pound hurler made 13 starts for the Short Season Boise Hawks. The results were solid: a 4.05 ERA (4.15 including two starts in the DSL) in 82 1/3 innings, with a 53-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 51.7 groundball percentage.
Julio has also worked extremely hard to learn English, having arrived in the United States in mid-2016 knowing very few words. The Tourists’ Broadcast and Media Relations Manager, Doug Maurer, told us that the 22-year old was excited to speak with us in English, and Julio’s warm smile stretched from ear-to-ear as he came out of the dugout.
Though Asheville is in beautiful and mountainous western North Carolina, the comparisons with Julio’s home country end there. Despite the unfamiliarity, Julio looked comfortable standing on the top step of the home dugout as we spoke to him before the Tourists took on the Lexington Legends in the penultimate homestand of the year.
Julio had what at first appeared to be a sub-par season for the Tourists, notching a 4.98 ERA and allowing opposing batters to hit.306, but with context, a fine season hides beneath the numbers. McCormick Park is one of the most unusual parks in the minors (and the oldest), with astonishingly short left and right field corners at only 326 feet (99.4m) and 297 feet (90.5m). Right field features a 36-foot billboard-covered wall, almost the same height as Fenway Park’s Green Monster. As a result, it is one of the most hitter-friendly parks on the east coast.
McCormick Park has derailed multiple pitchers in recent years, as slugfests are common thanks to a propensity for increased numbers of two- and four-baggers. Julio’s xFIP—a metric read like ERA and designed to help understand how many runs per nine innings a pitcher would allow if only he were responsible for the outcome—is a strong 4.38, while opponents’ batting average on balls in play (a measure of batter luck) is much higher than normal at .347. Julio allowed far fewer line drives (20.3%) than the year before, while home runs left the yard at more than three times the rate of his first two seasons.
These figures mean that batters did not hit the ball any harder from the previous season, but suddenly started to count as home runs. Taken as a whole, these statistics reveal a fair amount of park-induced offence and paint an encouraging picture of the young hurler’s efforts.
Somewhat troubling are an increased walk rate (2.55 per nine) and a drastically lessened percentage of grounders (40.7%), but the fact that Julio faced the most batters in the South Atlantic League (‘The Sally’) likely played a significant role. The righty increased his innings total by 66 from 2016, a notable bump, and fatigue indubitably affected his performance. Julio had a second-half ERA of 5.38 and walked 3.32 batters per nine, up from more typical 4.52 and 1.68 marks in the first half. Still, the Rockies will be pleased with a season that saw Julio rank fourth in the Sally in innings (148 1/3), only four outs less than leader Lucas Humpal.
Julio is the only Colómbian in the Rockies’ farm system, while the Sally featured a mere 10 fellow citizens. Most of his teammates thus far have been Dominicans, Venezuelans, and Americans out of high school, and the further he moves up the ranks, the fewer countrymates will be in his circuit. Only 20 Colómbians have played in the majors, though half of those have debuted since 2011.
We discussed baseball in his native country with Julio, a right-handed pitcher from Cartagena. Julio was enthusiastic about the nation’s ascendancy in the world rankings and its performance in the World Baseball Classic. If you prefer to listen to the discussion, audio is available at our Soundcloud (link).
“Baseball is Colómbia is going up. We hope that baseball will be the first sport in Colómbia because soccer is the first one [now], so we have to win this place.
“Baseball is going to be better because we have a professional league in Colómbia—we have the winter league and the summer league—so we are going to be better in a few years.”
The Colombian Professional Winter League (LCPB) was founded in 1948, though it was defunct for most of the 50s and 60s. The league had some periods of real difficulties until 2011, when five-time All-Star Édgar Rentería bought the circuit through his Rentería Foundation and expanded it from four to six teams. That period has coincided with the largest proportion of major league debuts of Colómbians.
Despite the lengthy history, which included gold medals at the Central American and Caribbean Games in 1946 and the Amateur World Series (the precursor of the World Cup) in 1947, the South American nation has lived in the shadow of its neighbour to the west. Venezuela has regularly featured big leaguers since the 60s and is the second most productive Latin nation at producing big leaguers. This summer, it was announced that the Venezuelan Winter League, one of the top off-season leagues in the world, was seeking Colómbian prospects. One might expect an intense rivalry between the two nations, but Julio suggests otherwise.
“We border with Venezuela so we have a chance to learn about baseball in Venezuela. We are brothers as countries and we have a chance to share the culture and [go there] and win awards. That would help us!” [Notably, Venezuela competes in the prestigious Caribbean Series, while the LCPB does not.]
Colómbia may not need Venezuela’s help to win trophies as the nation arguably outperformed its big brother at the World Baseball Classic. Its national team swept through the third of four qualifiers for the WBC in 2012, beating hosts Panamá twice in Rod Carew Stadium. Though Colómbia fell just short in Pool C of the main draw this March, it featured a two-headed monster of José Quintana and Julio Teheran on the mound and excellent fundamentals.
It took the United States 10 innings to come back against Colómbia in the squad’s first draw, squeaking by, 3-2. A day later, it upset Canada 4-1 and in Game 3, the squad was tied 3-3 with a loaded Dominican Republic side through ten innings before losing 10-3. The roster had an average age of about 21, offering hope that the team, which automatically qualified for the next Classic, will have a strong young core by the time the 2021 WBC arrives.
Meanwhile, Venezuela advanced to the second round, though it did so by what, at best, might be regarded as technicality and was certainly a controversy. After poor showings against Puerto Rico and Mexico in Pool D in Guadalajara, while barely surviving Italy in extra innings, Venezuela was ruled by MLB as having a better total quality balance (explained here) and advanced to the pool championship.
We were live at the 4:45 a.m. press conference after MLB deliberated all night at its New York headquarters before making the ruling and broke the results of the decision (link). Another close win against Italy sent the team to San Diego, where a team of Félix Hernández, Miguel Cabrera, and José Altuve looked punchless against the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Venezuela’s 2-5 record paled against Colómbia’s combined 4-2 mark from qualifier through the first round.
“Everybody in Colómbia was proud to see those games and the players were good. We opened the eyes of the world for this moment and these three or four games we did a really good job.
“We played the right way; we played good. We played the little game—getting [the runners] over and those things—so the people [will] see that Colómbia has talent to play this sport. Congratulations to all the players! Now the scouts and the fans…are more interested in going to Colómbia to see what we are doing.”
By 2021, Julio will be 24 and part of a crowd of up-and-coming Colómbian prospects from which Head Coach Luís Urueta could shape the roster. Julio has the advantage of being a pitcher as well, a position which only eight Colómbians have ever played in the big leagues, with Ernesto Frieri the only recognisable name beyond Quintana and Teheran. When asked about the possibility of wearing his nation’s tricolor jersey in the Classic, Julio had to pause as his constant smile grew even wider than before.
“I am waiting for that moment. I want to be there! [I would be] really proud of all the people that have helped me get the call. I want to be with my teammates and people I know in Colómbia. I hope I will be [chosen].”
It is impossible to cheer against a man who knows how lucky he is and appreciates every moment. Plenty of time will pass before Julio learns whether he will represent Colómbia in the World Baseball Classic, but readers can be sure that it will be ever-present on his mind.
Thank you to Doug Maurer and the Asheville Tourists for arranging our visit to lovely McCormick Park. All photos copyright Cara Beale, Extra Innings. All advanced statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.