Nieves plans to help Red Sox 'rewrite the story'
Former big league hurler entering first season as pitching coach
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- This is a job with built-in challenges; pitching coach for pitchers who in some notable cases have had considerable success, but not recent success.
Juan Nieves, the new pitching coach for the Boston Red Sox, fully understands the situation, but he also sees the opportunity attached to it.
"We can rewrite the story," Nieves said Monday at JetBlue Park. "We can open up a new book."
Nieves is technically a rookie pitching coach in the Majors, but he has paid his dues. The 48-year-old has plenty of experience in this line of work. He has been widely praised along the way for the structure he brings to his work, for his ability to relate to a wide variety of pitchers, for his intelligence and industriousness. Nieves will need all of these positive traits in his job with the Red Sox's pitching staff.
Nieves spent the past five seasons as the bullpen coach for the Chicago White Sox, although the White Sox's pitching coach, Don Cooper, said Nieves had a larger role than that, as essentially "an assistant pitching coach." This followed 14 seasons of Minor League pitching instruction, first with the Yankees, then with the White Sox. Nieves has also been a manager and a general manager in Puerto Rican winter ball.
Nieves will have a straightforward philosophy as a pitching coach, along with "attack, attack, attack."
"My general theme," he said, "is to send a guy out there that is well-equipped delivery-wise, fielding-wise and can [work] with just about every pitch to every location. That's one.
"One-A, being able to field his position, hold runners, and the only way an opposing team can beat you is by hitting. Not by falling asleep at the wheel, not by shooting yourself in the foot, not by dying a slow death. Being a guy who goes out there, and the only way you can beat him is to hit him. Very simple.
"And with that being said, if your guys are equipped to the best of their ability, then you can execute any kind of plan you have. A lot of guys are so worried about the plan, the plan, the plan. But if you don't equip your guys, what difference does the plan make?"
Nieves has a very interesting take on the recent struggles of the Red Sox's pitching staff, from the collapse of September 2011 through the last-place season of 2012.
"The past is past," he said. "Can't live in 2010, 2007, 2004. But we can actually improve, drastically, get back to our basics and get our deliveries correct.
"I know they've had some tough times and I want to make sure you say this; going through tough times, they have seen death already. They've seen the worst already; it can't get any worse, so there is no fear of that. So you lose one or two games, we know what we can do. You've seen the worst, you don't want it, but you understand it. And now we can work the other way."
Nieves knows about the ups and downs. He's lived a few of them. Nieves went from Puerto Rico to being a scholarship student at a Connecticut prep school. Big-time college baseball programs wanted him. Ivy League schools wanted him. But Nieves' family needed money, and he decided to go pro. Puerto Ricans were not, at that time, subject to the First-Year Player Draft. The Milwaukee Brewers won him over, not merely with money, but with a comprehensive plan for his career.
I was privileged to cover Nieves' first professional start, for Beloit in the Class A Midwest League. He was 18 years old, and he was on a 75-pitch count limit for the night. Nieves threw a no-hitter for six innings. He was astoundingly good, his fastball was electric and it was clear that -- with his stuff -- the Major Leagues were a question of when, not if. In fact, Nieves' Minor League record over his first three seasons was 33-9.
Nieves came up to the big leagues in 1986 at 21 years old. At 22, he threw what is still the only no-hitter in the history of the Brewers franchise, beating the Baltimore Orioles on April 15, 1987. There was little doubt that Nieves was on his way to a truly stellar career.
But a shoulder injury derailed that scenario, and this brilliant career in the making was brought to a halt after just 81 big league starts. Nieves made a couple of attempts at a comeback, but it wasn't to be.
"Just when I was starting to throw two pitches for strikes," Nieves recalled. "I thought: 'This is going to be nice.' Then one game I heard the shoulder pop, but I kept pitching. It never was the same.
"It's good enough to pitch BP now," he said with a small smile. "I can still get up on the bump.
"I never thought I was going to be in this game after I got hurt, I thought medical school was my next step, I thought of dental medicine. But no, the doors were open to this side, I met some great people and here we are."
Of course, "here we are" doesn't quite cover the 14 years of labor in the Minor Leagues for a man who had already tasted greatness in the Majors. Nieves has put in the necessary time and work.
"You deal with whatever is at hand," he said. "It's been a great ride. You never forget where you come from. The grind of the Minor Leagues makes you appreciate the talent of the big leagues. It's always been more a mental challenge for these guys than a physical challenge, because they're so talented.
"Everybody used to make fun of the Latin players. You know, 'Baseball has been berry, berry good to me.' I'll tell you, it's been a great ride. Through ups and down, planes, trains and automobiles, it's been fun. If I was leaving Chicago, there was no place I would rather go than here. There's a little bit of the past here, because I went to school in New England and a lot of friends have stayed in touch."
This will not be an easy job, but Nieves is, in his terminology, well-equipped for it.