INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Juan Nieves had ample credentials to become the next pitching coach of the Red Sox, having pitched in the major leagues before embarking on an 18-year coaching career with the Yankees and White Sox.
In his 14 seasons with Chicago, the last five as the bullpen coach, Nieves worked closely with pitching coach Don Cooper, one of the best in the game.
Before he signed with the Brewers out of Avon Old Farms Prep in Connecticut in 1983, several Ivy League schools recruited Nieves. Even then, he profiled as a coach.
“He was a highly intelligent kid with great instincts for pitching,” said Orioles general manager Dan Duquette, who was working for the Brewers at the time. “He was impressive in a lot of ways.”
But what ultimately led to Nieves being hired by the Red Sox on Wednesday was the relationship he formed with manager John Farrell when both pitched for San Juan in the Puerto Rican winter league in 1986.
Nieves recalled meeting Farrell’s family and the two talking baseball on the bench. It was the start of a long friendship.
“When you’re a player, you identify with guys on your team that either you view the game similarly or you look at life in similar ways. That has always been the case with me with Juan,” Farrell said during a conference call to announce the addition of Nieves.
“Even 25 years ago when we were in San Juan together and the follow up that has taken place almost yearly after that, I’ve felt like this was a very natural fit and a very important one.”
For the Red Sox, it is crucial that be the case. The team has chewed through three pitching coaches over the last two seasons, the turnover contributing to the decline of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard, and others.
Red Sox starters had a 5.19 earned run average last season, the third-worst in the American League. When Nieves interviewed a week ago, he presented his plan to create individualized plans for each pitcher.
The 47-year-old Nieves said he believes in, “establishing a structure for the guys and staying on that course.
“Creating some stability for the guys is very important. Through Don and through everything that he let me do throughout the years –- spring training, how do we work with guys, structure, form -– it’s really unique and he did good work with that in the White Sox organization and I’m bringing it over.”
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said Nieves was “tireless” in working with pitchers and credited him with playing a role in developing several of the younger arms on the staff, including Sergio Santos and Chris Sale.
Nieves presented a clear vision of how he wants the Red Sox staff to improve when he interviewed last week.
“We need to get back to being a more aggressive pitching staff, attacking the strike zone,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “There are things are need to happen with a pitcher before you get to that as far as the delivery and the mental approach. We thought Juan brought a good program to the table.
“Also looking for somebody with a strong voice and some conviction. I know that was one thing John wanted given his experience as a pitching coach, he wanted someone who’s going to have a strong voice and stand up to him. John wants to be able to empower a pitching coach.”
The Red Sox have focused on building a cohesive coaching staff after the discord that marked Bobby Valentine’s one season.
“The most important thing is that the pitcher gets clarity in the communication to him, which I’m confident will take place with Juan,” Farrell said. “The ease of our working relationship will foster that.
“I think it’s important that the guys in that clubhouse know that the coaching staff is working from the same page [and] there’s communication across different areas of the game. When we work together and we give that feeling to those guys in the clubhouse, there’s a unified sense of direction. I think that is critical.”