INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Juan Nieves had ample credentials to become the next pitching coach of the Red Sox, having pitched in the major leagues for three seasons 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 had 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 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,” said Farrell in a conference call. “That has always been the case with me with Juan.
“Even 25 years ago when we were in San Juan together and the followup that has taken place almost yearly after that, I’ve felt like this was a very natural fit and a very important one going forward.”
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, third-worst in the American League. When Nieves interviewed a week ago, he presented his idea 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,” he said. “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.
“We need to get back to being a more aggressive pitching staff, attacking the strike zone,” said general manager Ben Cherington. “There are things that 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.
“I also was 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,” said Farrell. “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, 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.”
Nieves joked that it was easy for him to “change Sox” and take on a new role. After five years as an understudy in Chicago, he was eager to take the next step in his career.
“Coming from what we see as a good solid pitching organization in the White Sox, we felt like he was the right guy,” Cherington said.
The Red Sox also considered Orioles minor league pitching director Rick Peterson, former Marlins pitching coach Randy St. Claire, and Royals executive Steve Foster, a former bullpen coach.
Nieves was 32-25 with a 4.71 ERA in three seasons for Milwaukee (1986-88). At 22, the lefthander no-hit the Orioles on April 15, 1987. It was the first no-hitter in Brewers history.