CHICAGO — It wasn’t that the previous Red Sox pitching coaches — after John Farrell departed to manage the Toronto Blue Jays — were incompetent. But Curt Young, Bob McClure, and Randy Niemann just didn’t fit. Something didn’t click with a group of pitchers who were sometimes referred to as hard-headed, set in their ways.
Upon his return to the Red Sox as manager, Farrell’s choice came down to Rick Peterson or Juan Nieves. Peterson is a pitching savant, with a long line of success on his résumé. Nieves was Don Cooper’s bullpen coach/assistant pitching coach for the last four years with the Chicago White Sox. When Nieves got the job, it was somewhat of a surprise.
But the results speak for themselves. Jon Lester is 6-1 and Clay Buchholz is 6-0. The two pitchers at the top of the rotation had to be turned into winners again and Nieves seems to have gotten through by preaching so many of the things he learned under Cooper, who is considered one of the top two or three pitching coaches in baseball.
“I don’t even know how long ago I hired Juan,” Cooper said. “I was the [minor league] pitching coordinator. It’s one of the best moves I made. Great guy, great friend.
“He roomed with me,” Cooper continued. “He lived with me for the last four years in the same apartment. I miss him because he used to have coffee ready for me in the morning every day. He’d be up early and I’d be up late and my coffee would be ready for me.”
When he wasn’t making coffee, he was in charge of the White Sox relievers.
“He carried out everything we wanted carried out with the bullpen,” said Cooper, who spent about 15 minutes chatting with Nieves before the game. “We’d talk about everything every night. We had a good handle on things. He would carry everything out. I’m the pitching coach and I got all 12 guys. He’d take seven guys a night for three hours and do that. He would carry out the plan for each guy. He’d talk about it and work it every single night.”
Cooper’s program is all about good delivery, working fast, pounding the lower half of the strike zone, and knowing what the hitters’ weaknesses are and exploiting them. It’s a very simple message that Nieves was exposed to for many years. And if you watch how he handles the Red Sox staff, it mirrors what Cooper has done.
“I don’t know if it’s a tribute to me,” Cooper said. “I was trying to pass along anything I have to give to him. Juan is a bright guy, a smart guy and he saw how we ran things here over the years. He’s a peer, not a protégé. He and I were together for 15 years. He was one of my right-hand guys. I know how much I enjoy my job, to have a guy I brought into the organization get a job that, I’m very happy.”
We’ve seen Nieves pound into the heads of his pitchers to work up-tempo. Lester and Buchholz used to be painfully slow.
Lester used to think about every pitch he threw. Now he throws the ball. Buchholz does the same thing.
“I don’t like the alternative to the up-tempo pace. It’s got to be up-tempo. I don’t like the slow tempo of anything,” Cooper said. “Up-tempo, attack. If you’re not attacking with the first few pitches, what are you doing? You’re trying to find out who’s boss with the first two or three pitches. If you’re not aggressive on the first few pitches you’re either going to suffer a slow death or just survival. You’re not looking for either of those — you’re looking to dominate.”
He thinks Nieves brings strong communication skills to the table.
“He’s a bright guy, a good conversationalist,” Cooper said. “It’s important to create a good working environment where people can be themselves and sit down and set up a plan and be able to tell each guy this is where we’re challenging you to get better. I think you get the best production out of people that way. He adds mechanics to it, but it’s 80 percent mental. It’s like being a bartender psychologist.”
Nieves preaches the same things. He tells each of his relievers “you’re all closers for the inning we’re asking you to pitch.”
Nieves comes off as easy-going, but he’s big on tough love. He told Daniel Bard the team was sending him to Portland to send him the message that what he needs to do to get better isn’t just a quick fix.
“I don’t come to the ballpark every day looking to fight,’’ said Cooper. “I’m coming to the ballpark looking to communicate in a positive way. If you can’t deal with that, that’s on you. You’re gonna get nothing but positive from me. Even some of the stuff that might sound negative, it’s coming from a positive place, we’re looking to get it better. You can’t sweep stuff under the rug. If something isn’t going right you’ve got to make it better. If you’re not trying to get better, what are you trying to do?”
Cooper said of Nieves, “I wouldn’t mess with him.”
Cooper said while he had the final say when it came to pitching, he thought Nieves complemented well.
“He looked at things from a different angle than I was looking at. There were times that, ‘hmm that’s worth talking about and thinking about.’ I’m a pretty headstrong guy. I’m gonna do things the way I like to do them — the way I’ve seen them done before and that’s worked. He gave me different viewpoints and that was great for me. I didn’t want a guy yessing me. Juan was good.”
By the looks of things, Cooper believes Nieves is following the same philosophy.
“We put an awful lot of time in the delivery and the mechanics. He knows how to teach it. It’s not surprising for me to see their team is doing well and their pitching staff is doing well,” Cooper said.
Another area where they differed was the use of video. Cooper didn’t believe in it as much as Nieves.
“The one thing I always tried to tell him, he liked to look at a lot of video of opposing hitters. I get that information in five minutes.
“I’ve always been more concerned with our 12 pitchers rather than their 13 hitters. To make sure that everything in their world is right. Can they throw four quadrants with the fastball? Can they throw their breaking ball to both sides of the plate? Can they throw a changeup effectively? If we can get our guys to do that it doesn’t matter what hitter comes up there because we have enough ammo to deal with it,” Cooper explained.
Nieves learned from one of the best, and so far, the White Sox Way agrees with the Red Sox.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.