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Nick Cafardo | On Baseball

Heat now falls squarely on Red Sox pitching staff

Juan Nieves (right), with Rick Porcello and catcher Ryan Hanigan, took the fall for the troubles of the Sox’ pitching staff.Chris Szagola/Associated Press/File 2015

We know how these things go.

We know pitching coach Juan Nieves wasn’t the cause of the Red Sox’ pitching problems. And during a media conference call with John Farrell and Ben Cherington on Thursday afternoon it was noted that the staff needed a “new voice.”

Nieves’s voice was only a month old to Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, and Wade Miley. Only a few months old to Joe Kelly. Only Clay Buchholz really knew that “old” voice and you can make the case that Nieves didn’t make Buchholz better.

But such is life in the major leagues.

“When you’re pitching that bad there’s always an urgency for that lightning in a bottle,” said Nieves. “You’re always in a very volatile situation. We were improving but we couldn’t put two or three turns together to be more consistent. I understand what they did.”


When a unit doesn’t perform — Sox starters ranked 29th with a 5.54 ERA — the coach gets fired first. Wonder what will happen with hitting coach Chili Davis? His hitters can’t hit with runners on base. Is he under scrutiny now as well? Cherington said there were no further changes planned for the coaching staff.

Bottom line, Nieves, who was informed of his dismissal on Wednesday night, was the fall guy.

We all know the blame should always belong with the individual performers.

These aren’t rookie pitchers. They’ve been around the league quite a while. It was probably going to be tough for Miley to switch leagues. Porcello has done well for the most part (3-2), and would fit very nicely as a No. 2 or a No. 3. Masterson is trying to get by with diminished velocity. If Nieves could have found about 3-4 miles per hour on Masterson’s fastball, it would have helped. But Nieves isn’t capable of that. No human being is.


“The pitchers had a great rapport among each other,” Nieves said. “Everyone had a different challenge. [Buchholz] was trying to find himself. Miley coming to a different league. There were challenges and I thought we were turning the corner.”

Not fast enough.

Nieves was surprised and not surprised. He never saw it coming. He thought his communication with Farrell was good. He said there were no problems that he saw.

“They wanted a new way of doing things,” Nieves said. “I think that was what it was about.”

Was Nieves not tough enough? Did the pitchers need a kick in the butt that Nieves didn’t provide?

Did Nieves not preach hard enough that Buchholz needs to get rid of, or throw fewer of the useless cutter and go back to the things that made him good — his two-seamer, four-seamer, curveball, and split?

Those are things heard around the water cooler. Don’t forget, Farrell was a strong pitching coach. He didn’t take guff from anyone and told it like it was. If he had to use tough love, he did. And that approach worked. Maybe Nieves was a little different. He was fiery in some ways, laid-back in others.

All we know is he oversaw a 2013 pitching staff that won a World Series. And then he saw the entire pitching staff except for Buchholz turned over. The ace, Jon Lester, was traded to Oakland. John Lackey was traded to St. Louis. Jake Peavy was dealt to San Francisco. Felix Doubront went to the Chicago Cubs.


Championship staff, gone.

“I think you’d always like to keep that kind of staff together but that’s baseball,” Nieves said. “It would be naive of me to think you could do that. My job was to deal with the pitchers we had and make them as good as they could be.”

When news of his dismissal filtered out, he received texts from Lester, Lackey, Peavy, and catcher David Ross.

Nieves’s successor will get a fresh start.

If it’s Charles Nagy, then he has a history with Miley when they were together at Arizona. If it’s Carl Willis, then he has a rapport with Farrell from working with him in Cleveland when Farrell was the farm director. If it’s internal candidate Bob Kipper, he’s done a nice job with the Triple A pitchers.

It won’t be Baltimore pitching coordinator Rick Peterson, who seems too strong a personality and very much embedded in his pitching program even though he’s the most brilliant guy out there.

But whoever the pitching coach is, it’s still about individual pitchers taking responsibility for their own careers. You can’t keep blaming the pitching coach or the catcher.

Speaking of catcher, Boston’s top two guys went down. Christian Vazquez was expected to start about 60 percent of the games, Ryan Hanigan the rest. When Vazquez was lost for the season because of Tommy John surgery, Hanigan became the starter.

New catchers, new pitchers. Sort of a perfect storm for failure. And that certainly added to the early demise of the staff.


Ultimately, the blame for poor performance lies with the manager and general manager. The GM is the personnel man. He puts the team together with endless scouting reports and analytics to make determinations on the right player for the team, the home ballpark, and the market. Cherington had a perfect season in 2013.

Tremendous choices for players. Seven outstanding free agents that fit perfectly on a team that had finished last the season before. Last to first is always an unbelievable feat.

Cherington has obviously tried to replicate that in 2015, but the pitching staff turnover from 2014 hasn’t yielded results. The only accomplishment is that the staff got younger, not better.

But the Red Sox need to keep their belief that the right pieces are in place for a successful rotation. Cherington spoke about all teams having to make adjustments along the way.

It seems tough when a staff doesn’t have an ace. And I’m sure the Red Sox have all the analytics in the world to show the staff they put together didn’t need one.

But common sense — and sometimes analytics aren’t part of it — would tell you that if you have an ace (like Lester) then the rest of the rotations falls into place. Then the pressure is on the ace, the Nos. 2-5 are slotted where they should be, and things flow a lot smoother.

Farrell is in charge of the daily operation of the team. The results have been a mixed bag since 2013, but trending downward.


Nieves said he’ll never forget the memories of 2013 and the championship rotation he coached.

“It’s the first year in a long time I’ll be home for Mother’s Day,” said Nieves, who said he wants to keep coaching somewhere.

“I love the game. I want to be in it.”

So the first shoe has dropped. As usual, it’s a coach, who in reality, when slicing the blame pie, didn’t have the biggest piece.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.