In 1986, 24-year-old John Farrell  was emerging as one of the top pitching prospects in the Indians farm system when he went to pitch winter ball in Puerto Rico. It was on that team that the groundwork was laid for his selection of a Red Sox  pitching coach on Wednesday.
Farrell pitched on that winter league team with 21-year-old Juan Nieves, who’d just concluded his rookie year with the Milwaukee Brewers . The two struck up an immediate bond that played an important part in the comfort level that led Farrell to name Nieves as his pitching coach.
“We played in Puerto Rico back in 1987, 86-87 when it was with the San Juan team. We both pitched there,” recalled Nieves in a conference call. “We brought his family down and I had a chance to see the kids when they were little, actually very young. We actually spent some time together talking about the game and competing on the same team.’
“Even 25 years ago, when we were in San Juan together and the follow-up that’s taken place almost yearly after that, I felt like this was a very natural fit and a very important one going forward. You identify with a guy,” agreed Farrell. “I can’t say it’s the overriding factor because there are other guys on our staff who I was not teammates with, but when you have that easy communication and that cohesiveness, that’s when a lot of teams meet the challenges head-on that we know we’re going to face.’
The two stayed in touch through the years, whether during the period when Nieves was a minor league pitching coach in the Yankees  organization and Farrell was the director of player development with the Indians or, more recently, when Farrell was the pitching coach for the Red Sox and then the manager of the Blue Jays while Nieves was the bullpen coach for the White Sox  from 2008-12. Over those years, Farrell saw not just someone with whom he enjoyed easy communication but also someone who was enjoying considerable success in working with a number of pitchers, including relievers like Sergio Santos , Addison Reed (29 saves as a rookie closer in 2012), Nate Jones  (8-0, 2.39 ERA as a rookie in 2012) or even Chris Sale, who came under Nieves’ tutelage when he reached the big leagues just months after being drafted and became comfortable in the big leagues in that role in 2010-11 before moving to the rotation as an All-Star starter in 2012.
That track record and the level of comfort between him and Farrell convinced the Sox that Nieves was the top choice among the four finalists (Rick Peterson, Randy St. Claire, Steve Foster and Nieves).
“We felt like we had four strong candidates that came in, each with their own talents and abilities, but we felt like Juan’s match to the staff that we currently have in place was a very good one,” said Farrell. “There’s a number of pitchers who have flourished with him as the bullpen coach and the fact that he’s had a hand in not only the guys you mentioned but to the conversion [from position player to reliever] of Sergio Santos, the resurgence of Phil Humber, there’s a number of guys you can point to, regardless of age, that have been very successful pitchers in Chicago and he’s learned under a long-time pitching coach who has had a lot of success in his own right in Don Cooper and this is a very good fit for the Red Sox.’
That track record working in close collaboration with Cooper — Nieves noted that he and Cooper were roommates in Chicago and carpooled to the park, with pitching a constant subject on their commutes — also played into his fit with the Sox. After all, Farrell is a former pitching coach. He will have more input than might a typical manager to offer regarding members of the Red Sox pitching staff. As such, the idea of collaborating with Nieves, and not having to manage turf wars, seemed particularly appealing.
“I feel like with our rapport and existing knowledge of the pitching staff already, this is a very good fit as we mentioned, and a very good I would say tandem when we look at individual pitchers on our staff and recommendations we might make,” said Farrell. “The most important thing as we go forward is that the pitcher gets clarity in the communication to him, which I’m confident will take place with Juan, and the ease of our working relationship will really foster that.”
The hope, Farrell said, is that a position that has been a constant merry-go-round — with five pitching coaches (Farrell, Curt Young, Bob McClure, Randy Niemann and now Nieves) in a span of little more than 24 months — can stabilize, thus creating an environment in which Sox pitchers can thrive.
“I have no question that the program and the consistency of it will be present here. That will be largely in part what Juan brings here,” said Farrell. “There’s no doubt that stability is needed. I think if you look at any situation that has continuity to it, you have a greater chance for success, and by being with pitchers for a number of years, not only myself or Juan, to know what a pitcher’s delivery is, to know about the person and how he performs best in tight situations, knowing how he performs best by different ways of handling the individual pitcher, that continuity is extremely important, and we would hope that would be the case with the entire staff, not just on the pitching side.”