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New pitching coach Juan Nieves looks to help Red Sox starters bounce back

11.07.12 at 3:53 pm ET
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In one sense, Juan Nieves suggested, his new job as the pitching coach of the Red Sox won’t represent a significant departure from the world that he already knows. After five years as the bullpen coach with the White Sox, the idea of his new post in Boston isn’t daunting.

“It won’t take me that long to get used to it,” Nieves said by phone. “It’s an easy transition because I will just be changing Sox, and of course I go to a beautiful baseball city as well.”

Nieves spent a total of 13 years working as a minor league pitching coach with the Yankees and White Sox before moving up to the big league staff as bullpen coach for the 2008 season. The White Sox bullpen ranked eighth in the American League under Nieves last year, the third time in five seasons that it finished with that ranking in the AL; the team also finished 10th in 2011 and fifth in 2010 in bullpen ERA.

In Chicago, he worked closely with pitching coach Don Cooper, widely considered one of the top pitching minds in the game. Cooper relied heavily on Nieves, while also serving as a mentor for the 47-year-old.

“We were in constant communication. We even roomed together in Chicago. It was a blessing having him, because the communication, the daily grind of a pitching staff, running guys and working with guys, it was everyday — spring training, every day of the winter, every day of the season — it was constant. I had the blessing of working under his tutelage the whole time,” said Nieves. “He’s brilliant, does a great job. To me, he’s the best. He’s not only a mentor but a friend. [The communication] was everyday. We drove to games together, we talked about the game, and we were even roommates. There was a lot of pitching being talked about.”

The Red Sox would do well to tap into the formula for success that Cooper and Nieves have achieved over recent years, chiefly, taking pitchers who had struggled (usually elsewhere) and helping them to return to top form. Pitchers such as John Danks, Jose Contreras, Brandon McCarthy and Javier Vazquez have seen their careers get on track with the White Sox, who enjoy a remarkable track record of health with their pitchers.

Nieves has tapped into the philosophies of Cooper; if he can apply them in Boston for pitchers such as Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, whose performances fell short of their career standards, as well as John Lackey, who will be returning from Tommy John surgery, it will be of considerable benefit to the Red Sox.

“[Cooper and Nieves share a] very mutual belief in delivery, a mindset of having a structure to get guys better, helping the guys coming back from injury or whose stuff isn’t the same, how to rejuvenate his career. In Chicago, he was known for that. A lot of pitchers in Chicago would come in maybe the downside of their careers, and we were able, or he was able, to actually get them to pitch very well in such a challenging ballpark,” said Nieves. “His philosophy, his positive attitude, his consistency is incredible. He speaks very positively with a lot of conviction, and there’s a structure, a path — there’s a course that they take.

“Every pitcher isn’t going to have a great year every year. It’s how you bounce back,” Nieves added, in reference to the Red Sox staff. “We’re trying to get them to be the best they can, be as consistent as possible. They’ve had the worst years of their career, that’s going to happen. But they’re also going to have great years. Even good players fluctuate. You’re going to have some tough years, you’re going to have some great years. It’s how consistent you can be. That’s what we want to achieve and get them back to what they used to be.”

Nieves said that he received official word on Tuesday that the job would be his. He is excited both about the prospect of moving from the bullpen into the dugout and of working with Sox manager John Farrell, the Red Sox’ pitching coach from 2007-10.

“I like the fact that [Farrell] has a rapport with the guys, that he’s been there before. We’ll be talking to him extensively about these guys,” he said. “I intend by all means to have a rapport with the guys myself, stay the course with what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s nice to have a guy you can talk pitching to. We can bounce things off each other. I know he has a lot more to be in charge of, which is great — I’m proud of him [for moving from pitching coach to manager] — but I can bounce things off of him and get feedback, too.

“The fun thing is that I’m going to be closer to the action, of course. From closer, you can see things a little more clearly,” he added. “It will be great to see the game from the front seat, but a couple rows up isn’t bad.”

Nieves said that he talked to a number of members of the Red Sox organization during a lengthy interview process last week. The Red Sox also interviewed Orioles pitching coordinator Rick Peterson, Marlins pitching coach Randy St. Claire, Royals special assistant to the GM Steve Foster and Dodgers minor league pitching coordinator Rafael Chaves. Nieves said that he tried not to think about whether the opportunity would actually come to him, but now that it has, he is thrilled to take a step forward in his career.

“I tell you one thing: It was a great honor to have an organization interested in what we do. It was a pleasure to have them at least ask to talk to me,” said Nieves. “In the back of the mind, I was thinking it would be great to be in Boston, be on that staff, with that GM and ownership. It’s a great city. But at the same token, I was thinking if the door opens, let it be, and if not, I’ll go back to Chicago. I’ve been there for a longtime and that’s my family, too. Now, we’re just changing Sox.”

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