FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When the Red Sox hired John Farrell as manager, the decision came with an obvious benefit. After a year in which Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard all endured considerable (and distinct) struggles, the team would once again enjoy the leadership of the man who, as pitching coach, helped each of those pitchers achieve the best seasons of their careers.
Given the prior relationship of Farrell and several pitchers on the Red Sox staff, he's been the face of hope for a franchise hoping to reverse its pitching fortunes. That fact, in turn, has made it easy to overlook the fact that he is not the man with primary responsibility for the pitching staff.
Instead, it is new Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves who will take primary responsibility for the fortunes of turning around a pitching staff that has struggled in recent seasons. And so, while Farrell is re-establishing his relationships with a number of Red Sox hurlers, Nieves faces an arguably more significant spring training responsibility of laying the groundwork for the work that lies ahead with the staff.
Nieves, who was hired in November, did not wait until his arrival in Fort Myers to start the process. Over the winter, he traveled from his offseason home in Puerto Rico all around the country -- to Boston, Arizona, South Carolina, Mississippi and Florida -- in order to introduce himself in person to several of the team's pitchers, and to see some of them throw. He also talked and texted throughout the winter with most members of the staff to build the communicative foundation that is necessary to establish a constructive working relationship.
The Sox pitchers could be forgiven if they were leery of yet another voice in their ears. After all, Nieves is now the team's fifth pitching coach -- following Farrell (2007-10), Curt Young (2011), Bob McClure (2012 until his firing in August) and Randy Niemann (late-2012) -- in the span of four seasons.
Yet Nieves -- a gregarious, engaging personality who describes his job as "a pleasure, an honor" -- has found little resistance. To the contrary, thanks in part to the presence of Farrell (whom Nieves has known for roughly 25 years, since the two played winter ball together in Puerto Rico in the mid-1980s), the new Sox pitching coach has felt welcomed.
"With the familiarity, the rapport John has with the players and the pitchers, it was almost a platform for me," said Nieves. "It was an easy transition for me. I think [Farrell's relationships with the pitchers] helped how they reacted to me, because they've been through a lot. It's been sort of a hot seat here -- not only the manager, but the pitching coaches and everybody. It seems to be very welcome. Guys got here early. It's almost like a breath of fresh air for them. It's wonderful. I couldn't be happier with the staff we have."
Nieves' title was that of White Sox bullpen coach for the last five years, but Chicago pitching coach Don Cooper -- widely viewed as one of the best pitching instructors in the game -- suggests that the 48-year-old's role was more far-reaching than that.
When Cooper -- then the White Sox minor league pitching coordinator -- hired Nieves to be a minor league pitching coach in the White Sox system, it was based simply on the recommendation of a college friend in New York's organization and on a few phone calls. Nieves almost immediately engaged Cooper on a level that earned his trust and that demonstrated a shared passion for pitching.
That shared enthusiasm became even more apparent when Nieves joined Cooper as a bullpen coach in 2008. The two not only were colleagues but roommates and close friends. They drove to and from the ballpark together. The discussion of pitchers was literally a round-the-clock endeavor for both.
Nieves' role, suggested Cooper, would be more closely characterized as that of an assistant pitching coach than bullpen coach. He worked not just with Chicago's relievers but with all members of the pitching staff, he and Cooper creating a system of common instruction and philosophy.
"He wasn't really the bullpen coach. He was my right-hand guy. We discussed everything in pitching -- in the American League, with the Chicago White Sox and even in other organizations," said Cooper. "Juan's ready. If you're looking for knocks, you say, 'He's a bullpen coach. He's never had any experience.' Trust me, he's got the experience to be a pitching coach. This opportunity has been earned.
"Juan has been front and center. He's seen everything that's gone on at the major league level and how we do things here for the last five years, each year becoming more independent, each year me giving him more and more [responsibility]. He's now ready to go. He got to watch it from a different spot -- from the bullpen or assistant coach's spot. He's excelled at that. Now it's time for him to put his own plan into effect."
Yet while Nieves is the one who will be in charge of the Red Sox pitching staff, there's no doubt that Farrell -- given his background and prior relationship with several Sox pitchers -- will continue to be a strong and involved voice when it comes to the staff. As such, Nieves' ability to collaborate -- both to take input and to offer it -- will be of considerable importance. His working relationship with Cooper in Chicago suggests that he's well-suited to the task.
"Juan would say things that stimulated my mind -- he had a different angle on things, on a situation. He would mention his thoughts. I would say to myself and to him, I thought he was a perfect complement," said Cooper. "I thought to myself, 'I didn't see it from that angle -- that's worthwhile.' That's communication, and that's working together. That's what we did."
Based on the results, particularly with the starters, they did it well. Over the last five years, the White Sox had 14 seasons of at least 180 innings, second most in the AL behind only the Rays during that time. Six different pitchers reached that milestone. Chicago starters also ranked second in the American League with 450 quality starts, one behind the American League-leading Angels and well ahead of the 396 quality starts turned in by the Red Sox since 2008.
The Red Sox have a glaring need for considerable improvement in the performance of their pitchers if they are to improve their fortunes in 2013. The team's 4.72 ERA last year ranked 12th in the American League; the rotation's 5.19 ERA was likewise third from the bottom.
Undoubtedly, the poor pitching performance has been a reflection of far more than the constant coaching turnover. Still, it's difficult to imagine that the presence of so many different voices has been helpful.
Nieves is mindful of that notion, and hopes to collaborate with Farrell in a fashion that yields clear, helpful messages.
"I think continuity is very important. It trickles down all the way to the guys who are coming up, what is expected of them," said Nieves. "When you start throwing things out there, there's no routine and no continuity, it's almost like driving blind. You're driving fast, you want to get to a spot but there has to be a structure."
That is what Nieves is trying to build in the early days of spring. His messages to his pitchers, as they work through their first side sessions of the spring, are simple yet purposeful.
"I want game focus [in bullpen sessions]. I want rhythm and tempo. It might not be game stuff, but you're making pitches on the side. We're practicing to make pitches so that they'll be there on April 1 and it takes you through the season," said Nieves. "I'm a firm believer that if you're going to miss in a side [session], miss glove or lower. Make the glove go down. The balls that end up on ESPN [highlights] are the ones that are over the middle of the plate and up.
"If you tell them, you can expect it in a bullpen and hopefully it translates to a game. If you don't tell them, you're wishing, hoping they'll do the drill [throwing to the] glove or lower. It's simple but yet there's a structure. If they know what it is, they're accountable for it, too."
Nieves talks of making alterations rather than overhauls to the pitchers on his staff. With Bard, whom he and Farrell visited in Mississippi in the winter, there are seemingly straightforward mechanical issues that have been identified. With Buchholz (who suffered a mild hamstring strain during fielding drills on Tuesday), Nieves suggests that the pitcher merely needs to build on what he did for the final four-plus months of last year, when he recovered from a rocky start to post a 3.59 ERA in his last 22 starts. With Lester, Nieves suggests that psychology and pace will be central points of emphasis.
"Sometimes, we think about so many things, when pitching -- it's a hitting the glove game. See the glove and hit it. It's all about next, next, next: next pitch, next hitter, next inning, next game. It's all about next. You can't be dwelling on anything bad," Nieves said of Lester. "Bad call, good call -- it doesn't matter. You keep pounding the strike zone, being aggressive. Nothing takes away from that. The minute you lose your confidence and aggressiveness, you're done. We must never lose that.
So rhythm and tempo is picking up the ball, seeing the glove, boom, execute the pitch. And once it leaves the hand, become a fielder, get the ball back and go back at it. It's very simple. It's almost like shooting free throws. Guys get in rhythm -- boom, boom, make it, make it.
"The slower you go, the less rhythm you have. It's very simple. It's an alteration. There are more things that will come because of rhythm and tempo. The ability? Oh. It's so much ability that this guy has."
Nieves is the man most responsible for ensuring that his pitchers tap into those reservoirs of talent. If he, in tandem with Farrell, can thrive where his predecessors struggled, then his relatively unheralded addition could prove as significant as any that the Red Sox made this winter.