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Toledo pitching coach Juan Nieves watches fruits of labor cut teeth with Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Tyler Alexander picked up his first MLB win earlier this week.

Cleveland — When Tyler Alexander walked into the clubhouse Monday after pitching six strong innings against the Orioles for his first big-league win, the first person there to greet him was Juan Nieves, his pitching coach most of the year at Triple-A Toledo.

“He was standing right there waiting for me,” Alexander said with a smile. “Right at the top of the stairs. He congratulated me, but he said, ‘That at-bat against Mancini, why did you throw that pitch? What are you doing?’”

Trey Mancini’s solo home run in the sixth inning on a 3-1, center-cut fastball was the only blemish on Alexander’s line that day. And it harkened back to the hard lessons Nieves taught Alexander back in April when the left-hander was struggling so mightily at Toledo.

“When I was struggling the first two months, he said he lost sleep over me,” Alexander said. “He won’t stop until he figures it out. He works and works and works.”

Nieves, who along with Toledo hitting coach Mike Hessman was added to manager Ron Gardenhire’s coaching staff when the rosters expanded on Sept. 1, has had a profound impact this season on several pitchers on the big-league roster, including Alexander, Drew VerHagen, Matt Hall and John Schreiber.

Over his first nine starts, Triple-A hitters were hitting Alexander at a .371 clip with a 1.095 OPS. He’d given up 12 home runs in 39.1 innings. He’d also struck out 47 with very few walks.

“I praise him because this is a guy who got his teeth kicked in, but he never backed down,” said Nieves, who was the pitching coach on the Red Sox's 2013 World Series-winning team. “You root for these guys. And he kept working on his craft.

“I told him he was gifted with the ability to throw strikes with a repeatable delivery.”

But his strikes, like the one he threw to Mancini on Monday, were too good, too fat. And that, along with getting him to develop a breaking ball, was what Nieves set out to change.

“I believe in command, of the strike zone, but also control inside the strike zone,” said Nieves. “Minor-league mentality, a lot of guys say I just have to throw strikes. That’s not the case. It’s quality strikes. The first two months we went through some tough times.

“But you can see the fruits of it. Guys are pitching much better. Some guys have made it to here, but it’s not quite the finished product.”

Juan Nieves, left, talks with Wade Miley (20) during spring training when Nieves was Boston's pitching coach in 2013.

Nieves turned Alexander’s bullpen sessions into target practice — call out your spot and hit it. Over and over — fastball in, sinker away, backdoor slider, curve.

“For me it was mechanical, but it was also learning where and when to throw my pitches,” said Alexander, who completely turned his season around after the bad start. “He would check what hitters were hitting in certain counts and certain areas of the plate. He would say maybe use this pitch more in this count, or use this one less.

“He would watch video all night. He would watch video of us or he’d watch video of pitchers who have been successful who pitch like us. He’d say try doing this more, that’s what he’s doing. He would go down every avenue he could think of.”

The Toledo pitchers early in the year were walking hitters at an alarming wait and it was driving Nieves loco.

“We were almost pitching to a plan more than pitching to our strengths,” Nieves said. “I said, ‘Oh my god, what do I do?’ We basically went into just, what are your strengths and then we’d look at the cold zones (of the hitters) and then try to fit their stuff into that.

“And we got better.”

Also through the first couple of months, Nieves had to work with each pitcher to adjust to the new baseballs. Triple-A used major league baseballs — with lower seams — for the first time this season. There were 5,749 homers hit in Triple-A this year, up from 3,652 in 2018.

“It was a process of adjusting to the grips,” Nieves said. “The grips they had before were not working. We had to incorporate other grips. It was just continuous trial and error. But I don’t think it was only for us.”

With VerHagen, Nieves was more psychiatrist than pitching coach. VerHagen, for the second straight year, came back to Toledo after being designated for assignment and clearing waivers. This time, he was DFA’d after just six innings of work with the Tigers in April.

“You could tell when he came down he was in a tough spot,” Nieves said. “But slowly, through time and conversation and repetition of pitches and delivery and thoughts — it was more mental than physical — he started to emerge.

“He learned to disconnect himself from those bad thoughts, to good thoughts to productive aggressiveness and to attack and not be so worried about identifying himself.”

VerHagen is 6-foot-6 and he can throw a fastball in the upper-90s. He was drafted out of Vanderbilt and groomed through the Tigers system as a power pitcher. Nieves got him to understand he was much more.

“You always ask pitchers, who are you as a pitcher?” said Nieves, who threw a no-hitter with the Brewers in 1987. “VerHagen is in the middle. He’s a sinker guy with a slider, but he also has a four-seamer and a curveball. So he’s almost like a hybrid pitcher.

“Because of the shape and action of his pitches, you cannot really fall into, ‘This is me.’ When he learned to embrace that instead of fighting the thought of who I am, what am I going to be, you can see the fruits of it now. He’s very clear about who he is.”

As Nieves said, VerHagen has learned to take the fight to the catcher’s glove instead of fighting with himself.

Nieves is enjoying seeing firsthand some of the pitchers he lost sleep for contribute at the big-league level. He’s also enjoyed seeing how Tigers pitcher coach Rick Anderson and bullpen coach Jeff Pico work with them.

“I’ve been blessed to be in the game a long time, and I enjoy every bit of it,” Nieves said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the big leagues, Triple-A or A-ball. It doesn’t matter because it’s their careers. It’s not about us, it’s about them. They are the ones who are coming up and I just want to help as much as possible.

“I had a coach tell me a long time ago, ‘You can’t save all of them, but you can really try.’ Not everybody is going to be an elite pitcher, but you can pour your heart to them. I know I can’t save all of them, but I can surely try.”

Tigers at Indians

First pitch: 7:10 p.m. Thursday, Progressive Field, Cleveland

TV/radio: Fox/97.1


LHP Daniel Norris (3-12, 4.62), Tigers: It will be another NorHagen game, with Drew VerHagen subbing in for the innings-restricted Norris in the fourth inning. It’s been an effective tandem. In their last four starts, they’ve allowed nine runs (four in one outing against the Royals) in 28.2 innings. They combined on a seven-inning, four-hit shutout of the Orioles the last time out.

►RHP Mike Clevinger (11-3, 2.68), Indians: This will be his third start against the Tigers and he’s overpowered them in the previous two — 14 innings, one earned run, 22 strikeouts and one walk. In his last 14 starts, he has a 2.02 ERA, opponent batting average of .208 and opponent OPS of .594. He’s fanned 118 and walked 23 over that span.

Twitter: @cmccosky