Erstwhile Brewer Juan Nieves Looks Back on His Playing Days

Junfu Han via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Juan Nieves had a promising career cut short by a shoulder injury. A 21-year-old when he debuted with the Milwaukee Brewers in April 1986, the southpaw from Santurce, Puerto Rico pitched just three big league seasons before a tear in his rotator cuff was discovered. With 490.2 innings, 32 wins, and a no-hitter already under his belt, Nieves threw his last pitch at baseball’s highest level prior to celebrating his 24th birthday.

He joined the coaching ranks not long thereafter. Nieves has been tutoring hurlers since 1992, most recently as the assistant pitching coach for the Detroit Tigers, a position he’s held since November 2020. He looked back at his playing days when the Tigers visited Fenway Park earlier this season.

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David Laurila: You faced some great hitters during your relatively short stint in the majors. How did you view those matchups at the time?

Juan Nieves: “It’s funny. Coming from Puerto Rico, I grew up watching the Pirates because of Roberto Clemente, and because of Turner Broadcasting we saw a lot of the Braves. It was more National League, and I ended up in the American League [the Brewers joined the senior circuit in 1998].

“I was actually just talking to the kids in the bullpen and mentioned how I came to the big leagues at a young age, and how it seems like there were five or six Hall of Famers on every team. Fortunately, I never thought of it that way, because they were still playing. But looking back at some of the guys I had the honor of playing with — Rollie Fingers, Don Sutton, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor — I appreciate it more now, after the fact, than I did at the moment. The same goes for some of the guys that I faced.”

Laurila: What do you remember about facing Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield?

Nieves: “Puckett was a nightmare for me. He hit me really well.”

Laurila: Both Puckett [13-for-21 with one home run] and Winfield [7-for-11, two home runs] had good numbers against you. Not that they didn’t have good numbers against a lot of pitchers.

Nieves: “Right, right. Not only me. And they crushed lefties. I think I was a little bit on the uneven side of it — it was a little bit of a mismatch — because they knew that I was throwing fastballs. It’s not like they had other pitches to worry about. I was a fastball guy, because I was so young. I never really had a chance to become a complete pitcher; I never had a chance to groom myself into having exceptional secondary pitches. I wouldn’t say that I was rushed, but I got to the big leagues quick, and it was basically because of the fastball.

“Now that I can look back at what a complete pitcher is… Anybody who asks me, ‘What does it take to pitch in the big leagues?’ — well, it takes good stuff. You need to have velocity and a good breaking ball. But being a complete pitcher, at any point in history, is the ability to throw any pitch in any count. Behind in the count, ahead in the count, wherever it is. The inability to do that was a disadvantage for me. And those guys certainly hit the ball hard against me.”

Laurila: For a long time, people believed that Fenway Park was an especially difficult venue for left-handers. You actually pitched pretty well here, especially in your first couple of opportunities.

Nieves: “Very well. I loved pitching here. I don’t know why. I do know that I never looked at the Monster, because my power was pitching inside. But again, I loved pitching here at Fenway. It felt like I was at home, I guess.”

Laurila: The Red Sox had some great hitters at the time. Wade Boggs, Jim Rice

Nieves: “Oh, man. Dewey Evans, Don Baylor. A lot of guys. But I felt really, really good here. There was also knowing that you could always match up with Roger [Clemens].”

Laurila: There was one matchup, on September 16, 1986, where Clemens won his 23rd game of the season, with the Red Sox beating you 2-1.

Nieves: “Yes. We also pitched well against each other in another game. It was in Milwaukee [on August 9, 1988]. I think Joey Meyer hit a home run against him in the ninth inning to win it for us.

“One of the most interesting games I ever saw was Teddy Higuera against Roger, in Boston [on April 24, 1988. I think they were both waiting for the other to hand them the ball between innings. I couldn’t believe it. It was a really fast game [2:10]. You know how good Teddy was.”

Laurila: Higuera and Clemens were very different pitchers.

Nieves: “They were, but do you know what? Teddy didn’t throw as hard as Roger, but he was 93-94 [mph] and commanding it, along with a great breaking ball. He was an impressive pitcher. When he came here as a rookie [in 1985], he was already seasoned, having pitched in the Mexican League. It’s a shame he never played in California.”

Laurila: Like Fernando Valenzuela

Nieves: “Oh yeah. He would have been unbelievable.”

Laurila: How hard did you throw?

Nieves: “I’m not sure. Back then, people weren’t really talking about how hard you threw, but I’m going to say 92-94. Somewhere around there. But it was a little different game. It was also a different clock with how they measured. Now, as soon as the ball is out of the hand, they measure it. Back then, it was a radar gun and I think it was when the ball was getting to the plate.”

Laurila: Going back to hitters you faced, what do you remember about Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker?

Nieves: “Oh, those Detroit teams were a nightmare. They were really good. I did a little better against Whitaker [3-for-18], but Tram was a tough out [5-for-17 with a home run and six walks]. I didn’t match up very well with him. He was a little more of a high-ball hitter and I threw the ball high. I wasn’t really good down in the zone. He also had Kirk Gibson behind him, so I didn’t mind navigating around Trammell to get to Kirk. Lefty-on-lefty was better for me.”

Laurila: You only got to face big league hitters for three years.

Nieves: “Yes, and my first two years were like a blur. It was almost learning on the fly. It was an older league, and you didn’t really spend a lot of time talking to the veterans. It was a different era. It’s a younger game now. My third year was probably the most fun I had. Right before I got hurt, I started really being able to throw secondary pitches in any count. One thing I remember about that year was a save, and then I started and threw a complete game [shutout]. I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ And it was easy. It was, ‘Pitching is actually easy.’ Unfortunately, I went back home to Puerto Rico, didn’t throw in winter ball, and when I came back I broke down.”

Laurila: As soon as it got fun, it ended?

Nieves: “It ended, yes. But I’ve been blessed. I’m very grateful that I’m still in the game. I’ve been coaching a lot longer than I played, and I’m very honored and grateful for this game. I’ve been able to meet a lot of great people. I’ve also seen a lot of young men become not only very good players, but do things like become parents. I’ve seen them become good human beings.”

Laurila: There is more to life than baseball…

Nieves: “Absolutely. There is more to life than baseball.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Look It Up
14 days ago

The Nieves-Clemens matchup that was decided by a Joey Meyers walk-off home run was on August 9, 1988.

The game of July 30 1988 was Higuera vs Clemens at Fenway, with the Red Sox winning in the bottom of the 9th.