When the New York Mets announced the hiring of 42-year-old Mickey Callaway as the team’s 21st manager, fans were mainly excited at the prospects of hiring an outside voice, whose impressive resume as the Cleveland Indians pitching coach could help revive the once promising rotation in Queens.
General Manager Sandy Alderson admitted during the introductory press conference that Callaway’s prior success with the Indians’ pitchers was too good to pass up on, considering the Mets are a team that is built with power pitching. From 2013 (Callaway’s first year as pitching coach) to the end of the regular season in 2017, the Indians’ pitchers have led all of baseball in K/9 (9.02) and fWAR (108.4), while 3rd in FIP (3.60) and 4th in WHIP (1.24).
For all of the heralded success Callaway brings to a team looking for an infusion of more consistency out of its starting pitchers, better bullpen management, and, a little bit of luck, there remains a vital voice in the Indians organization that has for the past seventeen years imparted his pitching wisdom and tutelage onto many of the prized arms, both in the rotation and bullpen.
Meet Ruben Niebla.
Niebla, 45, is a former left-handed pitcher who bounced from independent ball to the minor leagues with the Montreal Expos and Los Angeles Dodgers. Following his retirement as a player, Niebla was hired in 2001 by the Indians, and would go on to wear many a hat within the organization. Niebla has been a pitching coach among the various minor league affiliates, working up the ladder to the Triple-A Columbus Clippers in 2011. The Clippers won the 2011 National Championship, posting the lowest team ERA (3.94) since 1992.
Niebla returned to his role with Columbus in 2012, where he famously gave crucial insight into then prospect Corey Kluber‘s deveopment. Kluber was then in his sixth season in the minors, having appeared in only three major league games during September call-ups the year prior. Niebla recounts how Kluber lacked fastball command at the time, and during an indoor bullpen session asked him to throw a two-seam fastball, showing him the desired grip. Kluber rocked and fired, rocked and fired, as Niebla instantly saw the life on the fastball, growing more intrigued by the prospects of what they might’ve stumbled upon.
By August, Kluber would get the call to the majors, with his Triple-A pitching coach not far behind.
On August 9th, the Indians fired pitching coach Scott Radinsky after the Tribe lost eleven of their last 12 games, going from 4.5 games back to 9.5 in the AL Central division. Niebla was called upon to fill the role of interim pitching coach for the remainder of the season, a time he looks back on fondly not only for the personal achievement, but for getting the opportunity to see the players he mentored and coached in the minors succeed at the major league level.
Niebla describes the relationships he’s constructed throughout his tenure as more than simply one of a player and coach, rather, he relates it as more of an older brother or even father/son relationship. There’s no ego when discussing the former players he’s helped mold throughout the years, for Niebla’s ultimate jubilation is getting to watch them reach their dreams and succeeding at the highest level.
For the past five years, Niebla has acted as the club’s minor league pitching coordinator, a role the current Mets’ manager held in 2012 before being named the Indians’ pitching coach prior to the 2013 season. Niebla oversees the development of all of Cleveland’s young pitchers, while working closely with the front office to help implement any new resources that might help their young arms prosper.
Niebla’s name has been in the news as of late, as he was a finalist for the vacant Indians’ pitching coach job with friend and eventual hire, Carl Willis. Niebla also seems to be in the running for the vacant bullpen coach position, formerly held by Jason Bere who was released by the Tribe in late October following a three-year stint.
Prior to the Mets naming Dave Eiland as their new pitching coach, some fans wondered whether Niebla would get an opportunity with the club, as Alderson suggested that Callaway would have some input in potential candidates. With the successful run the Indians have had in the past several years, coupled with the familiarity between the two, it seemed like a potential fit was there with the Mets and Niebla.
Niebla attests that the ultimate goal is to get back as a Major League pitching coach, a position he held for less than two months in 2012. A baseball lifer, Niebla certainly will draw significant interest for his services whether this year or in the near future as a pitching coach. His tireless work ethic and strong bonds and relationships he’s built with his players are strong characteristics for any club looking to fill a vacancy.
I had the privilege of speaking to Niebla earlier this week, where we discussed his professional playing career, tenure with the Indians, and his thoughts on Mickey Callaway.
MMO: Can you talk a little about your professional pitching career? You played for a few different Independent Leagues before pitching in the minors for the Expos and Dodgers; what was that journey like for you?
Ruben: Well I think it was a little bit of an eye opener, just the professional baseball aspect of it and the organizational part of it. It was good for me in a way where I was able to step into pro ball immediately and be impactful, but at the same time I was a little bit older, so it was a little bit more of a challenge stepping in right away and immediately having to perform.
MMO: What did you feature in your pitching repertoire?
Ruben: I was a sinker/slider guy with a horrible changeup; which isn’t good for a left-hander.
MMO: How did you transition to working in the Cleveland Indians’ player development system back in 2001?
Ruben: There was a few people that noticed, or, I guess liked me. My first spring training, Dave Littlefield was the farm director for the Expos. He drove his cart up to me, I was shagging out in right field and introduced himself. He said, “I’m Dave Littlefield, I’m the farm director.” And eventually in that conversation he goes, “Hey, if this playing stuff doesn’t work out, are you interested in coaching?” We’re talking about two weeks into spring training and he’s already talking to me about coaching. My answer was, “I’d like to give playing a shot, and sure, we can discuss it if it doesn’t work out.”
MMO: Was coaching something you had ever thought about pursuing?
Ruben: Yeah, I’ve dabbled around coaching at Imperial Valley College, my college that I went to. And then I took a year off just to go to school out of Azusa Pacific University to get my degree, and I helped out coaching there as well. That was something I really enjoyed and I was that guy in the bullpen that was looking at my teammates’ deliveries and trying to break it down for them. It seemed to be in my juices to coach eventually.
MMO: You were instrumental in helping to get Corey Kluber’s career on track, asking him to try and throw a two-seam fastball and showing him your preferred grip. What made you approach Kluber about trying to utilize your two-seamer?
Ruben: It’s a famous story now, there’s no secret to it I guess. Corey had a little bit of a tough time throwing strikes consistently in the minor leagues. He had great stuff but five years ago, fastball command was preached about even more than it is now because the game seems to be transitioning more into – if you can throw a breaking ball for strikes you can be in a good spot – it seems like.
It’s one of those things where I asked him to throw the two-seamer and (we) discussed it a little bit. He threw it, and threw it a couple of times in the zone and said he felt really good. I saw the life, I saw the action that it had through the zone and I was like, wow, this is something that even if he just makes it look like a strike he’s going to get offers on it. Initially that was what happened, he was able to do it to both sides of the plate which now we see him, that’s his seamer in to left-handed hitters, what we call a front door two-seamer which is one of his better pitches. Immediately on that first bullpen he was able to do it.
All the credit goes to Corey that he was willing to go up into the next game and go one-hundred percent two-seam fastballs. That’s what he did and that takes a lot of guts.
MMO: So he took off with that pitch right away?
Ruben: Yeah, he actually went into the next game (with it). His first game with the two-seamer was in Syracuse in 2012 somewhere around mid-May. And I think it was something like the next ten outings you can see a performance spike that happened, and then he got the call-up that year. It was like, hey I’m all in, here it is, there’s the performance, and then he’s getting called up.
In 2012 he got his call-up and eventually I became the major league pitching coach for that team that year. So that was another most proud moment (of mine) to be able to see not only Corey but a lot of the guys I coached in the minor leagues, and be able to see their transition to the big leagues.
MMO: You’ve gotten to work with many of the Indians’ pitchers over the years, and aided in their development. How rewarding is that for you as a coach and minor league coordinator to see these guys have success that translates to the majors?
Ruben: I think the reward part is that you invest yourself so much into a personal level where you don’t see them as players; you see them as your younger brothers at times, or your sons. And so, that’s how much you’re invested and when you start seeing these guys reach their dreams, that’s as a coach the ultimate reward. That was something that I was father-like proud when you see those guys reach their dreams.
MMO: You mentioned before about being the interim pitching coach for the Indians back in late 2012.What did you learn from that experience, and perhaps, something that surprised you with the position that you were not aware of?
Ruben: Well, I think how much preparation happens behind the scenes going into each series, I think that was one thing where I was not sleeping, trying to prepare for the next series. I think that was the biggest thing. There’s the human element of the players that you have to continue being respectful and mindful for because there is more emotion in the big leagues.
MMO: What would you say your personal pitching philosophy is, and what do you try to impart on your players, or, do you prefer more individual based philosophies?
Ruben: I think it has to be flexible enough to be able to impact different personalities. I would describe myself as a coach that likes working from within, which is the person. Care about the person first and find out their motivations. Impact them on a personal level first so you can build that trust. And so, when you do that, I think everybody becomes invested and there can be open dialogue a little more freely. And you’ll be able to impact pitchers more that way if you treat them all as individuals.
MMO: As a minor league pitching coordinator, what are some of your major responsibilities throughout the season?
Ruben: I think that’s the separator between being a major league pitching coach and a minor league coordinator is that now you’re overseeing the development of 100 pitchers and eight pitching coaches, and working closely with the front office to make sure that you’re tapping into all of the resources available to you, and that’s important. Coaching now is working with the front office and I think the coaches that do that will have more success.
MMO: I saw a stat that the Indians had the highest curveball rate among all MLB teams this year at 17.6%, which was almost three percentage points higher than the 2nd place team in the Dodgers. Can you talk a little about that and if that was a coordinated effort on the organization’s part?
Ruben: I wouldn’t say breaking balls being the thing we talk about. I think that thing we talk about is using your best pitches to get outs. So we have the blessings of having major league pitchers that have good stuff. And so, we’ve got to be able to, given the information, put them in the best possible scenario to succeed. Whether it’s fastball, curveball, slider. If we had a knuckleballer, if we had Steven Wright we’d tell him to do that more often. (Laughs) So it’s not necessary curveballs, it’s identifying the best pitches and helping them put the game plan together revolving around their best pitch so that they can have success.
I think it’s been misinterpreted in some of the articles (about the reliance solely on curves).
MMO: I’m sure having to work with all levels of the organization that you’re verse in the new analytics of the game?
Ruben: Yes, and that’s something that as you dig into it more, you realize and you understand how important it is. We have an extraordinary front office that allows us to grow as coaches and try to give us all the resources to try and grow. That analytics is part of them developing us. We have a lot of meetings where we focused on analytics only, making sure we understand, making sure that we are in tune with what the numbers mean. It’s something I’ve taken a liking to, and something I’m very interested in.
MMO: There seems to still be the old guard out there that are slower to adapt and incorporate the new sabermetrics. Do you find your colleagues are adapting fairly quick?
Ruben: Yes, I think that we’re seeing the trend in Major League Baseball. Our coaches can be really good at delivery and building relationships and stuff like that. But when you get a piece of new information, coaches that are forward thinking coaches will definitely gravitate to what’s new. I think that’s the trend we’re seeing with our coaches in the minor leagues as well.
MMO: You got to work closely with Mickey Callaway, can you talk about the kind of person Met fans should be expecting from him as manager?
Ruben: I think that one of Mickey’s biggest strengths is working collaboratively with a group. He’s going to have success if there are people around him that are able to give him the information because he’s going to invite them in. I think that’s going to be a great help to the organization having him.
MMO: It was reported that you were a candidate for the vacant pitching coach position that Callaway held before leaving for Queens. Carl Willis was hired for the job, though, is pitching coach something you hope to someday return to in the majors?
Ruben: Yeah, that’s the ultimate goal, to get to that position. Yes I went through the process and I’m very happy for Carl who’s a great friend of mine. So it’s difficult knowing that it was him and I interviewing for the same position because he worked in Triple-A while I was in the lower levels. The relationship had already been built. And here’s another way that I know Carl is that I started coaching here in 2001. He was the Triple-A pitching coach here at that point. We worked together and then he became the major league pitching coach here from 2003-2009 and I was a minor league pitching coach as well. So we’ve known each other for a really long time, which is why I say I’m really happy for him.
MMO: Thank you for your time Ruben, I wish you all the best.
Ruben: Thanks Mathew, my pleasure.
Follow Ruben on Twitter, @FogballRuben