Ruben Niebla was preceded as Padres pitching coach by Larry Rothschild, who had been coaching in the major leagues for more than three decades when he was hired.
Rothschild was preceded by Darren Balsley, who coached Padres pitchers for 17 seasons.
That’s generally how it went in Major League Baseball for a long time. And that helps explain why Niebla is in his first season as a major league team’s lead pitching coach.
Because Bob Melvin did require an explanation.
“You look at a guy like Ruben,” Melvin said. “He’s been in the minor leagues as long as he has, and this is his first real big break of him. In talking to him and getting to know him you’re like, ‘How has this not happened earlier?’ He’s that good. “
That’s what everyone says. Some sort of pitcher whisperer, Niebla is supposed to be.
“He’s the man,” said Padres starter Mike Clevinger, who came up through Cleveland’s system when Niebla was that organization’s minor league pitching coordinator. “Ruben single-handedly had the most influence over my career. … He still understands the old-school baseball mentality, but he knows how to let you digest the knowledge as far as you can take it. “
Clevinger, who from 2017 through ’20 had the major leagues’ sixth-lowest ERA, said Niebla’s strengths are what he “expressed very thoroughly” to AJ Preller when the Padres President of Business operations picked his brain regarding Niebla.
The reputation that preceded Niebla is astonishing for a guy most people who follow baseball had never heard of before he started being mentioned as a hot candidate for pitching coach jobs in October.
People in the organization first started mentioning Niebla almost as soon as the season ended. A couple didn’t even know his name di lui, but they had heard Preller was keen on this guy in Cleveland who was supposed to be really good.
Before joining Cleveland’s major league staff as an assistant pitching coach prior to the 2020 season, Niebla had worked with minor league pitchers since 2001. He was the pitching coordinator from 2013 through ’19, a period that saw Clevinger and future Cy Young Award winners Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber and Shane Bieber progress through that system.
This past fall wasn’t the first opportunity Niebla had to leave the Guardians (who were called the Indians for the entirety of his 21 years in their organization). But it was the first one he felt comfortable acting on.
“I think I’m a little bit of the older school,” said Niebla, a Calexico High graduate who lives in El Centro. “When I started, it was you’ve got to clock in your years, you’ve got to get your experience. I came up with coaches that were older than myself, that had been with the organization for a while. I was like, ‘That’s the mold, and I’m willing to do that.’ It was the mindset of be a good employee, the organization treats you well and you end up in a situation where you’re happy and you don’t think about these things. “
He interviewed for the pitching coach job in Texas in 2018 and turned down other opportunities through the years because he was comfortable in his job.
“The game started changing a few years back with the younger coaches starting to emerge,” he said. “It kind of opens your eyes like, ‘Hold on now, is this the time?’ “
Niebla, who turned 50 in December, might just be the ideal mix of young and old. His time di lui in the minors helped him bridge the gap in the debate between the two schools, new and old.
His ability to decipher mechanical issues made him the ideal hire to help top pitching prospect MacKenzie Gore, who during the COVID-altered season of 2020 began developing hitches in his delivery. His understanding of analytics and ability to cogently relay their significance made him an attractive teacher for pitchers of all ages.
“One of my strengths is being able to take some of the analytics and flip them into the actual fundamental and what’s happening on the mound,” Niebla said. “… Some guys describe me as the progressive old-school. That’s what I would consider myself – a guy who has been around the game 27 years now but a guy who has progressed with the game. “
Padres reliever Craig Stammen, who is 38, spent 2016 in Cleveland’s minor league system while working back from a torn flexor tendon. He didn’t spend much time with Niebla then, but he remembers a few things they talked about. And Stammen learned enough to be thrilled when he heard Niebla had been hired in San Diego.
“I know how the Indians do their pitching, and I felt like that was a good move for us to like get into that way of pitching coaching,” Stammen said. “… Like exactly how we can use it not just as a number on a sheet or a printout, but how can that information be taught to the players and then used in game application.”