El Maquinista: Our Hero’s Nephew (Aside 1)

Before forging ahead with our main subject, the post-trade career of Sílvano Nieves—whose journey through the vagaries of nineteenth-century professional baseball in Puerto Rico was much more precarious than his uncle’s, and therefore much more typical—merits fuller mention.

There are two major reasons why a man nearly fifty years old, two years removed from swinging a competitive bat, could see a pitch devised to disrupt batters’ timing, thrown by a pitcher who held a platoon advantage over him, and still drive it over a hundred meters from home plate.

First—and, to our modern audience, more obvious—is that the younger Nieves had thrown a bad pitch. His artimaña (a term that refers exclusively to changeups in modern parlance, but at the time comprised almost all trick pitches beyond the venerably excepted curveball) was by far the least of his offerings, and given that there is no record of him ever throwing it after his arrival in Barceloneta, it is tempting to agree with certain contemporary assessments of its efficacy.

“While it cannot be claimed that we are experts in the secret science of the mound, in regard to the recent performances of our old friend Nieves, we can only advise that he rid himself altogether of that odd delivery we have seen too often result in profit for the adversary. We feel entirely secure in branding it one of the worst pitches in the totality of the Liga Betances, and advise that his trainers forbid this farce of a throw from further use.”

— Federico Hecht Guillén, “No queda sino rendirse”
La Esquina (December 13, 1891)

As part of his transition to the second bench, Nieves would depend instead on his two main pitches.

One—his bola tumbada, or tumbe for short—a fantastic pitch to use against 1890s lineups, regardless of matchup. It was described as sloping towards the ground, rather than breaking, much like a modern sinkerand with a similar labefactory impact on the contact most batters could make. That furnished the skilled infielders around him with plenty of low-effort groundballs they could easily dispatch.

To further bedevil the batters he faced, Nieves would pepper in the occasional pitch he had nicknamed a bola virada, or for short, virón. That term was identified with sliders when it was codified in the 1950s as viroteo, but contemporary reports describe this pitch as a steeper, sharper, and (crucially) only slightly slower version of Nieves’ tumbe. Not only was it much harder to hit, given the difference in timing against his main pitch, but it was also his purpose-built and savagely effective antipersonnel mine. If Nieves allowed a baserunner, the virón would bait the next batter into gently flicking the ball onto the infield dirt for a quick double play.

Based on this movement profile and his usage, it seems likely that Nieves had inadvertently concocted an early version of a splitter.

Armed with the two pitches he had properly mastered and—more importantly—surrounded by infielders who could be trusted to handle the occasional ball put in play, as opposed to a defense so notoriously incompetent that it stymied Sr. Hecht Guillén’s considerable descriptive gifts, Sílvano Nieves would greet the Inauguración of 1892 as one of the most irritating secret weapons a Puerto Rican team could deploy against its opponents in the late innings.

Beyond the woeful pitch itself, there was another reason for Nieves’ performance that would have struck contemporary audiences far more readily: despite showing enough brilliance in his invernales that the gaceteros had marked him as a major prospect before his debut, he had proved incapable of translating it into prolonged success. 

His long-lamented and frustrating inability to deploy his full prowess stemmed from an equally enduring predilection for horsing around during practices, distracting teammates in mid-drill, and generally hampering even the most committed staff’s ability to run a competent side, though even the most generous observer would have denied that adjective to the Maunabo teams of the late 1880s and early 1890s.

As expected, the local press did not mince words on the subject.

“[Nieves] represents perhaps the most notorious example in this age of a most unfortunate tragedy: irrefutable talent joined to a spirit wholly opposed to its most complete use. Taking this into account, it is made impossible to not perceive Sr. Gómez’s choice of new leadership as an attempt to awaken whatever nepotal piety remains in his ostensible ace.”

— Federico Hecht Guillén, “La caída del general Castañón
La Esquina (August 31, 1890)

Although the Marineros of the 1890s were resolutely unorthodox in pitching strategy—believing that the key to run prevention was aggressive defense, they fully trained all of their pitchers as infielders—they did surrender to the prevailing climate in one way: like most other teams, they had men on their second bench tasked with finishing close games without permitting opponents to respond.

By necessity, these men were ice-blooded, and by custom the nineteenth-century equivalents of hard throwers. They used (relatively) overwhelming speed and jagged movement to secure outs, and avoided the logical consequences upon their arms by throwing at most two dozen pitches a game. They were also almost all northpaws, because so were most hitters, and pitching coaches who specialized in working with left-handers were rare birds indeed in the 1890s.  

The difference is that whereas most teams had one or two such men, the Marineros maintained a passel of between six and eight during Nieves’ tenure. While modern pitching coaches would undoubtedly sink into permanent conniption at the haphazard way the Barceloneta staff supervised their overstuffed pantry, it supplied all their pitchers with ample rest.

In Nieves’ case, it meant that he was called on every few games, usually for an inning at a time, though his long-term conditioning meant he could work a second or even third without overtaxing his arm. Despite being a portsider, his virón was remarkably effective at attacking right-handed batters, and he could spot both his pitches with such precision that his frustrated opponents usually had no choice but to spike the ball into the infield dirt, hoping to conjure a fire-drill play that would end with them safely on base. It did work, though not commonly enough to be a winning strategy.

Given how little each pitch took out of him and the plentiful time he received to rest and lollygag between appearances, Nieves had finally found his preferred role on a baseball team: necessary enough to earn above minimum pay during the season, but still sufficiently ancillary that he could rely on his more motivated teammates to lift most of the heavy weight.

Few discoveries have been so opportune.

Between 1892 and 1896—the same years Nieves spent as the most boisterous member of an increasingly garrisoned bullpen—the entire Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña experienced a surge of power hitting unprecedented since the early years, when seasons were measured in two digits, and teams routinely found ways to commit more errors than they scored runs.

A line graph showing how many hits in each season of the Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña went for extra bases. After a slow start in the 16-18% range, this figure has hovered in the low twenties since 1879, reaching 25% and 28% in some especially blessed years, including 1894. Given that more runs per game were scored in the early 1870s, the age of the short season, this graph is more than anything an excellent tribute to the nightmarish fielding of those years.

In the modern environment of baseball, where over a third of hits are doubles, triples, or home runs, all of these seasons would be thoroughly unacceptable from a median batter.

A line graph showing the average number of home runs per team every season between 1871 and 1897. Teams took until 1879 to average even 10, and seesawed between 25 and 35 for most of the 1880s, but in 1894, the average team could report almost 55 home runs, falling to 40 the next year before settling once again.

For reasons we are about to discuss, it is surprising to discover that there was very little difference, longball-wise, between teams in Liga Betances and their counterparts in Hostos.

A column graph showing how many players hit 15 or more home runs in each season. Two players did it in 1884; four in 1887; three in 1889; two in 1893. Then sixteen of them did it in 1894 and another eight in 1895.

Of the twenty-six players represented in this graph, Miguel Zavala is the only one to appear three times; he had 15 HR in 1889 and 1895, as well as a record-setting 23 HR in 1894.

Chronic scufflers who had spent their careers baffled by even run-of-the-mill breaking balls found themselves batting .300—only to realize that exceeding that mark put them on par with half of the league’s pitchers, who were themselves struggling with recalcitrant baseballs too happy to issue free passes to batters who needed less help than ever getting to first.

Scoring multiplied, especially against misbegotten teams like Hormigueros, which had somehow failed to designate any successors for their veteran pitchers, and were therefore reduced to bolting their rotations together with castoffs from Cuban and Texan mounds. Those coaches hoped merely to find enough arms that could throw a baseball in the vicinity of home plate for 138 games. For them, winning had become the stuff of fantasy.

A graph showing the relative prevalence of five outcomes—doubles, triples, home runs, strikeouts and walks—which tend to imply good batting is on the rise, between the 1871 and 1897 seasons. All are very unlikely at first, until strikeouts reach three per game in the late 1870s and peak at five per game in the early 1880s; walks then rise to take their place, eventually becoming more common by the 1890s. Doubles are steadily between 1.5 and two per game; triples have slowly made their way towards the one-per-game mark, although it has been inconstant. Home runs have struggled to even reach half per game, but they are steadily climbing.

The power surge of 1894 was so turbulent that the aforementioned Miguel Zavala, who posted the second-best OPS of his career at .889, was only about 18% better than an average hitter.

A line chart showing that teams scored an absurd eight runs a game on average in the 1871-73 seasons, when no one knew what they were doing. By 1876, better fielding had reduced that number to about five, and they would stay under six until 1894, when they almost reached seven.

No single visual representation could better depict the effect of competent fielders. To their predecessors, the defenses that took the field in the 1880s would have appeared to be playing an entirely different game, one full of mobility and verve.

A line graph showing the average number of runs scored by the 39 teams in each league. Obviously, this is a little bit misleading, because the seasons were different lengths—but it is still obvious that the mid-1890s represent a complete departure from the rest of the decade, a jump of nearly 100 runs per team.

The astute observer will doubtlessly have already noticed that the early seasons—specifically 1871 through 1874—are on such a steep scoring pace that, had teams competed for the same number of games, they would have exceeded the production of the infamous 1894 campaign.

Given the lip tightness that La Central had the wherewithal to enforce in those days and the general contentiousness of baseball fans, it is little surprise that there are enough theories about the origin of El Aguacero, as it was christened in the press, to fill an encyclopedia.

Some point to Commissioner Flores Duarte’s standardization of outfield dimensions and the resulting confusion among league outfielders, who had honed their defensive acumina patrolling much broader fields.

Others stake their case on the fact that la Central had, at long last, found local cattlemen and woodworkers willing to produce balls, gloves and bats for the National Endeavor. To this group, the alleged qualitative differences between American leather and wood and their Puerto Rican counterparts account for the sudden shift.

A third faction credits the tactical innovations of contemporary hitters. Among these, the most famous was el pescao de Salinas, a forceful downward chop designed to bounce the ball off the infield dirt so it would flop about like a caught fish, providing the name not only for the batting style, but for the team that profited from its invention all the way to two titles in the early 1890s.

Still others posit something like baseball’s answer to the labor theory of value. By the 1890s, every single team in the Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña could boast of employing former players on their coaching staff. They, of course, had spent their careers trying to make contact with the baseball, or trying to stop their opponents from doing so, and that experience proved invaluable in teaching their successors to surpass them on the diamond.

Regardless of the cause, to an exhausted arm like Sílvano Nieves, this three-year crescendo of screaming line drives and longballs that soared past fences or chalk lines or landmarks should have been a funeral Mass.

Instead, he thrived.

A scatter plot of all pitchers who did not start a game between 1893 and 1895. Sílvano Nieves' dot is highlighted in Marineros gold; he pitched 133.1 innings, which is quite good, with a 2.70 ERA, which ranks eighth of the 97 pitchers represented in the sample.

Buoyed at long last by a competent coaching staff and surrounded by colleagues who no longer needed to rest their hopes for a .500 record on his arm, Nieves went almost immediately from erratic starter to trustworthy clincher. He never quite attained the impressive résumés of dedicated closers like Guillermo Ramos, Gerardo Colón, Radamés Luciano, or Manuel Guerrero, but by some measures, he was the most secure lock the Marineros could put on a victory, in a stretch where that reliability was as scarce as its necessity had grown acute. 

HRA34 (tied)

Furthermore, for the first time since 1882, when he had pitched three thoroughly quotidian innings and taken the loss that allowed the Chupacabras to sweep his team out of the first round, Nieves would pitch in the postseason—and regularly, too, as the Marineros had very little competition for the division crown.

He was an infrequent presence. Very few nineteenth-century managers saw any reason to preserve arms before the offseason, especially when their team was in hot pursuit of a medal. Yet here, too, he did his duty admirably.

Sílvano Nieves, 1892-1896, postseason only: 

4.2 IP, 4 G, 1 SV, 0.00 ERA, 2 BB / 1 K.

The last five pitches Nieves threw as a player came on November 15th, 1896, in a lopsided 9-2 loss that put his Marineros down 0-2 in the Campeonato de las Ligas. His first pitch went wild, which allowed the two runners he had inherited to move into scoring position.

After another ball and a called strike, that wicked virón of his exploded on the batter’s hands to coax a routine groundout. The runner scored from third. It hardly mattered; by even putting him on the mound, Barceloneta had signalled their acceptance of the outcome.

The next batter popped up foul on his first pitch, and immediately took the mound to close out his complete game. He gave the Marineros some hope—for the first time since the second inning, a runner reached third base—before forcing a game-ending double play.

It was a loss, though they had fought their ship until the end, and only the prospect of playing before their home crowd eased the daunting grief of their two successive seven-run defeats. Nieves, his mind already occupied with all the fishing he wanted to do once the season was over, hugged some teammates and shaken hands with others.

A few weeks later, when the Pescadores’ last hitter flew out to deep center field, Nieves would immediately turn to the bench behind him and shake his uncle’s hand before they melted together into a hug. Sílvano Nieves, who had frittered away much of his talent on an atrocious team that refused to reward his minimal labors, would retire a Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña champion.

Today, however, the embrace with his uncle was an equally heartfelt commiseration. The younger Marineros fans stared, at least until their siblings or parents or friends noticed an invaluable opportunity to induct them into the budding community of amateur baseball historians.

They had good reason to stare. The older man embracing their last pitcher had come from behind the other team’s benches, and despite the best efforts of the Puerto Rican sun, his cap still bore a little of the deep green dye it had once sported. He had clapped along with his side when Eduardo Moreno had scorched the eighth pitch of his third-inning at-bat over the right field line, and again when Nerón Jiménez had induced that double play to lock the game up.

Now that the game was over, it didn’t matter what color of cap he wore.

Víctor Nieveswho would watch loyally as his beloved Ingenieros, the mightiest team of the nineteenth century, fell to Barceloneta in six games—was an uncle once again.

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