GLENDALE, Ariz. — If you believe that Jose Contreras was put on Earth to throw his trademark forkball, then you’ll understand why White Sox pitcher Thyago Vieira believes that the 2005 World Series champion was brought to him this offseason with a call of duty from above.
“I believe in God. I took that as a signal from Him. I just needed someone to wake me up, and that was Jose,” Vieira said through team translator Billy Russo. “(Contreras) was put in that position by God and I’m very, very grateful for that.”
With a blazing fastball than can reach triple digits, Vieira has the arm to become a powerful reliever in the major leagues, but after the White Sox acquired him from the Seattle Mariners in November of 2017, he struggled with both his command and confidence. Just the fifth Brazilian pitcher to ever make it to the big leagues, Vieira finished with a 7.13 ERA in 17 2/3 innings after the White Sox called him up at the end of July.
Vieira needed help. In came Contreras.
A respected gentle giant in the game of baseball, Contreras was brought back by the White Sox to be a team ambassador in 2017. The Cuban native who defected to the United States in 2002 to fullfill his dream of pitching in the big leagues, speaks with White Sox Latin players about assimilating in the U.S. He also shares his vast knowledge of pitching with those who need it.
“I’m a shy guy,” Contreras said through translator Russo. “I don’t know how to approach all the guys all the time, but usually it’s Ricky (Renteria) or (Don) Cooper who tell me, ‘Can you talk to this guy?’ Or they ask, ‘What do you like about this guy?’ That’s when I proceed to talk with the guys. Or in a few instances, the guys approach me because they know me, some of them know who I am or who I used to be as a (major league) pitcher. They ask me for advice.”
Vieira was ready for advice from Contreras. He was beyond ready.
When last season ended, Contreras gave Vieira a throwing plan for the offseason.
But for Vieira, he was hoping for more. A lot more.
Heading back to Brazil where he would compete in the qualifying round of the Pan Am Games for the Brazilian National team, Vieira presented a plan to the Brazilian Baseball Federation.
He wanted them to hire Contreras to be the team’s pitching coach.
“In Brazil, I don’t have a person who has played in the majors or has (professional) experience,” Vieira said. “We were getting ready to face the Dominican Republic, Canada, Mexico and Columbia in the qualifying phase. It was a perfect opportunity to bring him in.”
With permission from the White Sox, Contreras took the freelance job, spending a month in Brazil, working closely with Vieira, helping him to unlock his potential.
“We made some mechanical adjustments,” Contreras said. “Last year, he was putting his hand in the far back of his delivery and that was putting more stress on his arm. It’s not easy for any pitcher when those things happen to be able to command. We worked on having better posture and stance and his way towards home plate. I think he made big progress.”
Contreras also helped with the mental side of pitching. You don’t go 18-1 with a 2.65 ERA in 24 starts like Contreras did in 2005-2006 without having a supreme baseball mind. The thoughts that were scrambling around in Vieira’s head were choking so much of the promise that exists in his gifted arm.
“I think all the young guys, especially pitchers, want to make that impression throwing hard with that fastball. He’s a guy who can throw hard effortlessly, but when you are in your first season with a new organization you want to impress. I was talking to him about that,” Contreras said. “I told him 10 years ago you didn’t see pitchers throwing as hard as they’re throwing right now.
"He has to be smarter. Instead of focusing on throwing as hard as he can, just be smart. Use your cutter, your breaking pitch, the sinker and to mix it up with your fastball. That’s going to give you an edge over the rest, and going to put you in a better position.”
More than anything, Contreras noticed that Vieira, who didn’t become a pitcher until he was 17, was lacking confidence.
“In baseball, like in life, you need to have confidence. I think for him right now, that’s the biggest change that he’s made. He has confidence right now. He believes in himself,” Contreras said.
The confidence that Vieira found in Brazil has followed him here to Arizona.
Soon after throwing his first bullpen session at spring training, Vieira sent a text to Contreras. He had to.
“As soon as I read the text, I said, ‘Oh, this is good,’ because I knew that he had the confidence,” Contreras said.
What did the text say? It wasn’t so much about the words, it was more about how Vieira was feeling about himself.
“The reason why I texted him was because there was a moment of true joy for me and I just wanted to share with him the happiness I was experiencing at that moment,” Vieira explained.
Saturday in the White Sox first spring training game, trotting out of the bullpen came the new and improved Vieira. He pitched a scoreless eighth inning, then came back and did the same in the ninth.
Vieira the student appreciates what Contreras the teacher did to help him.
“He taught me a lot about a lot of things I didn’t know. For that, I will be forever grateful, not just for him, but the White Sox organization, because they allowed him to go (to Brazil) and work with me," Vieira said. "That’s one of the reasons why I’m ready for this season, because of Jose.
“With Jose being around me, talking to me about his experiences to be a successful pitcher in the majors, it just clicked with me. That, combined with the level of confidence I already had, it took that to another level.”
There’s that word again: confidence. Contreras helped to build it inside Vieira. Now, it’s a matter of keeping it there through the twists and turns of a long, unrelenting baseball season.
“With the talent that he has and the arm that he has, having that confidence he has right now, it can be a very, very good season for him,” Contreras said.
Vieira agrees. He’s a pitcher who has shed all the weight that dragged him down in 2018.
“Now I don’t have any doubt that I can pitch at this level," he said. "I erased all the memories of last year. All the bad stuff. I don’t think about that. Now I’m just focusing on this season.”
And when the season begins March 28 in Kansas City, Vieira is hoping to be there too, with a spot in the White Sox bullpen.
If so, he can thank that former World Series champion, the master of the forkball, whose fingerprints are touching the lives of a new generation of White Sox pitchers.
Contreras went to Brazil. How far will Vieira go in his career? As far as his arm and confidence will take him.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the White Sox easily on your device.