“Velocity is a very overrated thing. With the knuckleball, I just get it up there.”
So says lefty pitcher Blaine Sims, “the Next Braves Knuckleballer,” in a 2013 interview with SweetSpot Network’s gondee. He also says: “Your fastball looks so much more alive than what it actually is.” (Ouch!)
Gondee writes that although Sims hasn’t always thrown a knuckleball during the game, he “had always messed around with the knuckleball.” And that he might still be just messing around with it if a pitching coordinator hadn’t seen him confound a teammate with the pitch:
Late last year  in Lynchburg, Virginia, while Blaine was playing for the Lynchburg Hillcats, the Atlanta Braves high-A minor league affiliate, Blaine caught a batting practice ball in the outfield and threw it to his teammate. He decided to throw his knuckleball without telling him, and instead of hitting his teammate in the glove, chest high, the pitch hit him in the shoe. The Braves minor league pitching coordinator Dave Wallace was standing a few feet away.
“Wallace came up to me and asked ‘what was that?’ I immediately thought, I’m in trouble man, because the organization watches your throwing so closely.”
So Blaine got another ball from Wallace and threw another knuckler, and his teammate missed it again. Wallace then grabbed a catcher and had Sims throw two dozen knuckleballs in the bullpen. Blaine thought he threw maybe two good ones, and didn’t think anything else would come of it.
After the season ended Wallace came to Sims and told him the organization wanted him to work on the knuckleball during the winter. And so he did…
“They came to me the last day of [spring training] camp and said, ‘we’re going to leave you behind, and you’re going to stay down here and you’re going to throw knuckleballs.’” Sims didn’t know how to react. “At first I was like, is this really happening. I’m a lefty, I throw 88-90, is this really what I’m going to do. I didn’t know if this was a joke or if they were serious about it.”…
“I’ve always grown up different, and I wanted to be different….
“I was told my regular stuff could get me [to the Majors], but in the big leagues I’d just be another guy, just another left-hander who throws 90 and you’re going to go up there and get lefty bats out, that’s all you’re going to do. You’re not going to be a household name in the big leagues. I wanted to be different.”
Read the whole thing—to learn, for example, how he meets Phil Niekro, who tells him “you’ve got a big league knuckleball” and shows him how to build his knuckleball repertoire. During their time together, mental approach is high on the agenda.
Ezra Wise, who pointed us to gondee’s profile of Sims, argues that the ball player “is a prime example of the lackluster manner in which knuckleballers are developed within affiliated baseball. Once the Braves realized that Sims had a knuckleball with some potential, they basically just told him to go fool around with it over the winter. Other than a minimal amount of instruction from Phil Niekro, Sims was on his own.”
Whether or not that generalization holds true in every case, it’s likely that if formal and intensive training in the pitch were a higher MLB priority than it tends to be when a potential knuckleballer is spied, we’d be seeing more and better trained big-league knuckleballers. How many more we wouldn’t attempt to guesstimate. (More than one or two at a time, let’s say.) On the other hand, it’s also true (as Ezra has observed here with respect to Dan Duquette and the Baltimore Orioles) that certain ball clubs are especially willing to give a knuckleballer the time on the mound he needs to demonstrate and improve his knuckleball. Hence Wakefield, Dickey and all their predecessors; as well as the non-Dickey knuckleballers pitching today, in the minor leagues.
So what’s the latest in Mr. Sims’s trajectory? His time with the Lynchburg Hillcats is over, at least for now. In the coming season he will be pitching for the Houston Astros. EJPurser of SB Nation’s Talking Chop says Sims is still getting a grip on the knuckleball but showing auspicious progress.
Prior to this season, Sims was just another lefty in the Braves organization…. After two seasons of so-so performance in the system, the 24-year-old began regularly throwing a knuckleball last offseason and spent this year honing the pitch. He had his share of bumps in the road this season, sporting an 8.44 ERA and allowing 44 walks (and 14 wild pitches!) in over 53 innings of work between Lynchburg, Rome, and the GCL squad. The upside, however, is that he struck out over a batter per inning for the first time in his professional career. As a left-handed knuckleballer, Sims will have plenty of hurdles to jump in his ascent to the highest level, but this is a solid gamble pick by the Astros.
The 2014 Major League Baseball season begins officially on March 22 with an exhibition game in Australia (though the big day is really March 31 in North America), the Minor League Baseball season on April 3.