Blaine Sims is trying to knuckle down his baseball future with a pitch that can be as equally pleasing and frustrating to throw.
After three years trying to be a conventional pitcher, Sims started throwing a knuckleball while playing in the Atlanta Braves’ farm system last year. Now, the 25-year-old left-hander will continue to work on that pitch as a member of the Tri-City ValleyCats, the Houston Astros’ New York-Penn League affiliate.
Sims, who was acquired by the Astros from the Braves in the Rule 5 draft at last year’s Winter Meetings, came to the knuckler by accident.
“I really did not plan on going to the knuckleball until I got caught,” Sims said at ValleyCats media day Wednesday at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium. The ValleyCats open their season Friday when they host the Connecticut Tigers.
“I got caught in the outfield in 2012 by my pitching coordinator for the Braves, Dave Wallace. He really showed a good liking to it, and so we put it on. I just stuck with it. I’ve been through the lows on it, man. There’s been some highs. I’m just trying to stay there.”
Sims, who played college baseball at Arkansas Tech University, was signed by the Braves as a non-drafted free agent in 2010, He was on three teams in the Braves’ minor league system last year. Between the Gulf Coast Braves, Rome (Class A South Atlantic League) and Lynchburg (Class A Carolina League), he went 0-9 with an 8.44 earned run average. He struck out 56 and walked 44 in 531⁄3 innings.
Even though Sims didn’t win a game last season, he wasn’t frustrated.
“I don’t think I was struggling,” Sims said. “They told me that I could probably get there [to the majors] as a conventional pitcher. It was, more or less, [do] you want to go there and be just another guy, or do you want to go there and make a name and stay? That was the whole thing.
“I want to stay when you get there, obviously. That’s what everybody’s here for.”
When Sims was asked how tough it has been to master the knuckler, he chuckled.
“It’s funny,” Sims said. “It’ll come to you, and then it will go and it will leave. Probably the worst is I remember pitching in Lynchburg last year, and I go out in the first inning and I strike out the side. I come out in the second inning, and I think I walk four or five and gave up a couple of home runs. The lows are bad, but when you feel it and it’s right, it’s a beautiful thing. But when it’s not, you’re all by yourself out there wearing it.”
Sims believes he will be able to master it.
“You can, definitely, put your time in,” Sims said, “It’s come to me better in the past year. Last year, I kind of went unknown learning how to pitch with it, how to use your fastball, how to use your breaking ball with it. I had some command issues. I couldn’t throw strikes. I wasn’t comfortable with it.
“This past offseason, that’s all I did. I sit outside and throw knuckleball after knuckleball, just jillions of them.”
Second-year ValleyCats manager Ed Romero likes what he has seen of Sims in the Astros’ camp in Florida.
“He was working pretty good in spring training,” Romero said. “He also continued to carry that into the extended [spring training] program. He’s doing pretty good. Sometimes, you have to be patient with a guy like that more than anybody else because we want him to throw the knuckleball. We’re looking for him to throw 80 to 90 percent knuckleballs if he’s going to end up being a knuckleball pitcher. He can also throw a fastball and a slider, but we want him to throw the knuckleball.
“The biggest adjustment he’s going to have to make is speed-wise. Sometimes, he throws it too hard and it doesn’t float like it should, but he’s working on it. Yesterday, he threw a session of 20 to 25 pitches against live hitting, and he looked pretty good. He’s getting to that point where he can control it and throw it at the speed he wants to.”