“It’s funny because everyone is so hyped up on velocity, you know this guy throws 97 and this guy throws 100. Velocity is a very overrated thing. With the knuckleball, I just get it up there. Your fastball looks so much more alive than what it actually is.”
Blaine Sims didn’t always throw a knuckleball. He was like most pitchers in the minor leagues, toiling away trying to climb the organizational ladder to the Majors. And like many other minor league pitchers, he had always messed around with the knuckleball, throughout high school and college and on into his days as a professional.
“I was playing Legion ball,” Blaine begins telling me his story, “with a kid that went to high school down the road from me, I played catch with the kid, and at the end of every catch session he would say ‘catch my knuckleball.’ I didn’t think anything about it and we just started playing knuckleball catch, and he showed me how to do it.”
Blaine continued to mess around with the knuckleball when he was playing catch. He messed around with it in the outfield during batting practice when pitchers are shagging fly balls. He never thought anything would come of it, but repeatedly throughout his story, fate and coincidence had other plans for him.
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. He’d throw a bullpen session of regular pitches — fastballs, curveballs, sliders, changeups — then he’d throw some knuckleballs.
“So I came to camp in spring and I’d do the same thing, a regular bullpen, then knuckleballs. So they wanted me to start using it in a game. And I’d never thrown it in a game before, and I was like ‘alright.’ I have no confidence in this pitch, I’m just going to go out there and wing it and see what happens. And I started having some success with it. I would throw my regular stuff, if I got ahead of a batter, here’s a knuckleball. Here’s another knuckleball. Here’s another knuckleball. Just trying to get guys to swing.”
“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’m already left handed, and guys already think you’re out there anyway. Well then you start throwing a knuckleball, and people are like ‘my God, what is this.’”
“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.”
Blaine Sims has had that yearning to be different for a long time. In college at Arkansas Tech, a Division II school, his teammates knew he wanted to pitch in the pros after college, and like teammates will often do, they pranked him. They would call him up and pretend to be a pro scout or a representative from a Major League team. This made him a mental wreck, even before he got on the mound. All that pressure of trying to get to the next level was with him all the time.
“It would be Friday night in college and I would be pitching on Saturday and I’d be a mental mess. I’d be worried about what am I going to do if this guy gets a hit or how am I going to bounce back. And I couldn’t just let go.”
He struggled with consistency throughout college. In 2010 he had the opportunity to pitch in the college summer Valley League, and got off to a horrible start, giving up ten runs in his first ten innings. He recalls going to his pitching coach and telling him “I don’t know if I need to be here, because I was just a mental wreck.” His pitching coach told him to just “’let go, give me a couple more, and we’ll go from there.’”
As Blaine puts it, “then something just clicked, and I went lights out for a significant amount of innings, and I ended up pulling my ERA down to a 2.95 by the end of the summer.” And it was on that mound in the Valley League where fate and coincidence or maybe a higher power had another surprise in store for him.
“I was fortunate enough to throw in front of the right man on the right night,” Blaine recalls. “I gave up a home run early and still held my team in the game.” And that was the night the right scout saw him, and soon after signed him to a professional contract with the Braves.
That scout called Sims up one night later that year and told him to turn on the Atlanta Braves game. As Blaine tells it, the scout said to him, “‘you see the kid pitching? I signed that kid two years ago off the same mound in the Valley League I signed you off of.’” That scout’s name is Gene Kerns, and that kid who was pitching on the television was Brandon Beachy.
Sims stayed in extended spring training this year for the first month of the season. He was constantly throwing his knuckleball. He’d throw it more and more in intrasquad games, and was beginning to get more people out with it.
Then in early May his manager came to him and told him, “[the organization is] flying you out to see Phil Niekro.”
Sims flew up to Gwinnett to meet with Niekro and as he tells it, “I throw two knuckleballs, and he said ‘stop, that plays in the big leagues. Hands down,’ he said, ‘you’ve got a big league knuckleball.’” Blaine was blown away by the instruction that Niekro gave him in just a few short days.
“Mr. Phil,” as Blaine calls him, “showed me how to take speed off of it, and put speed on it.” Niekro also helped Blaine develop a repertoire of knuckleballs. “I have a slow one, a medium one, and a hard one. I use the hard one for a strikeout,” which he throws about 78 mph. “The medium one and the slow one really dance a lot,” and the hard one just has one break in it before it reaches the plate.
“There’s been some good with it and there’s been some rough,” Sims repeated throughout the interview. “Talking to Mr. Phil, he says it doesn’t matter. He remembered one game in which he walked 12 and threw a one-hit shutout. It’s just the way that it is. He said you may walk two guys to start the inning, but once you find the pitch, it’s over with.”
Sims and Niekro spent more time talking about the pitch and about the mental approach to getting hitters out with a knuckleball than they spent throwing in the bullpen. They talked about what to do when the wind was at your back, which can cause the pitch not to wobble as much. They talked about when to surprise hitters with a fastball.
Blaine has been watching as much video as he can find of Niekro pitching. He’s been studying R.A. Dickey and other knuckleball pitchers and trying to hone his newfound craft.
In one of his bullpen sessions, Niekro came to him and said, “‘throw one like a softball pitch, throw one as slow as you can. When you’re in a game, don’t be scared to do it.’”
A few weeks later back at extended spring training Blaine says he “threw this kid a medium one, then I threw him the softball floater and he snatched it into their dugout. Then I threw him the hard one and struck him out. And I was like, Niekro’s a genius.”
Sims had to learn the rough lessons of how to let go on a pitcher’s mound. He had to learn to put his mind at ease off the field and not let the pressures of the next start or the performance of his last start turn him into a bundle of nerves.
“If there’s ever a time in baseball when you gotta let go, it’s throwing the knuckleball,” he says as if it’s now etched on the bill of his cap. “I was a guy who hated walks, I didn’t want to walk nobody. If you were going to get on me I wanted you to earn it. And with this pitch, it throws absolutely all of that out the window. I’ve come to figure out that, I wouldn’t say not care, but more or less you can’t care. Okay I walked you, but this next guy’s going to strike out.”
“This is what I’m throwing, try to hit this.” As he talks he revels in his newfound pitching philosophy, “it just consumes you. I’ve bought into and I really want to do it.”
“What really made me turn to it, and what really opened my eyes to it was the amount of career length that you’re potentially looking at down the road.” He admits that “there’s been some good with it, and there’s been some rough.” But he’s now committed to it fully. The good, and the bad.
“You’ve got to live and die with it. When it’s on, it’s on, and it’s a beautiful thing. And when it’s off, you just got to wear it.”
The Atlanta organization seems committed to developing Sims’ knuckleball. General Manager Frank Wren says, “there aren’t many guys who start with a foundation of a pretty good knuckleball to go with their other repertoire. He was a guy who had a good knuckleball, and the more we saw it the more we liked it.”
Wren says that Phil Niekro thought Sims had a knuckleball that was worth sticking with and seeing if the organization can develop it.
Looking back on all the things that have happened to him in the past year Sims says: “I didn’t understand why I got sent back [to Lynchburg] last year. I feel like I know why now. The good Lord does everything for a reason. The reason might have been for me to be here to throw that one pitch on that one day in front of that one guy.”
And now he’s starting over again, learning to be a new kind of pitcher. “I’ve picked up a new pitch, a new repertoire, and I’ve already made it back [to Lynchburg]. I want to play as much as I can, and I want to throw that pitch. I think it’s awesome.”
So Blaine Sims is going to ride the knuckleball train for as long as he can, this 24-year-old kid from Scott, Arkansas. “If I don’t play baseball, I’m going to go back home and farm like my dad.”