The spotlight is no longer on Lucas Sims.
Once a first-round draft choice and one of the game’s top prospects, it wasn’t that long ago he was among the first wave to graduate from the Braves’ vaunted pitching pipeline to SunTrust Park. A Georgia native and lifelong Braves fan, Sims dreamt of dazzling for his hometown club for years. That didn’t last.
Sims failed to seize upon his initial opportunity. Over 57.2 innings, he pitched to a 5.62 ERA with unappealing strikeout and walk numbers. With the Braves pushing numerous arms behind him, Sims never got another chance to make good. He spent the first few months of 2018 in Triple-A, then was unceremoniously packaged with Matt Wisler and Preston Tucker to the Reds for Adam Duvall. He no longer had cache with fans of his parent club, and he threw just enough innings to exceed rookie eligibility, a victim of the uncovered grey area between prospect and big league regular. It’s little wonder he fell into relative obscurity.
Sims isn’t bitter about the way things played out. After conceding he remains disappointed by his underwhelming initial MLB foray, he points out how excited he is for a fresh start.
“Always, always,” he replies, when asked if baseball remains fun despite the turmoil he’s undergone in recent seasons. “I love this game; it’s given so much to me. That’s something I don’t take for granted for sure.” If the sport remained fun for Sims through the hard times, he must be ecstatic with how things have gone in 2019.
Quietly, Sims has emerged as a post-hype sleeper. In 15 starts with Triple-A Louisville, he sports an International League-best 97 strikeouts. (Among Triple-A qualifiers, only Zac Gallen tops Sims’ 30.6 K%). His 4.74 ERA doesn’t look impressive at first glance, but it’s better than average in this explosive run environment.
Long lauded for his fastball and curveball, Sims’ changeup has remained a work in progress throughout his climb up the ladder. The right-hander believes a May bullpen session unlocked a new gear for that third pitch.
“Right now, my changeup is the best it’s ever been,” Sims said. “It’s more consistent. I’ve got a better feel for locating and getting really good action on it…. I noticed a couple weeks ago in a bullpen: if I start it at the mitt, it’s probably going to go strike-to-ball. I realized if I start it a little above the mitt, more middle, the action takes it [where I want it]. It’s similar to a curveball in that regard. You have to pick somewhere [other than the mitt] and trust that it’s going to end up where you want it to finish.”
Making strides with the offering which has long troubled him is no doubt a positive step. That doesn’t entirely explain his statistical breakout, though. The day after our conversation in Buffalo, Sims toed the Sahlen Field rubber for the Bats (in front of a handful of opposing scouts). By my count, he threw 13 changeups that afternoon, generating just one whiff. The offering may be better than it’s ever been, but it remains Sims’ third pitch. If it’s not the changeup, where have all the strikeouts come from?
Sims may not have made eye-popping strides with his pure stuff (he’s still 92-95 mph on his fastball, as he has been throughout his pro career), but he’s utilizing it more optimally this year. The story’s a familiar one.
“I’m definitely throwing up in the zone a little bit more,” he acknowledged. “I spin the baseball pretty well, both on my four-seam and my curveball.”
That’s an understatement. In his only big league start in 2019, Sims posted eye-popping Trackman numbers. His fastball and curveball spin rate would each rate in the 97th percentile had he thrown enough to qualify, per Statcast.
Fastball spin is associated with “ride,” the optical illusion to a batter that the pitch seems to rise as it approaches the plate. High-spin fastballs, then, are typically most effective at the top of the strike zone, where that perceived jump can get hitters to swing underneath the ball. Pairing elevated high-spin fastballs with high-spin power curveballs down in the zone is a recipe for strikeouts, the approach the Astros have ridden in recent years to unprecedented punchout totals across all levels of the organization. Not all pitchers are equipped to work north and south in pursuit of gaudy strikeout totals, but Sims’ repertoire seems tailor made for such an approach.
As Sims acknowledges, working up in the zone isn’t without risks. His Triple-A fly ball rate in 2019 is up 10 percentage points from its mark last season. With the baseball flying at record rates, that could be a recipe for whiplash. He’s willing to live with the tradeoff.
“Sometimes it can bite you with home runs,” Sims said of his elevation-based approach, “but at the end of the day, if you stay out of the middle of the plate, you’ll be OK. The fly balls aren’t generally a concern. It’s about making sure it’s not a fly ball off the barrel.”
To this point, Sims has done just that. Despite the introduction of the juiced ball to Triple-A, Sims’ average fly ball distance allowed is only up six feet from last season.
Sims’ willingness to attack hitters has served him well so far. He’s pitched well enough to earn another shot at the game’s highest level, but, as happened in Atlanta, he’s been lost a bit in the shuffle with his new club. Cincinnati’s new-look pitching staff has been among baseball’s best, the main reason the Reds remain on the fringes of playoff contention.
It seems inevitable Sims’ time is coming, though. If the Reds stay in the hunt and look outside the organization for help, Sims might find himself on the move again, potentially drawing interest from a rebuilder intrigued by his youth and data-driven breakout. If they fall off, Tanner Roark is a rental who should draw trade interest elsewhere, vacating a rotation spot for Sims. It’s taken longer than anticipated, but Sims again profiles as a potential difference-maker in a big-league rotation, yet another reminder prospect development is not always linear.
“I’ve been doing this for seven years now professionally, so I kind of know myself pretty well, know my strengths,” Sims concluded.
Maybe learning how to deploy those strengths was all he ever needed.