When the Braves selected Georgia native and Brookwood High School graduate Lucas Sims with the 21st overall selection in 2012 they envisioned a No.2 starter type who would be a key cog for the future of the team. Armed with a low-to-mid 90’s fastball, a projectable frame, a knee-buckling curve, and some of the cleanest mechanics from the prep class, the sky was the limit for the young right-hander. Sims made a good first impression in rookie ball and set the stage for his first full season as a member of the Rome Braves. Sims dominated the South Atlantic League as a 19 year old, striking out nearly 3 times as many batters as he walked and posting a stellar 2.62 ERA. That performance thrust him into the national spotlight, where he began to get recognition in the middle of top 100 prospect lists.
Expectations were high for Sims entering the 2014 season, but High-A Lynchburg was unfriendly and Sims saw his ability to generate swings and misses evaporate. A 27.9% strikeout rate turned into a 15.7% strikeout rate and his ERA jumped up to 4.20. Needing to see more from Sims, they asked him to repeat High A in 2015. Sims got off to another bumpy start with an 8.59 ERA and 13 walks in 14 2⁄3 innings in his first four starts of 2015. Sims bounced back with 2 strong starts in a row, but couldn’t keep his momentum going and saw his first career DL stint with an injury in the Carolina Mudcats bus crash. After missing a month and a half Sims returned to Carolina with mixed results, but was promoted after three starts to give him a chance to show what he could do in AA. Unsurprisingly it was a struggle at first as he continued to struggle with walks and allowed a 7.41 ERA over his first 4 starts, but the lightbulb flipped on for Sims at the end of the season. Over his last 5 starts of the season Sims was the most dominant pitcher in the system, striking out 27 batters in 24 2⁄3 innings with greatly improved walk rate and a .457 OPS against. All of this added up to a 0.73 ERA in that span, and at the end of the season the Braves gave Lucas a spot in the Arizona Fall League to make up for the time lost to injury. Against the best competition he had faced in his career Sims came alive, flashing the best stuff he had in his career, getting named the starter in the Arizona Fall League All Star Game, and posting a 2.65 ERA. It seemed like what plagued Sims had been fixed, and he was on his way back up prospect boards.
With a new front office in place many of Sims counterparts in the system were shipped off as the Coppolella/Hart crew began to get their system in place, but all the while they kept Sims around despite constant rumors, and it seemed like early in 2016 their patience would pay off. Sims only spent 3 more games in Double-A, and after striking out 26 batters in 14 2⁄3 innings it was clear that the Southern League had no answer for Sims. Lucas spent the entire season at or near the top of the minor leagues in strikeouts, finishing with 159, but his venture in Triple-A proved to be a harrowing wake up call. Sims wasn’t able to get away with his wildness in Gwinnett like he was with Mississippi, and AAA hitters hit him hard in his time there. His mechanics began to be an issue after a few starts, and with former Triple-A pitching coach Marty Reed in Atlanta following the firing of Fredi Gonzalez, there was no one on the team familiar with Sims mechanics that could help him. Eventually, after Sims had allowed a 7.59 ERA in 11 games, the Braves were forced to demote him to allow him to work with Dennis Lewallyn and get his mechanics back in line. Sims finished up the season with fine numbers in Mississippi, but still struggled to regain his mechanics or his fastball command.
Sims was once again given a shot at the International League to open the 2017 season, and on the doorstep of playing for his hometown team he has responded with strong numbers. Sims has pitched deeper in games than he ever has before with a 27.7% K rate that has allowed him to sit 3rd in the minor leagues in strikeouts this season. Impressively, he cut his walks in half back to his A ball numbers, and has posted a 3.75 ERA on the season. The one black spot on his season has been his home run numbers; Sims has allowed 19 home runs this season-5th most in the minor leagues. Regardless of his issues with home runs, the Braves decided to make the plunge and pull him up to start with Atlanta. 5 long years in the minor leagues has finally payed off with his first taste of major league action.
Lucas works the classic fastball-curveball-changeup three pitch mix, and has many of the same problems you expect from a 23 year old pitcher. Sims struggles to repeat his mechanics on a consistent basis, which has become an increasingly noticeable problem over the years. While in the early stages of his career it seemed to be more a lack of experience as he had smooth, explosive mechanics, in the later stages he has slowed down a bit and seems more robotic on the mound. He has a hitch in his leg kick which interrupts the flow of his motion, and when he struggles that is where it often goes wrong. From the stretch he is far more explosive, and repeats and throws strikes more consistently. While his control numbers this season are good, his command is still a problem. When Sims keeps his body on line with home plate he tends to throw strikes, and this season that has been the major step he has taken. He’s gained more consistency and doesn’t tend to miss badly over the horizontal plane. The issue for Sims this season has been his arm slot and lack of fluidity in the lower body, and that has manifested itself in a tendency to miss vertically. Specifically, he misses up a lot with his fastball and that is where the home run troubles have arisen. This isn’t necessarily something that can’t be fixed or doesn’t seem likely to be fixed, but it’s also something that has come along more recently as in his first three seasons it was rare to see him miss over the middle of the plate this frequently. Major League hitters will feast on those mistakes he makes, and he may see yet another jump in power numbers against him in his first season.
Lucas doesn’t overpower you with his fastball as he typically sits 91 to 92, but he can run it up to 94 mph when needed and has been clocked as high as 98 mph in very short stints. Early in his career Lucas was able to get arm side movement on the pitch that allowed him to get frequent swings and misses, though now it seems he has lost some of that movement. Over the past season and a half Lucas’s fastball has flattened out consistently, which is likely due in part to some of his mechanical tweaks and inconsistencies. At his best he can move that fastball, and it’s possible he could see that improve, but as it currently stands it’s hard to be optimistic about a pitch that lacks above average movement or velocity. The lack of sink also causes the home run issues, as he only has 34% ground ball rate this year with a 30% fly ball rate and 24% line drive rate. What Lucas has improved this season is he attacking, and although it has led to some home run problems it has also drastically helped his walk numbers. He dares hitters to hit his fastball in the zone, and while some do many don’t and he has been able to get hitters into bad counts. If Lucas can live 0-1 and be able to open his arsenal up he becomes a dangerous pitcher, as both offspeed pitches grade out better than his fastball.
The best pitch in Sims arsenal now and for his entire career has been his curveball, and it’s a true plus pitch that can get swings and misses at any level. When Sims struggled is when he gets around the curveball, unintentionally flattening it out and making it less sharp. When it is on, and it usually is, it becomes something he can use in any count. Lucas can steal a strike with an early count curve, get a player digging at one below the zone, and run it over the glove side corner for a backdoor/front door strikeout. Sims not only has a good feel for throwing the pitch but a strong ability to use it to it’s best, and that is something that few players really have a natural ability to do with any pitch. The changeup can flash above average at times, but is very infrequently used. It’s a shame as well, as Sims rarely throws a bad changeup, but he only will use it when he is ahead in the count. For a guy who does miss vertically though that is probably the safer bet as a changeup that floats up often ends poorly for the pitcher. When Sims throws the changeup he does a good job of spotting it outside and letting it fade away from a hitter, and he doesn’t have much variance to his pitching motion that would indicate changeup. Sims has enough deception in his delivery to let all of his pitches play up, with none being more so helped than the change.
It’s a tough profile for Sims, as his pure stuff doesn’t necessarily draw the oohs and ahhs that Sean Newcomb had coming to Atlanta. In fact, rating his pure stuff alone scares me as I’m not sure how I see that fastball playing at the next level. Sims will absolutely have his share of troubles in Atlanta, as he is simply too inconsistent to not struggle. The biggest positive Sims has working for him is his head. Sims knows his game, he knows when things aren’t working, and he is a very competent pitcher on the mound. He is also a fierce competitor and uses that to his advantage, and has a strong mentality to bounce back and fight even when he struggles. Perhaps most importantly, he has shown the ability to succeed when he doesn’t have his best stuff working. Even if things go horribly wrong for Sims when he reaches Atlanta, I don’t see him as a player who will fall apart, and he can be given opportunities to work out his struggles because he doesn’t struggle with his confidence or composure. For a guy with fairly average stuff, his mental ability will be a huge asset in deciding whether he will be able to remain as a starter.
Short term, Lucas Sims is a starting pitcher and for the moment I don’t expect him to be a good one. He’ll be given every opportunity to succeed, as he should be, and a truly hope he surprises me, but right now he isn’t ready to be an average starter. He is ready to graduate, as he has proved he deserves a chance to show what he’s got, but there are too many problems that could arise for there to be any confidence that he’ll be an immediate success. The long term outlook for Sims is very cloudy at this point. He has the stuff to start, especially if he puts it all together, but whether he is a guy that can continuously beat out the guys behind him is a question. It’s hard to argue with his career results so far, as outside of a limited number of times he always gets his strikeouts and does enough to be successful. Should the Braves keep him as a starter there is #4 starter upside, more if he can regain the previous success he had with his fastball, but he may have even more potential as a reliever. If he can run it up to 98, with a devastating curveball and enough control to be effective you are talking about a very good late-inning arm. That curveball alone is enough to give him a reasonably high floor as a reliever, though a setup man/closer with home run problems is not something you want to deal with. There are a lot of ifs in Sims game at this point, but there are also a lot of positives. Sims has a history of success, he has shown ability to make adjustments, and he has the type of mentality a pitcher needs to succeed at the major league level. It will just come down to how well he continues to improve.