Poor Phil Humber. He needs a time out desperately. In one year the Houston Astros pitcher has gone from perfect to perpetually flawed, from the author of one of the greatest games thrown in baseball history to a pinata that everyone takes a stick to.
Humber’s plummet has been so dramatic that it’s hard to find reasonable comparisons to what has befallen him and so significantly reduced his status, at least without major injury. From getting all 27 batters out in a single game and gliding into baseball’s record books in a single year since Humber has become a pitcher who can’t get anyone out at all.
He is not throwing the ball into the back stop, a la Steve Blass. The righty is throwing meatballs up to the plate, or perhaps they should be called beachballs. Guys don’t even hit batting practice pitchers as hard as Humber is being hit.
In what seems like an eternity ago, Humber, now 30, was an All-American pitcher for Rice University, represented the United States in the World University Games, and in 2004 was a No. 1 draft pick of the New York Mets.
Humber’s woes began in the minors when injuries led to arm surgery. Still, he fought back to gain Major League opportunities. He went from the Mets to the Twins to the Royals to the White Sox. In 2011, Humber had his best overall big-league success, going 9-9 for Chicago with a 3.75 earned run average. He was a regular in the rotation starting the 2012 season.
On April 21, 2012 in a game against the Mariners in Seattle, Humber beat the home team, 4-0, by throwing a perfect game. Humber was instant national news and he was overwhelmed by his good fortune. Even he laughed about recording one of the most hallowed achievements a pitcher can seek.
Including the post-season and Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series spectacular against the Brooklyn Dodgers, there have been 23 perfect games in baseball history. Among those who performed the feat are Hall of Famers Cy Young, Jim Bunning, Jim Hunter, Sandy Koufax and stars Roy Halladay and Randy Johnson.
“I don’t know what Philip Humber is doing in this list,” he said. “I have no idea what my name is doing there.”
Humber threw 96 pitches and struck out nine. It was also just about the last time things went well for him on the diamond. Almost immediately batters who could barely make contact with his fastball were hitting it at will. Humber ended up 5-5 with a 6.44 earned run average in 2012 and the White Sox did not keep him around.
He signed as a free agent with the Astros, one of the most hapless teams in baseball, and came out of spring training as a regular in the rotation. If it seems as though Humber has not managed to get anyone out all year, that’s basically because it’s true.
A team with few options, Houston kept Humber in the rotation until last week. That showed far more patience than almost any other team would. Then he got shifted to the bullpen and took a shot at relief Saturday. It was one of the uglier poundings of his life. In 2/3 of an inning Humber surrendered five runs on five hits. This was a cringe-worthy outing.
After the depressing showing Humber’s statistics for the year read: 0-8 with a 9.59 earned run average.
So after striking out players at will, Humber struck out on the rest of the 2012 season with the White Sox, struck out in the rotation with the Astros, and struck out in the bullpen for the Astros. Sunday, realizing there was nothing left to do with Humber in the majors, Houston designated him for assignment.
There is no doubt Humber is humbled. Either his career is going to end right now or he is going to accept a spot somewhere in the minors to find a solution to his woes. He needs to pinpoint whether he needs to rebuild his arm, his delivery, or his repertoire of pitches.
Maybe he is a candidate for adoption by Phil Niekro to learn the knuckler. It would be sad to think that whatever Humber’s problem is it cannot be fixed and his career is over. But it’s going to take a lot of effort for another team to trust him with a spot in the majors.