Starting pitcher Philip Humber of the Chicago White Sox pitches during a perfect game against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington. This was the 21st perfect game in Major League Baseball history. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Philip Humber threw an unexpected perfect game this weekend, especially surprising to the teams who have let him go.
Pitching a perfect game gets you into an exclusive club, but not everyone who performs the feat is an all-time great hurler. Philip Humber is the latest example of this, as he's certainly competent, but in the grand scheme of things, not the kind of pitcher you would predict to go 27 up, 27 down. In fact, he's been with multiple organizations who weren't convinced he could even stick in the majors before getting his first real shot with the White Sox in 2011.
After 30 starts, 177 innings, and a 121 ERA+ with the White Sox, Humber tossed a perfect game. You can't criticize his former teams for letting a pitcher who would throw a perfect game go -- as fun as it might be to tease your Mets-loving friends, it's just not something you can predict -- but you can scrutinize their decision to cut a capable pitcher loose, as Saturday afternoon's contest isn't the only example of how useful he's been over the past 12 months.
Humber was drafted third overall back in 2004 by the Mets, but didn't start his professional career until 2005. The 22-year-old spent his first year in the minors at High- and Double-A, where he missed bats and didn't walk many, but posted a 5.09 ERA over 74 innings and underwent Tommy John surgery. The very next year, Humber got a taste of the majors as a September call-up, but the Mets' intentions were to have him at Triple-A in 2007.
To that point, Humber moved through the minors quickly -- in two years' time, he had already debuted in the bigs, and in 2007, he threw 139 of his 146 innings at Triple-A. He was rated as the #50 prospect by Baseball America heading into 2005, before he ever threw a professional pitch, and he was #73 before the 2007 season. From BA:
Humber's curveball is one of the best in the minors. Thrown at 74-78 mph, it has tight rotation with a powerful downward action. His fastball sits at 90-94 mph. He also features a developing low-80s changeup with late sink. He throws strikes with all three pitches... He profiles as a No. 2 or 3 starter.
His 2007 was good, but not great, with Humber posting a 2.7 K/BB and 4.27 ERA. The Mets never got a chance to see if he was capable of improving on that with more time in the minors, as they dealt him along with Carlos Gomez and two others whose names will only ever be mentioned in conjunction with Johan Santana. The Mets can be excused for not waiting on Humber to develop, because Johan Santana.
The Twins stuck him in Triple-A once again, where he threw all but 11 of his innings. This was part of a common theme for Humber, where he would toil in Triple-A for most of the year, and be tossed a teasing taste of the majors. His minor-league performances never quite forced the issue, but he wasn't always with the strongest of clubs, either. Just one Twin made 30 starts in 2008, and Livan Hernandez was given 23 starts to post a 77 ERA+. The 2009 Twins gave 17 starts to Glen Perkins and 12 to Anthony Swarzak, while just three of their starters made at least 20 starts. Humber threw 20 innings combined in those two years, all in relief.
Relief wasn't a terrible place for him to be. His change never developed into enough of a third pitch to get by as a starter in the majors, but his curve and heater were good enough to keep him out of Triple-A. The Twins were at least competitive when they weren't testing Humber out, but the Royals, his next team, only have the excuse of not knowing what a useful pitcher looks like.
Humber threw 118 innings for Triple-A Omaha in 2010, while the Royals got this out of all of their non-Zack Greinke starters:
Now, maybe Humber wouldn't have succeeded. But when these are your options, and Humber is in his fourth-straight season at Triple-A, rolling the dice on him isn't a bad idea. Instead of doing just that (or letting Humber work out of the bullpen), the Royals put him on waivers, where he was selected by the Oakland A's. The Athletics kept him around for a month in the winter, before the White Sox picked him up off of waivers from Oakland.
Chicago placed Humber in the majors, but there was something different about him from the start. He never did get the hang of that change-up -- or perhaps he hung too many -- keeping him from an effective third pitch. His repertoire changed dramatically with his move to the White Sox, though:
|Pre-White Sox||White Sox|
(Data courtesy of Brooks Baseball.)
Humber didn't throw a ton of innings before the White Sox made him a starter, but he threw enough to get a sense of what he liked to throw. Specifically, his four-seam fastball and his curve were his primary weapons, with a rare sinker and the occasional change-up getting play, too. With Chicago, he's reduced his fastball usage significantly, and replaced that with a slider.
The slider isn't phenomenal by any means, but it's Humber's most-effective offering when it comes to inducing swings-and-misses, and it's been the useful pitch against left-handers that his change-up never became. The slider has been good enough to allow him to start rather than sit in Triple-A, and 19 of them on Saturday helped him to his perfect game.
Credit the White Sox and pitching coach Don Cooper for giving Humber the weapon he's always needed in order to stick in the majors. It's odd that none of his other organizations did the same -- or even gave it a shot, in the case of Oakland. Humber might not be the kind of pitcher you expect a perfect game from, but since being given a real chance to succeed, that's just what he's done.