Prospect Retrospective: Phil Humber, RHP, Chicago White Sox
Chicago White Sox right-hander Philip Humber entered the annals of baseball history last night by pitching a perfect game against the Seattle Mariners. Humber's career is an interesting journey, from top prospect to injury casualty to journeyman and now into the record books. Let's take a look.
Phil Humber was an outstanding pitcher for Rice University, beginning with his freshman year in 2002 when he went 11-1, 2.78 ERA, with a 130/43 K/BB in 110 innings. He continued to thrive as a sophomore (11-3, 3.30 with a 138/39 K/BB in 128 innings), winning the clinching game of the College World Series against Stanford. He saved his best for his junior season, going 13-4, 2.27 ERA with a 154/37 K/BB in 115 innings.
He was part of a superb rotation for the Owls, combining with Jeff Niemann, Wade Townsend, and Josh Baker to make one of the best starting rotations in college baseball history. Humber was considered the most advanced of the group and the safest pick, going third overall and signing for $3.7 million the following January. Niemann and Townsend were also first round picks, while Baker went in the fourth round.
When drafted, Humber showed a 90-95 MPH fastball, peaking at 96-97. He also had an excellent curveball and a solid split-change, along with clean, repeatable mechanics and excellent command. The main worry was a heavy college workload. I gave him a Grade B entering 2005, with concerns about possible injuries the main caveat.
Humber showed good control in his pro debut for High-A St. Lucie in '05, but lost a tick off his fastball in the spring and didn't show his previous touch with the changeup. He went 2-6, 4.99 ERA in 14 starts with a 65/18 K/BB in 70 innings. He made one start in Double-A, but went on the shelf in July with an elbow injury, requiring Tommy John surgery. The general consensus was that his college workload had caught up with him.
Returning to the mound in 2006, he looked solid for St. Lucie (2.37 ERA, 36/9 K/BB in 38 innings) and Double-A Binghamton (2.88 ERA, 36/10 K/BB in 34 innings) and saw two innings with the major league team. He did not have all of his pre-injury velocity back, working at 89-93 now, but his curveball and changeup still looked good. I was impressed with his rapid recovery and gave him a Grade B+ entering 2007.
Humber spent almost all of 2007 with Triple-A New Orleans, going 11-9, 4.27 with a 120/44 K/BB in 139 innings with 129 hits allowed. He got into seven innings with the Mets, giving up six runs and nine hits. His stock with scouts was beginning to slip, due to reduction in his fastball velocity down to 87-92 MPH. His curveball was still sharp, and he replaced the split-change with a standard straight changeup, but the loss of fastball velocity was quite concerning and he no longer looked like a future ace.
Entering 2008, I gave him a Grade B- and wrote "Don't expect big numbers right away, but if they are patient with him he should be an average major league starter in time, above average if he can improve his command from good to excellent."
Humber was shipped westward to the Minnesota Twins in February 2008 as part of the Johan Santana trade. He spent two seasons with Triple-A Rochester, with mediocre performances, and was unable to secure a full-time spot on the Minnesota staff. The Twins eventually gave up. Humber signed as a minor league free agent with the Kansas City Royals and spent most of '10 with Triple-A Omaha. During his time, Humber added a cutter to his repertoire, with mixed results.
Entering 2011, Humber was viewed as a Quadruple-A type, a guy who would eat innings in Triple-A, standing by to fill a spot in the majors in an emergency. The White Sox claimed him on waivers last spring. Working with pitching coach Don Cooper, Humber developed a better slider, further diversifying his arsenal. His velocity has gradually crept back up into the 89-94 MPH range.
Humber was solid for the White Sox last year (3.75 ERA, 116/41 K/BB in 163 innings, 151 hits, 3.58 FIP) and is off to a terrific start in 2012. It's been a long journey for him, and while it seems like he's been around forever, Humber is still just 29. He now has 228.2 career innings, with a 3.90 ERA, a 167/68 K/BB, and a 110 ERA+. All in all, he hasn't been the staff ace the Mets thought they were drafting, but he's worked his way back from the injury shadows and is now an above-average starting pitcher.
Of his Rice teammates, Jeff Niemann developed into an adequate starter despite health problems, while Townsend and Baker were ruined by injuries.