No Fluke for Phil Humber

Courtesy of SBR Forum

What does a career 5.26 ERA, 1.61 WHIP, and 1.46 K/BB mean when you “randomly” post a sensational 3.27 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 2.61 K/BB in a single season? It usually is the sign of a fluke. In the case of Chicago White Sox’s pitcher Philip Humber, he appears to be the definition of such. However, despite his unflattering journey with five franchises in five years, Humber could still be on a very fine career path starting at age 28.

Humber was the third overall pick in the 2004 draft. The New York Mets were high on the 22 year old righty out of Rice University–and so were scouts. Baseball America ranked the pitcher as the #50 prospect in baseball in their pre-2005 rankings despite a mediocre debut in 2005 (5.09 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 3.35 K/BB). In 2006, Humber turned things around, to the tune of a 2.83 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 3.95 K/BB. The righty reached as high as Double-A in ’06, posting a 2.88 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and 3.60 K/BB in 38 innings.

The prized prospect was promoted to Triple-A in 2007, but he saw his numbers slip a bit. He owned a 4.27 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 2.73 K/BB. Still solid stats, but the drop in strikeouts and spike in HR/9 (from 0.9 the year before to 1.4) was worrisome. Potential red flags aside, Humber was shipped off to the Minnesota Twins with Deolis Guerra, Carlos Gomez, and Kevin Mulvey in exchange for ace pitcher Johan Santana. Knowing the Mets luck, people assumed Humber would instantly become the stud he was groomed to be. However, his “stud” status didn’t come so quickly.

In two Triple-A seasons with the Twins, Humber went from “can’t miss” to “can do without.” The righty posted a combined 4.92 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, and 2.05 K/BB. This also included a 6.78 K/9, 3.30 BB/9, and 1.26 HR/9. Essentially, Humber had seemingly transformed from a very promising young pitcher into extremely mediocre Minor League fodder. The former first rounder pick was granted free agency in 2009, and he signed with the Kansas City Royals.

The now 27 year old saw some improvement with the Royals, posting a 4.47 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and career-best 4.00 K/BB in 118.6 Triple-A innings. While he was still giving up too many hits (9.9 Hits/9) and home-runs (1.3 HR/9), his control drastically improved (from 3.30 BB/9 in 2008/2009 to 1.5 BB/9 in 2010). The Royals promoted Humber to the majors, but primarily used him out of the bullpen. Humber posted a solid 4.15 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 2.29 K/BB in 21.6 innings for the Royals, but it apparently wasn’t good enough to protect him from waivers. The Oakland Athletics plucked Humber from the Royals–but just a month later, the White Sox did the same to the A’s.

Going into 2011, Humber did not have a defined role with the White Sox. His first appearance was out of the bullpen, and he surrendered 2 earned-runs without recording an out. At the time, the White Sox had been going with a four-man rotation since Jake Peavy was placed on the disabled list in March. Not wanting to continue with the shorten-rotation, manager Ozzie Guillen tapped Phil Humber for a start on April 9. The righty didn’t disappoint his manager, hurling six solid innings, giving-up just 4 hits, 1 earned-runs, 2 walks, while striking-out 4 batters. While most people assumed Humber’s presence in the rotation would be short-lived, the righty has impressed the White Sox and doubters with a 3.27 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 2.61 K/BB. In fact, even when Jake Peavy returned from the disabled list, Guillen decided to turn to a six-man rotation to accommodate Humber.

There is no doubt Humber’s success in 2011 is a great story, but more importantly, one has to wonder if it will continue into 2012. There can be arguments made either way, actually. One can easily point to his arguably unsustainable 7.5 Hits/9, .250 BABIP, and unimpressive 5.8 K/9. However, on the flip side, Humber also has a number of peripherals hinting at future success despite his 2011 “luck.” Humber has posted a fantastic 2.2 BB/9, and considering league-average sits at around 3.3 BB/9, the righty has established himself as a control-artist. In addition, while Humber isn’t much of a strikeout fiend, the pitcher does have four pitches that compute above average. His 90.3 mile-per-hour fastball has been worth 2.9 runs above average and his slider is worth 3.2, but more impressively, his curve ball and change-up are 6.5 and 7.7 runs above average, respectively. They aren’t “seldom” pitches either, as he throws his two best pitches a combined 38.1% of the time.

Given that he doesn’t rely on one pitch too heavily compared to many other pitchers (he throws his fastball 45.1% of the time), Humber’s successful and well above-average four-pitch repertoire bodes well for future success.

All statistics taken from either Baseball Reference or Fan Graphs.

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