What Happened to Philip Humber?

iJust one April ago Philip Humber threw the game of his life against the Seattle Mariners, requiring just 96 poised pitches to complete a perfect game, the 19th in baseball history. Humber, then a member of the Chicago White Sox, was brilliant that day. His 2-seam fastball was darting all over the zone, dancing away from Mariners’ hitters as Humber racked up 9 total strikeouts.

Oh, what a difference a year can make. After taking the loss against the Yankees on Tuesday night, Humber became just the 2nd pitcher since 1900 to lose 6 games in the month of April and his ERA on the season now stands at an unsightly 7.58 on the season.

Ever since that perfect game Philip Humber has been unable to get even the easiest of hitters out. His ERA since that fateful April 21st game has been an almost unbelievable 7.52 in 131.2 innings, which far and away stands as the worst in the Major Leagues. Opposing batters have hit a ridiculous .309 off of Humber since last April 21st and those aren’t just cheap hits either. The right-hander has also given up 26 homers and 26 doubles, which basically factors out to one extra base hit every time a lineup turns over.

Now, nobody thought Philip Humber was suddenly going to make the jump from serviceable rotation member to front line starter after he threw his perfecto, but that’s kind of the point. Before last April, Phil Humber was a solid, usable starter who could pick up a win. During his first 30 appearances for the White Sox, 28 of which were starts, Humber threw 177.1 innings from the start of 2011 through his perfect game on April 21st and he posted a 10-9 record with a 3.50 ERA and he held opposing hitters to a .240 average. Those are really solid numbers and they look even better when you consider the fact that the righty posted a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio.

So what happened to that Philip Humber?

Well, the first thing we should look at in a case like this is the pitcher in question’s velocity. Often times when a pitcher starts to decline they lose a couple of miles per hour off of their fastball, a la Tim Lincecum a year ago. Back in 2011 when Humber was doing his impersonation of a serviceable starter, he was hitting 91-93 on the radar gun (velocity readings courtesy of Brooks Baseball). That velocity didn’t change at all in 2012 and thus far in 2013 it’s been right around the same 91-93 mph neighborhood, so we can rule a drop in velocity out.

So maybe it’s Humber’s pitch selection that’s getting him shelled? Well if we take a look at the data sets on Brooks Baseball, we may be getting somewhere. When he was having moderate success in 2011, Humber was a multi-pitch artist who was unafraid of throwing any pitch in any count. He used his fastball/sinker less than half the time, instead opting to give hitters a smorgasbord of curveballs, sliders, and change-ups.

And the best part about that basket of breaking balls was that Humber was impartial to them all, never favoring one over the other. The change was thrown nearly as much as the slider, which was thrown nearly as much as the curve. That kind of sequencing is tough for a hitter to pick up on and it makes a hitter do more than just sit on a fastball.

That approach changed somewhat in 2012 and it’s because Humber fell in love with his fastball. He became completely predictable with the pitch, leaning on fastballs in fastball counts which is usually the recipe for serving up meatballs. Even more distressingly, those increased fastballs have come with the a cost. Humber has almost scrapped his change-up, rarely using a pitch that was so effective during his 2011 campaign. Just putting the thought in a hitter’s head that a change could come at any time helped Humber’s average fastball become better. It made his fastball more deceiving by giving the hitter another pitch to look at with the same arm action. Without it, Humber has been bombed.

The Astros, to their credit, have tried to get Philip Humber sorted out. Pitching coach Dave Martinez said he felt that Humber was trying just a bit too hard on the mound to rediscover himself saying:

“I put more pressure on myself because now I feel I have more responsibility to show that it was not a fluke that happened that day. I put more pride into myself to be able to show to everybody that, hey, if that game happened, it happened because of the kind of pitcher that I am and the kind of pitcher I can be at any moment.”

That’s a statement Humber seems to agree with. “I had a good year in 2011 and started off so well in 2012, I was thinking, ‘O.K., here we go,’ ” Humber said. “I was trying to take another giant step instead of just building on the day before.” But thus far whatever pressure the Astros have tried to relieve has yet to yield results.

Humber has once again been erratic with his location and he’s become too predictable with his fastball and that pitch just isn’t getting hitters out. His fastball has been absolutely mashed this season with opposing hitters going 17 for 38 against the pitch with 9 of those hits going for extra-bases. That’s just not going to cut it in the big leagues and it makes you wonder how much longer the Astros can continue handing Humber the ball every 5th day. After all, even the worst team in baseball has to have somebody who can do just a smidge better than 0-6 with an ERA towering over 7.00, right?

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