Commentary

Phil Humber finally breaking through

Latest reclamation project has found a home in White Sox's rotation

Updated: June 7, 2011, 2:36 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Sitting at the edge of the Chicago White Sox dugout Sunday morning, Phil Humber cuts an inconspicuous, unimposing figure. He is sitting atop the dugout seats, holding a baseball.

It's quiet at U.S. Cellular Field, two hours before 25,000 fans will watch Jake Peavy leave with a groin injury and the Sox get walloped by the Detroit Tigers.

Ask pretty much anyone who works in and around baseball, and they'll tell you this is the best part of the day, when the stadium is empty and everything is possible. But Humber's quiet reverie is interrupted with talk of his past and his present. Suffice it to say, you had no idea who Humber was until he started pitching his way onto the team in spring training, unless you're a fan of Rice University, the New York Mets or the Minnesota Twins, or just a fantasy baseball nerd.

[+] EnlargePhilip Humber
Mark L. Baer/US PresswirePhil Humber has pitched at least seven innings in six of his past seven starts.

Humber was not supposed to be anonymous. He wasn't supposed to be making his first major league dent at 28. But that's how it works out sometimes.

Humber came to spring training looking for a job. He wound up winning his first start April 9, and in the past seven starts, he has gone at least seven innings six times, winning games at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. He pitched seven innings of one-hit ball in the Bronx as the Sox won 2-0.

Before Peavy's latest setback, the team was going with a six-man rotation as they tried to figure out whom to send to the bullpen. Humber looks like a keeper with a 3.06 ERA in 67 2/3 innings and a WHIP of .975, which puts him in the top 10 in the American League, but he still lags behind his peers in name recognition.

He starts Wednesday against Felix Hernandez and the Mariners. Humber gave up two runs in seven innings against King Felix on May 6 in a 3-2 loss.

"Everyone in Chicago can't wait until Humber pitches a bad game," Guillen said Sunday. "'When are you going to move him out of there? When you going to put him back in the bullpen? He doesn't belong there.' Every time this kid comes to pitch, there's pressure. Because I know as soon as he pitches one bad game, [everyone thinks] he's out. But that's the way it is here."

But don't think that Guillen isn't a fan. He just doesn't believe in hype. He's seen first-round talent play itself off the roster, and plenty of projects go back to the minors. (He recently said this of Brent Lillibridge, who is playing himself off the bench with a power surge: "This is Chicago, papi. You get a standing ovation for a week and booed for two months.")

But so far, Guillen likes what he sees from Humber.

"He's been great, a very nice surprise," Guillen said. "A lot of people think Cleveland is the biggest surprise in baseball. How about Humber? This guy pitched against good ballclubs, shut them down and is pitching well. Just because he doesn't have the name and he's a very quiet kid, nobody says anything about him. But he's been great for us."

Humber certainly appreciates his quick start. He said in the past he would be reading every story, trying to decipher the intonation in pitching coach Don Cooper's voice for clues on how he's doing.

"I finally learned I'm not very good at predicting at the future," he said. "So I'm out of that business."

The first-year amateur draft started Monday night, and for the first-rounders selected with promises of big bonuses and dreams of All-Star Games, they are all scared of emulating Humber's rapid fall.

Drafted third overall in 2004 by the Mets, he had Tommy John surgery in 2005, but still made his major league debut in 2006. After another season, the Mets made him a major chip in a blockbuster trade for Johan Santana. By 2009, the Twins gave up on him. He was granted free agency and signed with Kansas City. By 2011, he had been put on waivers by his third and fourth teams, the Royals and Oakland, respectively. The White Sox claimed him from the A's, and things seem to have turned around.

Guillen Everyone in Chicago can't wait until Humber pitches a bad game. 'When are you going to move him out of there? When you going to put him back in the bullpen? He doesn't belong there.' Every time this kid comes to pitch, there's pressure. Because I know as soon as he pitches one bad game, [everyone thinks] he's out. But that's the way it is here.

-- Ozzie Guillen on Humber

Going into this season, Humber had appeared in 26 games in the majors. The only one anyone remembers is when he got shelled in his first start on Sept. 26, 2007, as the Mets were in the midst of an epic collapse, giving away a seven-game lead in their division in less than three weeks.

He gave up five runs in four innings, getting a no-decision in a 9-6 loss to Washington that cut New York's NL East lead over the Phillies to one game. The Mets went on to lose the division.

Humber thought he would get a crack at the rotation in 2008, but he was traded to the Twins, where he made 13 appearances in parts of two seasons before they made him a free agent.

"I think it shook me up," he said of his first release. "I was so comfortable with the Mets. I had a good spring the first spring [with the Twins], but I didn't make the team. I think I let that get to me, a 'Why did you trade for me?' kind of deal. I started feeling sorry for myself. When you're trying to prove it to other people, it kind of takes your focus off what you need to be doing, what your job is. I just didn't perform in Minnesota. They gave me plenty of opportunities."

His history isn't so unique. Guys wash out of baseball every day. Some realize their shortcomings, while others just have stories of why they never made it.

But Humber seems to be lucky to have landed with the White Sox. There are relatable stories around his new clubhouse. Gavin Floyd was one step from becoming Humber. He was the fourth pick of the Phillies in 2001. Five years later, he was sent to Chicago for a veteran pitcher in Freddy Garcia. But he came to the Sox first, and he never veered off the path.

"Through personal experience, Phil and I have very similar stories," Floyd said. "As far as like, we got overloaded with a lot of expectations on yourself, and from your organization and other people. And it spiraled snowballed and went downhill."

Under general manager Kenny Williams and this coaching staff, the White Sox have done very well in recent years with these types, from high-profile veteran cases like Jose Contreras, to guys on the proverbial fence like Carlos Quentin, Matt Thornton, Bobby Jenks and Floyd. The 2005 World Series winner was built with castoffs and smart buys.

The organization certainly likes to collect talent. Including Lastings Milledge, who is now with Triple-A Charlotte, the Sox had 11 former first-round picks on the Opening Day roster; only two, Chris Sale and Gordon Beckham, were Sox picks.

Now, it doesn't always work -- see pretty much every ex-Royal of the past few years -- but give this organization credit. They regularly seem to find ways to bring out the best in frustrated baseball players, especially pitchers under Cooper.

Is it the coaching? Yes and no, depending on whom you believe.

"Coaching? No. We're bad coaches," Guillen said, riffing on the team's mediocre record this season. "We are. We're hard-working coaches. But we're not good coaches. You a good coach if you got good players. If the players perform, you're a good coach. If they don't, you're a bad coach. Work hard and help the players, that's all you can do. And we're doing that."

While Guillen has a point, even if he's being sarcastic, whenever you talk to a refugee from another team, you find them saying the opposite, remarking how the learning environment in Chicago is relaxed and the coaches are supportive and always positive.

It might seem like a circus from the outside, but the elephants are treated well.

"With Kenny, Ozzie and everyone, they obviously look at numbers and everything, but they look more at the person and the talent," said Sergio Santos, who did a mid-career change from infielder to pitcher under the Sox's guidance. "If the talent is there, and they're confident in your abilities, they try to spark something or give you a different point of view that you haven't seen before. It really gives you confidence, them believing in you, and it rubs off on you."

It didn't take Humber long to see why the organization has been successful with reclamation projects. He talked to Cooper on the phone after the Sox claimed him in the winter, and Cooper immediately told him he wanted him to add a slider. In spring training, Humber got simple instructions: Stay tall, pitch downhill and attack the strike zone. And he's gone from there.

"Obviously there are things you can see from the outside that are a little different," Humber said of the team. "But on the inside, it's really, until you're here, it's hard to describe it. It's almost a belief. Everything's positive: 'We're going to do this, you're going to do this.' When people kind of put that confidence in you, it makes it easier to have that confidence in yourself. That's the one thing I've seen that's a little different than other places."

Humber had resisted throwing a slider in his career. Now he's throwing it about 16 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs.com.

"My curveball's always been my best pitch, and so I've always been real hesitant to go to a slider," Humber said. "Because I've always been told sometimes guys with good curveballs, if they start throwing a slider, they lose their curveball. From what I heard, you kind of lose the feel for what you're doing, because it's a real similar pitch, but it's not the same. So it's hard to separate the two."

Floyd was also told to add a slider when he was traded, and now he throws it 28 percent of the time. It has also come at the expense of the curveball. The slider helped make Floyd a millionaire.

Despite his early success, Humber's future is still unsettled. He could be gone as quick as he came. But he's not thinking about that. Would you?

"It's been kind of a long road for me," he said. "So I think it makes me appreciate it even more when I've had just a little bit of success this year. Hopefully I can keep on helping the team."

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.