On February 13, the Astros released minor league pitcher Mark Hamburger. It wasn't the kind of news that catches a lot of people's attention. In fact, it's likely that most Astros fans have never heard of Hamburger, whose story is a pretty fascinating one.
Hamburger was a junior college pitcher in 2007, but because there was some confusion as to how many core classes he had taken, he was ineligible to pitch a year after going 14-0 with an ERA under 1. With nothing to lose, he and a friend attended an open tryout with the Minnesota Twins, where Hamburger threw six straight pitches at 93 mph. That caught the eye of a couple of the Twins' scouts, who then brought him back the next day to throw three innings of a simulated game.
Three days later, he had $1,200 in his pocket and a plane ticket to the Gulf Coast League, where he had 7.20 K/9 and 2.40 BB/9 through 15 innings. He had a hot start the next year, 2008, before being sent to Texas for Eddie Guardado.
Despite a general lack of overwhelming stuff, Hamburger relied on his offspeed pitches to get swinging strikes - to the tune of ~8 K/9 and 3.39 BB/9 for his minor league career. He got called up to the big leagues for Texas in 2011, pitching 8 innings down the stretch and going 1-0 with a 4.50 ERA.
2012 would tell a different story, however, as Hamburger was waived by Texas, claimed and then waived by San Diego, eventually ending up in the Astros organization, where he struggled through 21 innings in 17 appearances with a 6.43 K/9 and a 5.14 BB/9 in his limited time in Oklahoma City.
Mark Hamburger turned 26 on February 5 of this year. Eight days later, he became unemployed. As he looks to ply his trade elsewhere, either as a big leaguer or more likely in the minors, it's worth reflecting on just how far he's come since leaving Mesabi Range Community and Technical College in 2007.
Even if he never throws another pitch in the big leagues, he went from missing his second year pitching in the Minnesota Community College Conference - against stalwarts such as Anoka-Ramsey Community College and Minnesota State Community & Technical College (Fergus Falls Campus) - to striking out Adrian Gonzalez twice in the same game, in Fenway (is it worth noting that Erik Bedard got the win in that game? Probably not) five years later.
It's an improbable journey, and one that should remind us that it isn't only the top prospects in the nation who turn into big leaguers. Sometimes it's the guy pitching at the community college down the street. And though he's only thrown eight big league innings, if his personal history has taught us anything, it's to never count Mark Hamburger out.