Philip Humber has turned a lot of heads in his career: Drafted third overall by the Mets in the 2004 Draft out of Rice University, the Twins thought highly enough of him to make him a piece of the Johan Santana trade. He bounced between organizations — the Athletics, Royals, and White Sox — before throwing a perfect game in April 2012 against the Seattle Mariners.
Unfortunately, after that game, the 2012 was a giant landslide, culminating in the White Sox waiving Humber. Entering this season with the Houston Astros, he's fighting for a roster spot, either in the rotation or in long relief.
What he did in 2012: In the pregame commentary on the April 21 telecast of the White Sox-Mariners game, Eric Karros gave a rundown on a few of Humber's most recent starts. His conclusion about Humber: "Gotta be a little better today." Philip Humber was a little better that day. In the only complete game of his career, he threw a perfect game, striking out nine Mariners, with five groundouts and thirteen flyouts - including a diving catch at the warning track by Alex Rios to rob Dustin Ackley of extra bases.
That was a good week for Philip Humber. He went 1-0 with a 0.63 ERA and 16 strikeouts over 14.1 innings in his two starts. A plaque commemorating his game went up at the Baseball Hall of Fame. He got a congratulatory call from President Barack Obama. He even got to read the top ten list on the Late Show with David Letterman. Yes sir, Philip Humber was on top of the world.
The remainder of his season, though, was all downhill. In June, he was eventually diagnosed with elbow strain, and he missed a month of the season while rehabbing the injury. He was replaced in the White Sox rotation by Francisco Liriano and moved into the bullpen, where he was never really able to get much going. In the first half of the season, he struck out 8.42 per nine innings and had a strikeout to walk ratio (K/BB) of 2.03, largely thanks to his hot start. In the second half, that fell to 5.71 strikeouts per nine innings and 1.69 K/BB. The former number three Draft pick, key piece of the Johan Santana trade, and pitcher of a perfect game was unceremoniously placed on waivers and claimed by the worst team in baseball.
What to expect in 2013: Humber's groundball rate dropped off the table in 2012, which was a real problem, since his homerun to flyball ratio (HR/FB) ratio skyrocketed. His fastball, which lives in the low 90s, didn't lose any velocity with the injury last year. If he can place it more effectively in 2013, he can go back to relying on his curveball in two-strike situations and induce bad contact and ground balls.
Bill James, among the most generous projection systems, is actually not a big fan of Humber in 2013 — though he's predicting 6.59 K/9, he's also expecting a walk rate over 3 (3.03 BB/9), and has Humber coming down with just 5 wins and a 4.66 ERA in 116 innings.
ZiPS isn't much kinder, predicting a similar 5-8 season, while decreasing his estimated strikeouts (6.44/9) and walks (2.78/9) and increasing his ERA (5.27).
Surprisingly, it's the Oliver Projection System that may be kindest to him, projecting him to finish with 6.11 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9, going 8-7 with a 4.09 ERA over 138 innings. This improvement comes in part due to an expected drop in his HR/9 rate (1.09) and an increase in his LOB% (72.6%).
Saying Humber's due for a rebound isn't a very bold prediction; after all, his xFIP in 2012 matched his career ERA almost exactly, and 2012 was an astronomically bad year for Philip Humber — at least after April 21.
Conclusion: Philip Humber turned 30 in December, and his once-promising career is a mess, despite flashes of brilliance. If there's anything left of 2011 in him — a year that saw him go 9-9 with a 3.75 ERA and 3.6 fWAR — then he must tap into it to make his time in Houston anything but pure misery. He must control his walks. Thankfully, every projection system sees a major dropoff from his 2012 walk rate.
It also doesn't take a genius to see that a return to 2011's HR/FB rate (7.7%) would help his case more than a repeat of his 2012 rate (16.5%). If, indeed, 2012's bad performance owed itself largely to Humber playing through — and then recovering from — elbow strain, then 2013 can be his chance to start fresh and prove himself anew.
Look for Humber to provide a reasonable presence at the back end of the rotation, with an ERA in the low-to-mid 4 range. There are still some miles left on his arm, and he could turn out to be a very pleasant surprise in Houston if he can regain any of his 2011 form.