Philip Humber, failure and empathy for the lost

Bob Levey

Watch as I ramble through some thoughts on why Philip Humber is suddenly the most compelling player on this team.

Baseball is a game of failure. When a batter isn't failing to get on base, a pitcher is failing to prevent hits and runs. Whoever controls that failure the best usually wins the game.

It's also a game of failure for the number of bodies it chews up and spits out. In the minors, in the majors, through injuries or ineffectiveness, baseball has a way of weeding out those who don't belong.

That all-seeing, all-encompassing Darwinian pressure hit the Astros on Monday, as Rick Ankiel and Fernando Martinez were shuttled off the roster while Philip Humber remains in limbo about whether he can keep doing his job.

Humber's problem is all about failure. He's failing to provide value to this team and soon, he might be failing to keep gainful employment.

Which may be why I empathize him so much right now.

Players struggle often in the majors. At its highest level, baseball is about making adjustments then making adjustments to the adjustments that were made for you. Philip Humber is in the midst of a horrible slump after two good starts to open the season.

What's worse, Humber seems to have lost all confidence. Look at this quote:

"I’m doing the best I can. I’m fighting. I’m not giving up," Humber said. "But (the ball’s) just not coming out of my hand like I want it to right now and, on top of that, it just seems like every mistake I make’s getting hit hard."

Click the link above and check out the photo with it. That's the look of pain and it gets to me. For some reason, all these quotes from Humber lately have made me feel bad for the guy.

It doesn't change my opinion of him as a baseball player, but strangely, it's made me root for him to succeed more. No one deserves to be in this kind of tailspin.

I'm in the same boat with Roy Halladay, who I appreciated from afar. Like Humber, he seemed to be struggling with results and couldn't find the answers. Turns out Halladay was injured, which explains the results, but it can't totally take away that feeling of helplessness under Halladay's comments about his struggles.

When something goes wrong and there aren't any answers, what's a great player to do?

For an athlete to succeed in the majors, even briefly, they have to be one of the truly great baseball players in the world. The guy who picks up one hit in a cup of coffee in the majors is still better than 99 percent of people who have ever picked up a bat.

A great athlete like that has to be driven to succeed. It takes more than just god-given ability. It takes drive, determination and a sense that failure can be controlled. When something goes wrong and there aren't any answers, what's a great player to do?

That frustration and unanswered questions permeate both Halladay and Humber's quotes recently. Maybe Humber is hurt as well.

If not, the answer may be much worse. Philip Humber may just have lost a little ability in a game that is not forgiving of any weakness. Natural selection could be taking him down.

That's why I empathize with him. I hope he can pull out of this tailspin or at least get answers as to why he can't do the things he used to do as recently as the beginning of this season.

Father Time stops for no man, no matter if he plays baseball. He certainly hasn't stopped for Rick Ankiel, who may have gotten his last chance to play in the major leagues.

Ankiel's is a great story. As a writer, I love finding stories like this, even if the ending doesn't always work out like it should. Ankiel didn't get to write his ending the way he wanted. Philip Humber may not get that chance either.

That's baseball. It's a game of failure. As baseball fans, we talk about how this guy isn't performing and should be replaced, because the numbers or the scouting reports tell us so. But, we also shouldn't be afraid to hope for a guy to stave off failure for a little longer. As sabermetrics subscribers, we're supposed to disdain the human factor in search for evidence.

But, ignoring the story lines of baseball is to ignore its magic. Philip Humber, justifiably, may not be long for the Houston rotation or a big league roster. In a few years, his time in Houston may be a footnote in Astros history.

That doesn't mean I can't root for him to stave off failure one last time before baseball's ecosystem takes him for good. In a season as bleak as this, a little hope can go a long way.

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