Philip Humber Joins 'From Phenom To The Farm:' Episode 52
There might not have been a worse weekend for college hitters in past twenty years than spending three games in Rice’s Reckling Park during the 2003-2004 seasons.
A weekend at Rice for those hitters meant facing off against the three-headed monster starting rotation consisting of Jeff Niemann, Wade Townsend, and Philip Humber—the three of whom were future first round draft picks and spent their time in Houston making life miserable for hitters and winning games for head coach Wayne Graham’s Owls.
All three arrived on campus in the fall of 2001, and for Humber, it wasn’t about competing with his talented fellow freshman as it was trying to find his way on a pitching staff that already was full of top arms.
"I don't think we were competing with each other as much as we were trying to make sure that we belonged on the team,” said Humber. “They had already pretty much established themselves as a national contender, so you just hoped that at some point you had a role on that team."
Heading into winter break of his freshman year, Graham let Humber know if he wanted to step into the rotation, he needed to tighten up his breaking ball. After a break spent morphing his “high school curveball” into a certified hammer, Humber did just that, stepping into weekend starts as a freshman.
Humber helped Rice reach the 2002 College World Series, and while that squad went 0-2, the 2003 team was primed for success. With another future first round pick in David Aardsma in the bullpen to compliment Humber, Niemann, and Townsend in the Rice weekend rotation, the Owls took the ’03 CWS title over Stanford, with Humber pitching a complete game in the clincher.
After an abrupt ending to the 2004 season with an upset in regionals, Humber was taken 3rd overall by the Mets in that year’s draft (Niemann and Townsend would be selected 4th and 8th, respectively). That next summer, Humber would have Tommy John surgery (with Niemann and Townsend also having serious surgeries in that same time frame), leading to Graham to come under fire with accusations of overworking his three prized arms—something Humber vehemently disagrees with.
"I don't think that anything I did at Rice, maybe aside from the last weekend I pitched there, was ill-advised," said Humber. "We were all physically prepared to pitch, I don't think any of us ever felt any pressure to go pitch when we were hurting."
One thing that Humber does point to however, is the long gap between his final college season ending, and signing with the Mets. As the organization was dealing with front office turnover, its top pick found himself waiting in the wings to be signed—Humber wouldn’t sign until January of 2005, and would go almost ten months between competitive pitches.
"That's probably the thing, if I look at my professional career, that's the one area that was unfortunate for me, and a lot of it was out of my control," said Humber. "Basically didn't hear from them until December, when they wanted to start talking again."
Humber never found his pre-draft form after surgery—the mid-90’s fastball and power curve didn’t return to their previous sharpness. He’d make it to the big leagues just over a year after surgery, but continued to struggling with a pitch repertoire that was diminished.
While he still had the ability to make a big league rotation and contribute, his ceiling hadn’t remained at the level from his time as a top prospect—something that he found difficult to deal with.
"It's hard, especially when you're a very high pick like that, to not want to live up to some of that hype,” said Humber. "I wasted a lot of time and energy trying to live up to that hype rather than just saying, this is what I've got, how do I become a better pitcher with this stuff."
After the Twins, who’d acquired Humber as part of the Johan Santana trade, removed him from the 40-man roster in 2009, he hit free agency and began to bounce around organizations, looking for a landing spot to build a career as a big league caliber arm.
His best stretch came after settling in with the White Sox, turning in a 3.75 ERA over 163 innings in 2011 for Ozzie Guillen’s club. His 2012 numbers would decline, but not before Humber cemented himself in baseball history by throwing the 21st game in MLB history on April 21st, 2012.
Humber retired following 2016 spring training, and while he never reached the expectations put on his shoulders as the 3rd overall pick, he’s still got a moment in between the lines that only a select few have ever achieved.
"I never got to go to the playoffs as a professional, but having a dogpile in a regular season game—pretty cool," said Humber of his perfect game.
On the latest episode of ‘From Phenom to the Farm’ former big league righthander and 2003 National Champion Philip Humber joins to talk life on an elite college pitching staff and how throwing a perfect game changes your life for better or worse.