The Chicago White Sox hit the jackpot with Philip Humber. He is every general manager's dream: find a legitimate major league starting pitcher off the waiver wire, having waited for other organizations to live through the pains of the expense of signing him (the Mets coughed up $3.7 million) and the inevitable arm trouble (Tommy John surgery in 2005) without getting the payoff.
Humber gave the White Sox 26 solid starts last season (3.75 ERA) for just $500,000. This season, after earning just a $30,000 raise, he has allowed one run in two starts, the last one the 21st perfect game in baseball history, a 3-0 win against the Mariners on Saturday in Seattle.
White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper deserves credit for bringing out the best in Humber by tweaking his mechanics and scrapping his cutter and replacing it with a slider. Like former Cardinals pitching guru Dave Duncan, Cooper has a long track record of reviving careers.
"It's awful nice to get a guy back on track and have the kind of career he was looking for," Cooper said. "I'm sure with other organizations it's not like they weren't trying. Sometimes a guy just isn't ready to give what you ask."
A manager once told me a long time ago that coaching on the big league level is as much about timing as it is intellect. Most coaches carry and pass on the same knowledge. It's the coach who gets the player when he's ready to learn who will wind up getting credit for that player's success. Humber is a great example.
In 2005, Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson tried to change Humber's mechanics. Peterson was concerned that Humber collapsed his back leg during his delivery, causing him to tilt his shoulders and push the ball uphill rather than driving it downhill. Peterson also wanted Humber not to take the ball over his head at the start of his windup. Peterson advised Humber to adopt a long toss program, but Humber wasn't sold on any of those suggestions.
Frustrated, Humber told GM Omar Minaya and assistant GM Tony Bernazard he wasn't comfortable with the changes. The front office told Humber to throw the way he wanted to throw. After all, Humber had been a major talent in college at Rice and was drafted third overall by the Mets in 2004, ahead of Jered Weaver. In other words, he had been a success with those mechanics, so why change?
Shortly thereafter, Humber blew out his elbow and needed surgery. The medical professionals told the Mets that Humber had the elbow of a 40-year-old man. It was the equivalent of running down the tread of a tire to the point of a blowout. Humber threw an average of 118 innings a year at Rice -- and that's just the spring season, not including summers spent pitching in international competitions and the Cape Cod League.
The Mets later traded him to the Twins to get Johan Santana. Minnesota gave up on him after only two years. They designated him for assignment, upon which Kansas City claimed him on waivers. The Royals gave up on him after one year. The Athletics claimed him on waivers. The Athletics put him on waivers one month later to make room on the roster for free agent reliever Grant Balfour. That's when the White Sox became the fifth team to take a chance on a player who had become a most unremarkable pitcher.
"I saw him with Minnesota," Cooper said. "My thought was that he was not over the ball. He was collapsing on the back side. He was getting underneath the baseball. I saw him in Kansas City in a couple of good outings. I thought he was over the ball a little bit better. Then we picked him up.
"What we tried to do was tap into his best asset: his stuff. When you get a guy like that, usually one of two things is happening: it's either that he is so talented that nobody is saying anything out of fear they might screw him up, or they're trying to help and the computer gets overloaded."
Cooper didn't know the back story: that the Mets and Humber, believing in his talent and track record, didn't buy into Peterson's changes. And so this is what Cooper did with Humber: he stressed standing taller in his delivery with a firmer back leg, creating more power behind the baseball and a better downward angle. Sound familiar?
"The first thing we did with him was to have him drive all of his stuff," Cooper said. "We got him taller and using his back leg: tall and stay back. That's the only thing we did mechanically. That kind of happened quick."
It was the same thing Peterson advised. This time, at age 28, with his fifth organization and a scar on his pitching elbow, Humber bought in. Cooper made one other significant change. He began working with Humber on a cutter, the unofficial life preserver of choice for all foundering pitchers.
"We played with a cutter," Cooper said. "We did that with two or three starts and three sidelines. Say he threw 10 cutters. Only two of them would do what they're supposed to do. It was just spinning. It wasn't showing enough promise."
So Cooper went to Plan B. Encouraged by Humber's natural ability to spin a curveball, he told Humber to try a slider. Humber threw a very good slider immediately. The pitch elevated his game, giving him an out pitch at a speed in between his fastball and curveball. The slider spins so tightly it disguises itself as a fastball two-thirds of the way to the plate before breaking sharply.
"I do like cases like that," Cooper said of rebuilding a career. "I think [GM] Kenny Williams and [assistant GM] Rick Hahn always try to get us some."
There are no shortages of teams trying to find the next Philip Humber. It's the baseball equivalent of bringing a metal detector to the beach and looking for a diamond ring underneath all those grains of sand. The Red Sox found one in 2003 with Bronson Arroyo, a former third-round pick waived by the Pirates. Among the waiver-claim pitching projects this year are John Gaub (Tampa Bay), Alfredo Simon (Cincinnati), Jeremy Hefner (New York Mets), Rick Vandenhurk (Cleveland), Jeff Gray (Minnesota) and Lucas Harrell (Houston).
None of them have the pedigree of Humber, the college phenom who needed five organizations and seven years to find his way. It's a credit to Humber's tenacity and hard work. It's a credit to Williams' eye for talent. It's a credit to Cooper's teaching skills. But it's also a story about the mysterious craft of pitching. Every year teams take dozens upon dozens of chances on castaway pitchers, believing each one is just one pitch or one tweak away from breaking out.
The rest of Humber's career begins Thursday with a start against Boston. He has entered select company, but his task is only beginning.
"Another strong season," Cooper said, "puts him on the path he always wanted to be. He wants to be real good. He doesn't want to be just a fifth starter."