None of the 22 pitchers in major-league history who have thrown a perfect game have fallen harder and faster than Philip Humber. He's been so bad that the Chicago White Sox reported on Tuesday that they have removed him from their starting rotation and dropped him into the bullpen.
Since achieving perfection against the Seattle Mariners on April 21, Humber has a 7.21 ERA and has allowed 19 home runs in 73 2/3 innings. The White Sox attempted various solutions, even putting him on the disabled list in June because of a mild elbow flexor strain in his right arm. They even made an extra spot in the starting rotation for him, going with six pitchers for several turns when most teams usually use five. But whatever Humber had going for himself against the Mariners, and during the 2011 season when he appeared to finally break through and perform like a top-three pick, is missing.
Humber has gone from national celebrity, reading the Top 10 List on David Letterman's "Late Night" show to the bottom rung on Chicago's pitching staff. The nature of his comments haven't changed, though. Humber is staying humble and positive:
"I don't think that going to the bullpen is a demotion," Humber said Monday. "That's disrespectful to the guys who are in the bullpen to say, 'I'm good enough to start.' Well, I'm hoping I'm good enough to be in the bullpen. That's the attitude I take as far as whatever role I'm given, whenever they give me the ball, I'm going to do the best I can with it."
Humber is lucky he wasn't sent to the minors. If he doesn't turn things around in the final weeks — and pitching in long relief during s pennant race, it won't be easy — he could be released. Of course, he's been there before.
The New York Mets chose him third overall in 2004, and he was part of the Johan Santana trade to the Minnesota Twins in 2008, but he didn't establish himself in the majors until 2011 after the White Sox picked him up off waivers from the Oakland Athletics. He had a 3.75 ERA with 116 strikeouts in 163 innings over 26 starts, and was counted upon to pitch every fifth day this season. And then, in his second start this season, he pitched the third perfect game in Sox history joining Mark Buehrle in 2009 and Charlie Robertson in 1922.
Robertson, coincidentally, is about the closest parallel to Humber on the list of perfecto pitchers who later fell on hard times. Robertson was a 26-year-old rookie in 1922 when he dominated the Detroit Tigers for an afternoon, and he finished that season with a 3.64 ERA — the best of his career. Though he pitched until 1928, Robertson never really came close to being that good again.
Lee Richmond, a 23-year-old who in 1880 threw the first perfect game in history, led the league in losses two years later and was out of professional baseball by the time he hit 30. But the game is so different today, his career defies comparison.
Not everyone on the list of perfect pitchers became a Hall of Famer. But all of them at least continued their careers (or are continuing them) for years. Humber finds himself in real danger of losing his months after being perfect.