Cactus League Game 1: Seattle Will Have Her Revenge on Philip Humber
Nate Karns vs. Philip Humber, 12:10pm
Phil Humber’s had about as frustrating a career as one can have while being a #3 overall draft pick and tossing a perfect game. Aside from the pre-draft hype as a member of perhaps the greatest college rotation ever, and aside from tossing the 21st perfect game in history at the M’s, Humber has simply never lived up to the potential that so many saw when he was at Rice. He moved from the Mets to the Twins as part of the Johan Santana trade, but never got established in Minnesota, hurling a few abbreviated, sub-replacement-level seasons before signing on with Kansas City and then Chicago. He never missed many bats and gave up lots of elevated contact, so he had very little margin of error: if more hits fell in, he couldn’t pitch around them. If he walked even a league-average number of batters, he couldn’t strand them. And if a few of those fly balls crept over the wall, he was sunk. Working with Don Cooper for the White Sox in 2011, Humber finally appeared to put it all together. Sticking all year in the rotation, he tossed 160+ innings and put up an out-of-nowhere 3 WAR season. He kicked off 2012 in style, tossing that perfecto at Safeco in April, eliciting this funny-in-hindisght-post from Dave Cameron at Fangraphs. The shift to a hard slider meant he could actually get the occasional strikeout, and a seeming improvement in command kept the HR ogre at bay. You know how the story goes from here: Humber was DFAd mere months after the perfect game, undone by a blizzard of long balls, a spike in walk rate, and the gradual realization that he simply didn’t have anything in his arsenal to use against left-handed bats.
He moved to Houston for a while, but somehow pitched worse, and then spent 2014 in the PCL trying to refashion himself as a reliever.* Last year, he decided to try the Korean League, and so he moved back into the rotation for Kia. Unfortunately for Humber, Korean batters found his pitches every bit as easy to elevate as their MLB counterparts, and Humber headed home after 50 abysmal innings in the KBO. Now he’s trying to crack the Padres roster, and we’ll see if he looks different from the last time we had any pitch fx data on him…way back in 2013.
Throughout his travels in MLB, the thing that sticks out to me about Humber is how *little* he’s changed. Sure, he picked up that cutter/slider thing after starting out mostly as a fastball/curve/change guy, but his four-seam fastball was remarkably stable in terms of velocity and movement throughout most of his career. From 2008-2012, Humber’s four-seamer stayed right between 91-92 mph on average, with basically dead-on average vertical movement and a bit above average arm-side run. It’s never been a particularly effective pitch, and while Humber’s curve was decent, the slider thing turned out to be something of a bust as well, particularly to lefties.
He’s opposed today by Nate Karns, the primary “get” in the Brad Miller deal, and a much more effective fly-ball pitcher. Sort of like Erlin/Paxton yesterday, Karns attacks hitters with a rising fastball that he’s comfortable throwing up in the zone, and then a big breaking curveball that gets both whiffs and some grounders. Karns also throws a change-up with some decent sink. Karns posted strongly reverse splits last season, thanks to righties knocking 14 of the 19 HRs he allowed on the year. Karns’ curveball was quite effective against RHBs/LHBs alike, but righties hit four HRs, while lefties hit none. Unfortunately for Karns, both lefties and righties found his fastball pretty easy to square up, but the move to Safeco and general regression towards the mean should help him this year. Thanks to his approach – and a solid yakker – Karns actually gets strikeouts, which helps him pitch around a mediocre walk rate and some HR issues. Karns seems tailor-made for Seattle, even as a right-hander, and most projection systems have him as a better bet than Paxton this year. This is one of the few actual battles this spring, and Paxton had some good results (and some mildly concerning velocity readings) yesterday. Now it’s Karns first opportunity to claim the last rotation spot.
1: Boog Powell, CF
2: Ketel Marte, SS
3: Robinson Cano, 2B
4: Kyle Seager, 3B
5: Stefen Romero, RF
6: Steve Clevenger, C
7: Jesus Montero, 1B
8: Gaby Sanchez, DH
9: Mike Baxter, LF
Mike Baxter’s a veteran utility guy who’s seen time with the Cubs, Mets, Padres and Dodgers. A PCL lifer, he played for Portland in parts of three seasons before shuttling off to some of the more extreme hitting environments of Las Vegas and Albuquerque. Baxter’s not a power guy at all, though – he’s been a gap hitter, which, paired with his LF/RF/1B profile as a defender, explain his lack of consistent big league opportunities. Perhaps he’ll add Tacoma to his list of PCL teams played-for this year.
* If he’d been an A’s farmhand in 2015 instead of 2014, he probably would’ve gotten an opportunity. Timing often has as much to do with a journeyman’s opportunities as his own performance.