The enemy of good

As Philip Humber learned, any pitcher, any day, could throw a perfect game

Originally Published: January 24, 2013
By Sam Miller | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 4 Perfect Issue. Subscribe today!

THE DAY THAT CHANGED PHILIP HUMBER'S LIFE was like any other. The ball felt good coming out of his hand, but it didn't feel that good -- or, for that matter, that bad. "To be honest," he says, "there's never much difference. The difference between a home run and a swing-and-a-miss is, what, an inch and a half? You can throw a great pitch, the guy makes a great swing. And if it's at a guy it's an out. That's the beauty of baseball, really. There's not just one guy in control."

What made this day different was that no matter what Humber threw, he kept getting the same result batter after batter. And when he walked off the mound, the crowd cheered because finally Humber's miserable wreck of an outing was over and the White Sox -- trailing the Twins 17-4 in the fifth inning -- might finally get some outs. It was Sept. 4, and Humber had completed one-third of a frame and allowed eight earned runs, the most by any pitcher in 2012 without completing an inning. Philip Humber threw the worst game of the season.

Also in 2012 Humber pitched a perfect game, the 21st in major league history.

Look, we're not saying he wasn't better in the perfect game than in September. He had a better slider, better command of his changeup, better luck. But the two games, the perfect one and the worst one of the year, weren't all that different. To be honest, there's never much difference.

"It's not like," Humber says, stopping himself. "That perfect game is not the best game -- this sounds ridiculous -- I don't want to sound stupid." Pause. "I've been -- I've felt like -- like the ball was coming out of my hand better than it did that day. Obviously, that's the only complete game I've pitched in the big leagues. But ..." It's hard to explain, even to himself.

If it's hard to explain one perfect game, it's even harder to explain an explosion of them. The 2012 season had as many perfect games as there were in the first half of the 20th century. It's tough to know what to do with that fact. Yes, perfect games are flukes. Nobody is ever likely to throw a perfect game. Yet it isn't completely meaningless that major league baseball had three in 2012; the increase actually represents a drastic change in the way the sport is played.

Nor is it insignificant that Philip Humber, 11-10 career record, 29 years old and with his fifth organization, threw one on a day when he didn't even have his best stuff. It was, in one way of looking at things, the game Humber had spent two decades preparing for.

It was, in that way of looking at things, an emblem that explains baseball's core truth: A lot of it is luck, a lot of it is skill and a whole lot of it is luck masquerading as skill. And vice versa.


IN 2010, BRUCE BUKIET, an associate professor of math sciences at New Jersey Institute of Technology, put together a mathematical model to try to "predict" the perfect game. Bukiet can remember sitting in his parents' den as an 11-year-old Mets fan, watching the black-and-white as Tom Seaver retired the first 25 Cubs he faced on July 9, 1969. The 26th -- "Jim Qualls," Bukiet offers, correctly -- singled to left-center.

[+] EnlargePhil Humber
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesApril 21, 2012, an outing that will always stay with Humber, was not the only defining day of his season.

Nobody, he says, seemed more likely to throw a perfect game than Seaver. Bukiet ran his model through 2,000 alternate universes, each a simulation that assigned events randomly based on probabilities determined by the year's MLB stats. Sure enough, his model predicted that Seaver should have thrown more perfect games than all but six players in history. Seaver never did throw one, though. Neither did any of the six players ahead of him.

A man living in the 20th century had a better chance of becoming president of the United States than throwing a perfect game in the majors. That statement is only slightly less true if the man you're talking about is also one of the best pitchers in the world. More than 90 percent of the pitchers in the Hall of Fame never threw one.

Baseball's first perfect game was tossed in 1880, long before there was a name for it; one newspaper called it a "no-run game, no-hit game, no-man-reaching-first game." The second came five days later. The third took 24 years. So there's an unpredictability here that is beyond us. But the current trend is hard to ignore. In the past four seasons, we've seen six perfect games. A seventh, by Armando Galarraga, was denied only because of an umpire's blown call on what would have been the final out. Another, by Jonathan Sanchez, would have been perfect except for a fielder's error.

Plenty of factors contribute to this trend, but the most powerful is that pitchers today take luck out of the equation. We are watching an extreme-strikeout era: In 2012, there were 1,101 games in which one team struck out at least 10 times; there were 701 such games in the 1920s, '30s and '40s combined. Add just one strikeout per game to an average pitcher's rates -- without changing his rates of walks, home runs and base hits on batted balls -- and his chances of throwing a perfect game each time he takes the mound improve by 36 percent.

In 2012, there were 1,101 games in which one team struck out at least 10 times. There were 701 such games in the 1920s, '30s and '40s combined.

Expansion, meanwhile, has increased the number of games played and diluted the talent, particularly for have-not teams like the 2012 Mariners, the team Humber shut down. When Don Larsen threw a perfect game against Brooklyn in the 1956 World Series, the worst offensive player in the Dodgers' lineup had the 129th-best on-base percentage in baseball that season (minimum 100 plate appearances). Excepting the pitcher, all eight Dodgers were among the 129 best at getting on base. When Humber faced the Mariners, the best offensive player in the Mariners' lineup would finish 2012 with baseball's 237th-best OBP. And three Mariners weren't among the 400 best.

Certainly, clusters of rare events are often statistical flukes, as Bukiet's research showed. (In one of his "universes," five perfect games were thrown in a single 1971 season. In reality, not one was thrown during the entire 1970s.) But strip away the fluke factor and there's every reason to expect more perfect games, even from unknowns like Humber. Given the starters on tap, the odds of seeing a perfect game somewhere on baseball's schedule for April 21, 2012, were 1 in 533. Might not seem like much, but on the same date exactly 50 years earlier, a baseball fan settling in for the full slate of Saturday starters had a 1 in 1,175 chance of seeing one. Welcome to the perfect game era.


AS HE WARMS up before the April 21 start in Seattle, Humber senses that his command is off; his pitching coach later contends that Humber was sharp in the bullpen except for his slider, to which Humber suggests that he must have thrown nothing but sliders. His first pitch of the game sails two feet outside. His fourth nearly hits Chone Figgins on the foot; it's a historic dodge by the Mariners' leadoff hitter, though he doesn't realize it yet. After the first inning, Humber apologizes to catcher A.J. Pierzynski. "That was sloppy," Humber tells him. "Stay with me."

Maybe he was just unnerved from watching on the clubhouse TV earlier as the Tigers' Rick Porcello gave up eight runs in the first inning, ground ball after ground ball sneaking through the infield. "That's the worst thing you want to see before you go out to pitch," Humber says, "because it could happen to you. That's baseball."

A lot of baseball had happened to Humber. He first took the mound when he was 9, armed with a fastball and what he called a letup pitch, a soft lob thrown with exaggerated effort and a loud grunt for deception. "We're not throwing that anymore," commanded Robert Ellis, a family friend and White Sox prospect who began training Humber around that time. Ellis taught Humber a changeup and a sharp overhand curveball, putting him half a decade ahead of his peers. Humber became the Texas state player of the year in high school, the ace on a College World Series champion Rice squad, the third pick overall by the Mets in the 2004 draft.

But things go wrong with young pitchers. Humber had elbow surgery, lost velocity, was traded to the Twins and then lost his confidence. He compulsively tinkered with his mechanics, sometimes within single at-bats, thinking if he could just throw one perfect pitch it would all click. It seldom did. When the Twins let him go after the 2009 season, he considered retiring at age 26 so he could get a real job and provide for his family. His wife, Kristan, persuaded him to keep going, in the Puerto Rican winter league, for about $7,500.

"What's wrong with you?" a scout asked him in Puerto Rico. "When you're drafted, scouts are looking for what's right about you. You get to this point in your career, we're trying to figure out what's wrong with you. It's time to figure out what's wrong. Because it's not physical."

And there in Puerto Rico, away from big crowds and a deluge of radar guns, Humber realized he was getting in his own way. He had been pitching for five years out of a sense of obligation to money and expectations. "No servant can serve two masters," the Bible says, and the grandson of two Baptist preachers can finish the rest of the verse for you: "He will hate the one and love the other." Humber, after defining himself for most of his life as a Christian first, had become focused on the contract. It had made him hate baseball. He vowed to stop hating baseball.

Did this enlightenment make him better? Not even a little bit! He signed with the Royals, gave up 10 runs in a spring training game, spent most of the season in the minors, was waived, was claimed by the A's in the offseason and then waived a month later ("I was an A, but I don't own one piece of A's clothing") before being claimed by the White Sox. But Puerto Rico had made him happier, which was what he needed to keep going, even if it didn't make him better. The slider that White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper taught him in 2011 took care of that.


IN THE SECOND inning, Humber gets in a groove with that slider. It's a pitch he has thrown for only a year, but it helped turn him from a Triple-A veteran into an above-average major league starter in 2011 (9-9 with a 3.75 ERA). In contrast to the curveball he has always thrown, the slider is a hard breaking pitch that looks more like a fastball coming out of his hand. He does so much with the slider on this day: at times snapping a hard breaker at a batter's foot or giving it the subtler late movement of a cut fastball in the zone. He strikes out all three batters in the second, two on breaking balls.

Halfway across the country, in the Humbers' Chicago apartment on the 48th floor, nine-months-pregnant Kristan watches the game on mute with Humber's mom, Janet. In East Texas, Humber's dad, Greg, naps in a trailer -- the power plant supervisor has a 7 p.m. shift that night. The women don't even text him an alert. First, the idea of a perfect game seems unlikely -- "probably around the fourth inning Philip is going to give up four runs," Kristan figured. Then they worry they'll jinx it.

Out after out, most of them simple, just a few plausible threats. The first three-ball count comes in the ninth, by which time Kristan is squatting inches from the television, trying desperately to be there. With a full count against Michael Saunders, Humber throws a slider. It's lunacy. But he figures: Lay a fastball in because I'm scared, give up a hit and I'll kick myself. Walk him, I've still got the no-hitter. He gets strike three, swinging.

He gets the second out on a hard slider to John Jaso. Brendan Ryan then pinch-hits. Another full count. Again, Humber has to decide. He goes through the game theory. He knows that Ryan knows this perfect game means everything to the pitcher. He knows Ryan expects fastball. He knows he can get him to chase slider. He knows it.

He just doesn't know if he can throw it. It's the one moment he gets nervous, because his breaking ball that inning has been coming out loose. It ends up being "the worst pitch I threw," nearly two feet outside. Humber sees he has blown it, then sees Ryan, amped for the fastball, lunge at the slider for strike three. The ball goes to the backstop. It takes 4.4 seconds for Pierzynski to retrieve it and throw to first. Based on a survey of Ryan's infield hits, he typically needs 4.3 seconds to run from home to first. But he stays at home to argue with the umpire.

"Congratulations, my friend," David Letterman tells Humber two days later. "If I were you, I would retire now."


WHAT COMES AFTER perfection? Three days after the 27th out, Humber was throwing into an empty net deep beneath a silent stadium, all alone with that question. He had left his team's West Coast trip early to be with Kristan, who was struggling through blinding migraines in the final days of her pregnancy. One morning he went to U.S. Cellular Field and found a security guard to let him in for a solo workout. The players parking lot was closed, so he walked through the maze of hallways from the executive offices to the clubhouse. "There's a picture of Mark Buehrle and the scoreboard in the background as he's got his perfect game [in 2009], and I think that's when it set in for me: That just happened," he says. "I did that."

It was "an empty feeling" being alone. For three days, he had been tossed from one media hit to another; in two days, he'd be back on the mound for the most anticipated start of his career, MLB Network broadcasting the potential repeat, every paying fan receiving a commemorative poster, special ticket prices -- $9 and $27 -- reflecting his perfect game.

The same God that was there during the perfect game was there in September. He didn't bless me any more or less. He blessed me differently.

-- Philip Humber

The last time expectations had been so high, he was a bright prospect traded to the Twins for Johan Santana. He had flopped, and it nearly ended him. He had betrayed his pitching mechanics, obsessed over what baseball writers said about him, nearly giving up and going home to become a teacher or an agent or who knows what. There was a nontrivial chance that he would flop again after this perfect game.

If we focus on the math and see Humber as one of hundreds of pitchers getting thousands of chances to be perfect each season, then there's nothing reality-shifting about his accomplishment: It could have been him or it could have been one of the many other pitchers who worked hard, persevered and showed grit by just staying in the sport. But the perfect game era doesn't highlight all pitchers equally. When the perfect game era rewards somebody like Felix Hernandez -- as it did months later -- it just validates a great career, the proverbial icing on the cake. But when it rewards somebody like Humber, it's more like, Whoa, is there cake? And now we expect him to be cake, and so does he.

"My concern was that his expectations got so high and [a bad outing] could crush a man," says Greg Humber. "I know he's not immune."

In his first start after the perfect game, he allowed nine runs. Then his son, John, was born; the next day Humber walked six. The start after that, eight runs.

Correlation is so tempting. Humber threw a perfect game. He ended the season with a 6.44 ERA, the highest among starters with at least 100 innings. Did the perfect game do that to him? Did the media attention that turned him into a sudden celebrity do that to him? The added pressure he put on himself? Or the call from Barack Obama? He shaved his perfect game beard -- "Did I? It probably got scratchy" -- before the next game. Did shaving his perfect game beard do that to him? It's so tempting to say yes, of course, how else to explain why a pitcher could be so good and then lose it. But it's probably all bunk, except for one thing.

[+] EnlargePhil Humber
Jeff Wilson for ESPNWife Kristan persuaded Humber to stick with baseball after 2009.

In spring training, Humber had felt soreness in his forearm. Then he skipped his first start because of a rainout. When he finally did start, he threw 115 pitches in 5D innings.

"Not out of the ordinary normally, but a lot right off the bat," he says. "The next game was the perfect game, and you're snapping off sliders as hard as you can in the ninth, so I think that accelerated it. But of course I didn't want to say anything. It would have been ridiculous to say 'I just threw a perfect game, but my arm doesn't feel right.' It's stupid."

So he tried to pitch through it, with increasingly poor results. "When you have an injury in your forearm, it affects the command of your pitches," he says. "I would yank pitches down away, or they were staying up. I'd go to accelerate, but everything would come forward except the ball. The ball was staying behind. When you have an inconsistent release point like that, it's impossible to throw a changeup."

The data collected by Major League Baseball confirms this: Even factoring in the perfect game, in 2012 he threw more pitches up, more pitches missing to his arm side -- inside to righthanders. He threw a changeup 14 percent of the time in 2011 but half as often in 2012; when he did throw it, he got half as many swinging strikes and fewer strikes overall. "I wasn't able to command it, so A.J. wouldn't call it," Humber says. "I didn't shake to it because I didn't know where it was going."

Greg noticed that his son started changing the subject more quickly when baseball came up in conversation, which he knew from experience was Philip's tell that he was frustrated. But he also sensed that his son was better equipped to deal with the anxiety this time. All those years spent learning to pitch weren't just about picking up a slider but about figuring out how to deal with expectations and push through failure. "Was he upset? Not happy? Nobody wants to fail," Kristan says. "But I never saw a defeatist attitude."

Even on Sept. 4. Humber, who had been demoted to the bullpen, entered with the White Sox trailing 7-4 in the fifth. Triple, single, single, sacrifice fly. Walk, single, walk, single. Homer off the top of the wall, inches from an out. Then another hit. He made some pitches. He missed some. The hits avoided the fielders, the "that's baseball" alternative to a perfect game. The home fans booed. Kristan heard every individual boo. "I want to get on the loudspeakers and say, 'No, you don't understand how much he cares!' "

But she was calmed by her husband's body language, no different from during the perfect game. "Just as little as I was defined by the perfect game, I was defined just that little by the worst game I pitched," he says. After he left the mound, he ducked out of sight to text Kristan, asking if she was okay.

"That's the good thing about failing," he says. "You find out whether you can come back." He figured his career with the White Sox was all but over, and it was. One more inning of relief, then back on waivers.


TYLER, TEXAS IS a football town -- Johnny Manziel was born there but had moved by high school, so there's a fight over which city gets to claim him. But Humber lives there so anonymously that the guy who makes his Italian sandwich every day once told Humber he looks "just like that guy from East Texas who pitches in the big leagues -- but he's not that good." Tyler is also just five hours from Houston, where Humber will pitch next season. The Astros, liking what their projections spit out for Humber, snapped him up off waivers early in the offseason and signed him for $800,000, with a $3 million option for 2014.

It was mostly good that came from that perfect game. Churches around Chicago and Texas asked him to share his testimony, which felt weird -- the Bible never mentions "tight slider" as a qualification for ministry. Still, both of Humber's grandfathers were Baptist preachers traveling from state to state looking for congregations, sometimes as small as 25, so the Humbers don't take opportunities to minister for granted. "I'm more proud of that than his baseball," Greg Humber says.

And, it turns out, it was mostly good that came from Sept. 4. Houston likely will finish in last place, but Humber's parents and in-laws live in Texas, so baseball won't mean saying goodbye to everyone for seven months. "The same God that was there during the perfect game was there in September against the Twins," Humber says. "He didn't bless me any more or less in those games. He blessed me differently."

Just before Christmas, Kristan is in the kitchen while Philip plays with John in the living room. She hears a loud sliding whoop from her husband, the way a fire alarm might sound in a factory designed by Dr. Seuss. John laughs so hard at this foreign noise that he loses his breath, pouring thick rivers of drool on his dad while Kristan runs to get the video camera. Spending each day with John this offseason, Humber thinks about baseball in a new way: It's the workaday job he does to support his family, the way dads do. This makes him happy, and it makes him want to do his best.

It was fun being perfect, but that could have happened to anyone. This, though -- this he can control.

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