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In our preseason fantasy baseball awards piece a few weeks ago, I was the lucky guy who told everyone that Philip Humber would be the best $1 pitcher you could pick up in a mixed league. While I am patting myself on the back, please try to ignore the fact I also told you that Homer Bailey would be the Comeback Player of the Year this season instead of the player you wish you could just throw back into the free agent pool already.

Humber was someone I targeted in drafts throughout March because he possessed a few skills that I liked for a late round pick. His strikeout rate in 2011 was on the lower end at 6.4, but his groundball rate was 47 percent and he only had an eight percent home run rate while pitching in the unfriendly U.S. Cellular Field last season. He is also stingy with the walks, handing out just 2.3 free passes per nine innings last season, and his 3.58 FIP validated his 3.75 ERA. A look into his splits in 2011 show quite the change as well:

STAT

FIRST HALF

SECOND HALF

Innings

97

66

Groundball rate

45%

50%

Strikeout rate

5.5

7.7

Walk rate

2.1

2.4

Home run rate

0.7

0.9

That 6.4 seasonal strikeout rate is more tolerable when you see a second half spike like, and the rise in groundballs and reduction in walks was just icing on the cake.

His pitch mix (from Brooks Baseball) hinted at a few things last season, but the first month of the season has thrown a new wrinkle into the mix as well:

PITCH

APRIL

MAY

JUNE

JULY

AUG

SEPT

APRIL 12

Four-Seamer

34%

35%

36%

35%

27%

26%

42%

Two-Seamer

12%

11%

10%

12%

18%

18%

1%

Slider

18%

5%

20%

17%

20%

23%

39%

Curveball

22%

6%

23%

24%

25%

15%

10%

Change-up

14%

24%

11%

13%

10%

17%

8%

Humber went away from his four-seam fastball and leaned more heavily on his two-seam fastball in the second-half of last season. If we combine his fastballs and breaking balls, he was around 45-46 percent fastball and 41-48 percent breaking balls while mixing in a change-up at varying degrees. This season, however, he has relied on his breaking pitches more than ever, and a lot of that has come in his last two starts. Humber told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian that he watched his good friend Josh Tomlin’s last start against the Mariners to help prepare for his start over the weekend. Forty eight of Humber’s 95 pitches in his perfect game were breaking balls, while 58 of his 115 pitches in his previous start were as well. 

The other thing to note is that those two starts are his only two starts of the season, and neither Baltimore nor Seattle can be considered a serious offensive threat. That said, here is how Humber’s pitch results broke down last season compared to this April:

STAT

2011 SEASON

2011 LG AVERAGE

2012

% of Strikes Thrown

65%

63%

65%

% of Called Strikes

18%

18%

23%

Swinging Strike %

9%

8%

14%

Contact %

80%

82%

67%

% of Pitches in Zone

44%

41%

41%

% of Sw/Miss in Zone

11%

12%

22%

% of Sw/Miss out of Zone

36%

28%

50%

Strikeout %

18%

16%

31%

Walk %

7%

8%

6%

The life on his breaking pitches are responsible for most of that spike he is seeing with swings and misses; he’s induced whiffs on 36 percent of the breaking pitches he has thrown so far and even on 13 percent of his changeups.

It’s important to note that Humber has essentially scrapped his two-seamer this year, which is likely a big reason for his groundball percentage drop from 47 percent last year to 28 percent this year.  If this change leads to a sustained increase in strikeouts, though, it could still be for the best.

Humber has only had two starts against the soft underbelly of the American League, but this is also a continuation of the successful foundation he began building last season. It remains to be seen how Humber handles tougher lineups throughout the season, but the change in his process and outcomes since the start of the last season has been encouraging.