If you are a casual Rays fan, you could be forgiven for not knowing who Wilmer Font is, or for not knowing that he was one of the most dynamic starters the Rays had in 2018.
When the Rays first acquired Font from the Athletics (who had recently acquired him from the Dodgers) for a middling Florida State League pitching prospect named Peter Bayer, I had only heard of Font because Jeff Sullivan, a man who pays attention to pitching, thought he was interesting. I’d skimmed the article, because time is limited, and there are a lot of articles out there.
Basically, Sullivan noticed that Font had put together a spectacular minor league season for the Dodgers in 2017, and that he may have made some meaningful changes to the way he pitched that maybe had caused things to click for him. Cool. On it’s face, the trade made sense. Font was an easy flier when your rotation has been destroyed by injury.
Of course, whatever success Font had enjoyed at the minor league level was tarnished in his very limited major league time by a ridiculous HR/FB rate, and it was fair to doubt Font, because he was first traded from Los Angeles to Oakland, and then designated for assignment and traded to Tampa Bay for relatively nothing (sorry Peter Bayer, hope you make me look stupid some day).
When he joined the Rays in late May, he sported an ERA just shy of 15.00. Even those who believe that traditional stats don’t always tell the whole story were doing just a bit of an eye roll at the idea that Font was going do much to help what was at the time a very injury-depleted pitching staff.
If a major league player has strong peripherals but gives up a ton of home runs over a short period, you grimace but shrug, because you know he’ll either get the problem sorted, or he’ll run into some less awful luck. That’s the way baseball works. But when it’s a minor league player watching too many balls sail out of the park, you’re allowed to be more skeptical—not everyone can make the transition to the highest level.
So I started looking for what was wrong with Font. My first thought was, “Is he small?”
Answer: No, he’s an athletic 6’4” 265, with a smooth delivery that gives him easy mid-90s velocity. If you made people look at a police lineup to identify the major league starting pitcher, they’d choose him every time.
“Well, how about his stuff. Probably the stuff is bad. No movement or something.”
When I first looked at this graph, I laughed out loud at my desk.
Then I stopped and looked again.
Then I’m pretty sure I giggled. Because this is the stuff of a middle-of-the-rotation major league pitcher: hard fastball (averaging 95 mph) with lots of hop to it (average over 10 inches of rise), and at least three other pitches, each with significant movement and separation from the others.
Font’s change-up may have lacked consistent movement, based on the spread of purple squares in that chart, but the mean movement had both more drop and more armside run than average. His slider was a little bit slow, at 83 mph, but it made up for that by having more downward movement than most sliders. And his curve, which was very slow at 86 mph (half a standard deviation slower than the average, per Brooks Baseball), drops an extreme vertical amount (nine inches, which is one and a half standard deviation’s more than the average, per Brooks).
I’m not sure I’d call any of those secondary pitches “plus,” but unless his command was really bad (and Font’s minor league numbers suggested that at least his control wasn’t), I’d be confident calling all of them at least average. And three average secondary pitches play up when they’re combined with each other, and working off a live 95 mph fastball.
When someone dominates the high minors like a major league starter, looks like a major league starter, and throws the pitches of a major league starter, then he’s probably a major league starter, and I don’t understand how other teams left this guy just lying around.
And indeed, Font’s brief stint with the Rays was tantalizing.
Having been converted to the bullpen in Los Angeles and kept there in Oakland, he began his Tampa Bay career with a string of decent one and two inning relief appearances, while the Rays started stretching Font back out to start. Once he was able, he gave them two strong five inning outings—against the Yankees and Astros no less—before straining a lat.
It sure looked like what started out as an emergency waiver wire depth add was on the verge of turning into an important building block for a competitive team, but we only got the teaser in 2018.
Font expects to be ready for spring training, and I really hope he’s able to pick up where he left off. Steamer projects him to have a respectable 3.84 ERA, but to pitch just 58 innings, so they are clearly anticipating that he will be a reliever (or perhaps opener); but there’s a really good chance he’s more than that. A healthy Font able to build off that June 2018 performance could end up playing an important role on the 2019 Rays pitching staff, and for years to come.
That pickup was an exception. You’re not supposed to be able to get Wilmer Font for free.