I Should Explain This Wilmer Font Thing

Yesterday, I wrote a post about how the opportunity should be there for some low-spending team to buy a prospect. There are high-spending teams looking to shed expensive commitments, and there are lower-payroll teams who ought to have some nearer-term financial flexibility. The example I leaned on most heavily was the Dodgers and Matt Kemp, since the Dodgers would like to move Kemp if they are to re-sign Yu Darvish and still avoid exceeding the competitive-balance-tax threshold. There’s nothing controversial in here. If anything, it’s all terribly obvious. Of course the Dodgers would like to dump Kemp’s salary, and of course some other teams would be interested in assuming some dead money if it came along with younger value.

The Dodgers have plenty of younger value. Plenty of options, for designing a reasonable Kemp package. This would be precisely the hold-up; other teams want more than the Dodgers have so far been willing to give. Where I ran into some resistance was when I talked specifically about Wilmer Font. That is, Wilmer Font, as a would-be Matt Kemp offset. Font is a 27-year-old righty with seven innings of major-league experience. In those seven innings, he’s allowed nine runs. He’s nowhere high on any prospect list. Even more, I’m given to understand he’s out of options!

Let me quickly try to explain myself. I know that Font seemed like a weird guy to bring up. And I have no idea how many teams might actually be interested in him. But I know for a fact the answer’s not zero. Font has been on few radars, but he’s coming off a truly incredible season.

Font’s already had a strange career. He threw his first professional innings in 2007, and he developed into a fairly good Rangers prospect. Tommy John surgery cost him all of 2011, but he did make it to the majors, briefly, the following year. He didn’t stick, and by 2015, he was pitching for the Ottawa Champions of the Canadian-American Association. He pitched for Ottawa again in 2016, before getting signed in the middle of the season by the Blue Jays. He pitched for Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo. He then became a minor-league free agent.

Even then, KATOH liked him enough. And then the 2017 season got underway, with Font starting for the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate. In early May, KATOH identified Font as the most improved pitching prospect around. Shortly thereafter, Font made his debut in Carson’s running Fringe Five series. He would reappear multiple times. By the end, Font had made 25 starts for Oklahoma City, exceeding 130 innings. He topped out at 107 pitches, and Font had five different starts with double-digit strikeouts, once reaching 15. The numbers make up the bulk of the case. Plain and simple, you can’t ignore what Font just pulled off. No, Triple-A hitters aren’t as good as major-league hitters. But here are all the Triple-A pitchers from last season with at least 75 innings. You’re seeing their walk rates and strikeout rates. Font is the dot in yellow.

Only Tyler Glasnow managed a higher strikeout rate than Font did, and Glasnow has long had that reputation of being unhittable when he’s right. Font also limited his walks, which was a function of his throwing more than two-thirds of all his pitches for strikes. Font’s strike rate ranked sixth-highest in the sample, and while I of course do understand there’s more to pitching than just strikeouts and walks, those are two pretty important pillars. Against the second-highest level of competition, Wilmer Font got ahead, and stayed ahead. He was dominant over the course of five months, before wilting in three late-season big-league relief opportunities. They happened, but they also don’t erase the Triple-A performance.

Arguably the most similar pitcher at the level was Brent Honeywell, who Baseball America just ranked as the No. 14 overall prospect. And I don’t mean to suggest that Font and Honeywell are one and the same, but the numbers present a compelling case that Font deserves an extended look. As a righty starter, he didn’t show an exaggerated platoon split. Font kept on pitching well, and over the past two years he’s totaled nearly 320 innings. Seemingly, the best explanation for Font’s emergence is that the Dodgers got him to use his four-seam fastball up in the zone. An example:

Font has one of those rising four-seamers, like the Dodgers like, and he’d previously been instructed to keep the ball down. The Dodgers got him to try a new thing, and the fastball became a swing-and-miss weapon. Font was already able to move his fastball around, and with a new organization, a new area was opened up for him. Font thrived at and above the belt.

The fastball wasn’t the whole story, though. Font has also folded in a different technique — attacking with first-pitch curveballs. It’s statistically demonstrable that hitters don’t like to go after first-pitch curves. So Font has learned a new way to get ahead with his breaker.

Getting ahead is important, because it puts the pitcher in a position of power. Batters have to go on the defensive. Font likes his early curves, and his later fastballs. But just for the sake of being thorough, Font does also have a slider.

And, in Triple-A, he also had a splitter. For five months with Oklahoma City, Wilmer Font was a four-pitch, high-strikeout starter. His fastball can creep into the mid-90s. The stuff is legitimate, and although it’s perfectly fair to question why it’s taken Font so long to get to this point, it does seem as if the Dodgers got him using new techniques. It’s not like Wilmer Font would have the only story to tell of a delayed career breakout.

Before this hype machine spirals out of control, let me make clear that Font is absolutely no guarantee. I don’t know for a fact that Wilmer Font would be good in the majors. That’s not what this argument is about. Font’s an unknown, and, given his history, he’s more of an unknown, probably, than a “true” prospect like Honeywell. Font wouldn’t be the Dodgers’ first Triple-A K-BB% wizard, and we still haven’t seen big-league breakouts from Jose De Leon, Jharel Cotton, or Brock Stewart. These guys aren’t sure things.

But to take a different angle — two months ago, the Cubs signed Tyler Chatwood for three years and $38 million. Chatwood is five months older than Font, and is also a righty. Like Font, Chatwood has undergone Tommy John surgery. Depending on your perspective, the Chatwood investment was either an investment in analytics, or an investment in Chatwood’s possible ability to suppress hard contact. Because, in the majors, Chatwood has not racked up many strikeouts, and he’s always struggled to throw consistent strikes. The Chatwood advantage is that he has actually pitched against and retired major-league competition, but when I asked a few people in the game who they’d rather have, they said Chatwood, but by only a small gap. That was the answer across the board.

Chatwood is a risk, even independent of his health, because he doesn’t get many strikeouts, and he doesn’t limit walks. It’s a bet on either stuff or soft contact. Font would be a different sort of risk, again independent of his health, because he’s dominated Triple-A opponents, but he’s barely faced anyone in the bigs. Some people think that’s hugely important, and others figure that Triple-A success tends to be pretty telling. Font should probably get a chance in a major-league rotation. His course has been unusual, but he’s still not old, and he comes with six years of club control. He’s an atypical prospect, but he’s also ready today.

*That* is why I’m pretty high on Wilmer Font. That is why I think he could be used to offset at least a lot of the Matt Kemp contract. I can’t promise you that Font would actually work out. I’d just sure like to be a team in position to get a chance to see. The upside is not insubstantial.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

This is why I come to Fangraphs. Love it.

danfinnoq
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danfinnoq

exactly my thoughts sadtrombone