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Can Wilmer Font turn it around?

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Can the A’s right-hander overcome his abysmal start?

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Wilmer Font earned the attention of baseball analysts throughout last year and in the offseason, and not just for the endless typeface puns. In a February article over at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan laid out the case for Font’s potential 2018 breakout in significant detail. Perhaps most notably, Sullivan cited the uniform opinion of several baseball sources that only a small gap existed between the Venezuelan right-hander and Tyler Chatwood (who signed for three years and $38 million this offseason). Slightly less optimistic than Sullivan, ZiPS and Steamer both projected that Font would have a serviceable if unspectacular 2018, with the former estimating 87 innings of a 4.66 ERA and 1.0 fWAR, and the latter projecting 43, 3.94, and 0.6.

There was plenty of reason to be sanguine about Font’s prospects coming into the season: he had a historically good year at Triple-A in 2017. His strikeout-to-walk rate differential (K%-BB%) of 25.8 was the highest recorded in a single season by a qualified Triple-A pitcher since at least 2006—the earliest year of FanGraphs’ dataset, and his 178 strikeouts were the most recorded in a single season by a Triple-A pitcher since Francisco Cruceta’s 185 (in 160.1 IP) in 2006. Of course, these achievements come with caveats: many talented pitchers had their Triple-A seasons cut short by promotion, or capped off strong seasons at the lower levels with shorter stints in Triple-A. Nevertheless, Font’s 2017 performance presented a relatively large sample of impressive pitching production at the level closest to the majors.

I should also note that Font reached the majors briefly as a touted prospect in 2012 and -13, and had come back from Tommy John surgery and a two-year stint in the independent Canadian-American League before putting together his career year last season, so you can’t help but root for the guy to succeed.

At long last, Font was called up to the Dodgers last September, and let me tell you: it has not gone well. He has managed to surrender 29 earned runs in a total of 19.2 terrible major league innings with the Dodgers and Athletics since his call up. Just going off this year’s 16 innings, Font has an ERA over 12 and a FIP over nine. He is the worst reliever in the majors by fWAR—his total of -0.7 is more than twice as bad as his nearest challenger—and his bWAR of -1.0 trails only that of Blaine Boyer (-1.5) among relievers with at least ten innings pitched.

To put up numbers this desperately bad you almost have to be unlucky (at least a bit), and luck has definitely played a role here: Font’s .396 BABIP allowed ranks ninth among relievers with at least ten innings pitched, and his 34.6 percent home run-to-fly ball ratio is second only to Dellin Betances’ comically high 50 percent mark—a steep increase from the 8 percent Font posted in that category when playing for Oklahoma City. Cutting against the luck-based argument is his xwOBA of .370, indicating that his poor results on balls in play may have more to do with the type of contact he is giving up than with bad breaks in the field.

The main issue is dingers. If his season were to end right now, Font would become the first pitcher since 1908 to give up as many as nine home runs in a season of 16 innings or less, and just the second in that time frame to finish a season of at least 16 innings with a home run per nine innings rate greater than or equal to his current mark of 5.06. It’s no surprise under these circumstances that Font’s xFIP of 4.63 is half his FIP of 9.27.

If you include his brief stint last September, Font has allowed as many big flies (11) in his 19.2 most recent innings in the majors, as he did in his entire 134.1 inning season at the Triple-A level. It’s not what you want.

Wilmer Font Home Runs Allowed 2017-2018
Baseball Savant

Font had success last year by using his mid-90s fastball higher in the zone, and pairing it with a 12-6 curveball that he reliably threw for strikes (he also has a two-seamer, a slider and a splitter that is often coded as a changeup). In an interview last year, then-OKC Dodgers pitching coach Matt Herges explained why the Dodgers had encouraged Font to throw his fastball up in the zone: “He has a fastball, it doesn’t go down, so when it comes out of his hand, it stays truer longer than most people’s. Now some people say that is because it’s high spin, some people say maybe his spin isn’t as high as a lot of people but it seems to carry. Now whether that’s extension or how the ball just comes out of hand, for whatever reason it plays up at the elite level.” Herges also stressed the value of Font’s increased use of first-pitch curveballs to steal strikes.

Now that Font has spent some time in the majors, we can test Herges’ theories with Statcast and Pitchf/x data. Interestingly, his spin rate has been measured consistently in the low to mid 2200’s which is right around league average. But his perceived velocity is just about a full tick higher and the vertical movement on his four-seamer ranks 9th among relievers with at least 200 pitches thrown, lending credence to Herges’ supposition that Font was generating carry through extension.

While several peripheral indicators have remained constant, it does appear that Font has strayed a bit from his previous approach. Font’s average fastball velocity continues to be about the same as it was last year (just under 94 mph). He has thrown 65.6 of his pitches for strikes this year, after 67.4 last year in Triple-A, and his walk rate of 3.8 percent is even lower than his prior rate of 6.3. But he is only throwing first-pitch curveballs 31.6 percent of the time, even though he has gotten them over for strikes 68 percent of the time when he has thrown them. Conversely, his four- and two-seam fastballs, which he has used in 52 percent of 0-0 counts, have gone for strikes only 49 percent of the time.

Two additional factors pose a potential explanation for Font’s troubles in the majors—his release point, and his ability to tunnel his pitches. Regarding his release point, let’s take a look at two graphs: first, Font’s vertical release point is different for his off-speed pitches:

Wilmer Font Vertical Release Point by Game, 2017-2018
Brooks Baseball

Second, his horizontal release point has moved closer to his body:

Wilmer Font Horizontal Release Point by Game 2017-2018
Brooks Baseball

One hypothesis would be that major league hitters are more sensitive to release point consistency than their Triple-A counterparts. If major league hitters have honed in on a meaningful way to distinguish between Font’s hard and soft pitches, it becomes more difficult to dismiss his early season troubles as a small sample size anomaly.

It only gets worse when you take a look at the pitch tunnel statistics over at Baseball Prospectus. These statistics flow from the general proposition that if pitches look the same at the point during their trajectories when the batter must decide whether or not to swing, the batter will be less likely to know what is coming and calibrate his swing accordingly. They are also based on the scientific finding that in the last 150 milliseconds before the ball makes it to the plate, the batter likely does not see the ball at all, but rather skips ahead to the expected point of contact.

First, the statistics confirm that Font is operating from different release points. While the 2017 league average for variation in release points (RelDist) was 2.6 inches, Font’s release points vary by 2.74 inches on average. In addition, BP’s data show that Font’s pitches move less than average after the point at which the batter must decide to swing. His PlatePre Ratio, which compares the difference between pairs of pitches at the plate to their respective differences at the decision point, sits at 11.1, significantly below the 2017 league average of 11.9.

Plenty of pitchers have been able to have success without maximizing the post-decision movement on their pitches—Zack Greinke and Jake Arrieta, for example, both have the same PlatePre Ratio as Font this year, at 11.1 (though their RelDist marks of 2.34 and 1.93 are significantly better than Font’s). And improvement in this area is certainly not a panacea—Blaine Boyer boasts ratings of 2.05 and 11.3 in these categories, and it hasn’t helped him much this season. But together with the release point data and his horrendous top-line numbers, Font’s below-average tunneling ability does not inspire confidence.

The unsustainable home run rate simply has to regress, but if it doesn’t come back to earth fast, Font may run out of runway on the roster. It is notable that though he is out of options and had to be designated for assignment when the Dodgers ran out of patience with him, the A’s still had to give up a prospect of some value to get him—indicating through trade value that perhaps at least a few teams still think he is capable of translating his Triple-A success to the majors. Here’s hoping Font can turn things around before he loses his hard-won opportunity.