Thanks to pitching depth, the Toronto Blue Jays may get to use Font in a more traditional way, which could suit him well
To this point in Wilmer Font‘s Blue Jays career, fans know him best as an opener, a guy who pitches the first inning or so before being replaced by another guy, himself tasked to pitch as many effective innings as he can. With the Jays now in possession of a proper rotation, my assumption is that there will be few (if any) games in which Charlie Montoyo will use an opener. However, Font should still be an effective member of the Blue Jays bullpen in a more traditional relief role.
Font has had a long and winding career. He was an IFA signing with the Rangers in 2006 and was initially developed as a starter during the first few few years of his minor league career. He missed the 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery and, after returning as a starter, was eventually transitioned into a bullpen role by the Rangers. By 2015, he was out of affiliated ball and pitching for the Ottawa Champions of the Can-Am League, until the Jays signed him in the summer of 2016 and used him as a starter in the upper minors. The Dodgers signed him for the next season and also used him as a starter in the minors, before adding him to their big-league bullpen. Font has spent the last two seasons pitching exclusively in the big leagues, bouncing from the Dodgers to the A’s to the Rays to the Mets and, finally, to the Blue Jays.
These frequent transactions and the MLB numbers he posted before joining the Jays — over 96 innings, he gave up a lot of walks (10.4%) and homers (2.25 HR/9) without racking up strikeouts (19.3%), producing a 6.19 FIP — do not inspire much confidence. However, he seemed to be a different pitcher with the Jays (3.75 FIP), producing very strong strikeout and walk rates (32.7% and 6.8%), while also getting his home run rate (1.60 HR/9) a bit closer to average.
These contrasting numbers prompt a valid question for Jays fans: what kind of performance can we expect from Font in 2020?
Steamer projections are fairly positive about what Font might contribute in relief this season, essentially betting that his performance with the Jays is a much better reflection of his expected performance than his pre-Jays career. The projection system expects 236 pitchers to crack 30 innings without ever once starting a game. Font, projected to pitch 40 relief innings, is expected to strike out more batters than most (27.1%, 74th percentile), while also running a tidier walk rate than most (7.5%, 85th percentile). Home runs are expected to be an issue again (1.53 HR/9, 9th percentile), though this negative is outweighed by the aforementioned positives, such that he is projected to own a FIP (4.20, 57th percentile) that ranks a little bit above average.
There is a glimmer of hope that he might be able to run a lower home run rate in 2020. With the Jays in 2019, Font gave up 1.60 HR/9, a mark that put him behind the league average for relief pitchers over the same time frame (1.36). However, his 4.3% barrel rate with the Jays was better than the average reliever’s (4.5%), suggesting he did a decent job avoiding the most dangerous contact, certainly to a better extent than his home run rate would suggest.
With the Jays, Font leaned mostly on his four-seamer and curveball, throwing the fastball 54.2% of the time and the breaking ball 20% of the time. As a Jay, he generated above-average value from each pitch — the four-seamer produced 1.9 runs above average, while the curveball produced 1.1 runs above average — perhaps a result of the wide gap between his primary pitches’ velocity and vertical movement.
Font’s four-seamer had an average velocity of 94.7 mph last season, whereas his curveball had an average velocity of only 76.8 mph. The 17.9 mph gap between the two pitches put Font in the 95th percentile among pitchers who cracked 50 innings in 2019 and threw both pitches at least 10% of the time. Similarly, while his four-seamer had a lot of ride (9.9 FA-Z), his curveball had a great deal of hook (-8.2 CU-Z). The resulting gap in vertical movement (18.1 inches) was much larger than the average MLB pitcher (80th percentile).
We will have to wait for the upcoming season to find out exactly what kind of reliever Wilmer Font could be for the Blue Jays. His solid performance as a Blue Jay certainly provides reason for optimism — he struck out a lot more batters than he walked, to a high enough degree that he was an above-average producer in spite of his home run problem. His Steamer projections echo that optimism, projecting a fairly similar performance with the Jays in 2020 as he had with them to finish 2019. His solid barrel rate with the Jays offers further optimism, a reason to think he could get that homer rate under control going forward. With pitchers and catchers soon reporting, we won’t have to wait all that long to find out.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.