Maturity fueling Font's breakout summer

Right-handed pitcher Wilmer Font, who was recently promoted to Double-A Frisco, is having a successful season while making his return from Tommy John surgery. Between Myrtle Beach and Frisco, he has struck out 112 batters while yielding only 60 hits in 86 innings. Lone Star Dugout features the fireballing 22-year-old prospect.

Although Wilmer Font has been on the Rangers' 40-man roster for the last two seasons, he didn't reach the upper levels of the minor leagues until last week's promotion to Double-A Frisco.

The Rangers added Font to their 40-man roster back in November 2010, protecting him from the upcoming Rule 5 Draft even though he'd undergone Tommy John surgery on his right elbow earlier that month. Because he was injured, the club was able to avoid using one of his options last season. He'll still have two options remaining after the 2012 season, giving him plenty of time to develop.

After being shut down in July 2010 and missing the entire 2011 campaign, Font made his return at High-A Myrtle Beach this year and is currently having a breakout campaign––even if his numbers don't fully show it.

Font posted a 4.21 earned-run average over 23 appearances (19 starts) for the Pelicans. In 83.1 innings, he yielded only 58 hits, walked 37, and struck out 109.

But Font wasn't dominant from the outset.

During spring training, the 22-year-old hurler showed little arm speed while throwing his fastball anywhere between 85-93 mph. His curveball didn't have much shape and his changeup was soft.

His lack of velocity during camp wasn't reason enough to be alarmed. He was making his return from a major surgery and didn't appear to be fully trusting his arm––he didn't seem to be letting it fly. But it did raise some doubts.

Font, who was assigned to Myrtle Beach after a rocky performance in camp, did little to erase those doubts early in the season. In his first regular-season start since the surgery, he failed to retire any of the six batters he faced, issuing four walks and allowing two hits. He gave up four runs.

Rangers rehab pitching coordinator Keith Comstock felt that Font was tentative in spring training, pitching in a velocity range where his arm felt most comfortable at the time.

Comstock likened Font's situation to that of veteran reliever Willie Eyre, who rehabbed with the Rangers in 2008 following his Tommy John surgery.

"Willie Eyre didn't want to leave a comfort level," Comstock said. "He liked 90-92 mph. I'd say, ‘Willie, you're 95. There is another 95. We need to go to it. We need to get to it.' He'd say, ‘I can pitch here,' and I said, ‘No, you can't. You need to go to 95.' That's just an example––Willie is just an example. But we ended up getting there.

"Wilmer got caught in a (comfort) zone. And he got caught in a zone in January, which is a tough time because nobody sees him in January. So then he came into spring training, and he didn't know what to do. His comfort zone had gotten so wide that he didn't understand. He thought, ‘I don't know how to get out of this now."

Font echoed the sentiment, admitting that he was initially "a little scared to throw" at the risk of re-injuring his arm.

Prior to the surgery, Font's fastball sat between 92-96 mph during starts and touched triple digits in short bursts. Comstock knew the velocity was still in there. He just needed to help Font get it back out.

"We were going to risk breaking it again," said Comstock. "I said, ‘That's how we've got to get out of it. We've got to risk you breaking it.' We all knew in the rehab department that there's no chance he's going to break this arm. But we had to get him thinking that you're going to have to go break it again."

Font was hearing similar messages from both Comstock and Pelicans pitching coach Brad Holman.

"They said that I had to throw like 95-96 mph," Font said. "I threw, and it was there. (Comstock) said to throw the ball like you did before the surgery."

When Font's fastball reached 95 mph for the first time since the surgery, his confidence immediately returned. According to Comstock, it's all about knowing that you can let the ball go without hurting yourself.

"Once you throw 95 once and it's there and he heard the (glove) ‘pop'––everybody hears a pop. They all hear their pops, and he hadn't heard a pop yet. So he finally heard his pop, and it happened on a 95 mph fastball. Once he heard it and that thing was okay, then it took off."

Touching 95 mph was only the beginning for Font. His velocity continues to rise as the season progresses, and he's even bumped up to 99 at times this season.

"I can't say enough," said Holman. "His velocity keeps increasing. I don't think it can go up much more. He has been pretty consistently 92-95 mph, and on quite a few pitches he'll run it up there at 96 and has even touched 99."

While the plus––flashing plus-plus––velocity is certainly a big asset, it has only been a piece of the puzzle in Font's progress. His fastball also has more life this season, leading one scout to say that Font was throwing "mid-90s bowling balls" during a start in May.

After scuffling in April, Font began to hit his stride in May, as he yielded only four earned runs on nine hits in 23 innings. He was having the success while pitching almost exclusively with his 92-96 mph fastball, working in just a handful of offspeed pitches per game.

"It's really fun to watch," Holman said. "And it's not a normal fastball. It's a very, very heavy ball, and hitters just aren't getting good swings. So there's some deception that goes along with it as well as some sinking action at times."

Font says he doesn't throw a two-seam fastball but his four-seamer is "getting a little bit of movement like a sinker" this year.

When healthy, the Venezuela native has always flashed a dominant fastball out of a big frame. He touched 98 mph as a 17-year-old prospect in 2007 and hit 100 the following summer. But his ability to harness and command that heat has often been another story.

Although the 6-foot-4, 245-pound prospect is a big man and a physically imposing presence on the mound, he had issues repeating his mechanics and commanding his fastball prior to this season. While there's still room to improve in both areas, his 11 percent walk rate with Myrtle Beach this year was the lowest of his professional career. His 32.3 percent strikeout rate was also a career best.

Holman credits the development to a couple of mechanical changes that have stuck with Font.

"For Wilmer, the one thing he's always had a tendency to do is kind of attack the pitch from the top of his balance point," Holman said. "You'd see his head and his front foot kind of go to the plate together.

"So we've tried to create some separation there where, when his front foot goes forward, his head matches more with his throwing hand so you see that separation of the lower half and the upper half.

"Once the lower half gets grounded, he's really, really focusing on being in a good strength position."

The overall adjustments have helped Font create some deception in his delivery. They're also keeping him on a straight line to the plate, making it easier to command his fastball.

"Before the surgery, my arm was a little low," the prospect said. "Now it's higher. My front side is also up a little more. It helps my direction to the plate."

A number of young pitchers enter professional ball with the pure talent to play in the major leagues. But the separator is often their ability (or lack thereof) to make the necessary adjustments and improve along the way.

For that reason, the right-hander's aptitude to make the adjustment and progress––rather than reverting back to old habits––shouldn't be overlooked. Holman says it's something Font was mostly unable to do before his surgery.

"That used to be something that I had to tell Wilmer on a daily basis," the pitching coach said of making adjustments. "And to his credit, he's taken it this year and he's repeating it. He's holding himself accountable. Not just himself, but I think he's also starting to lead some of the other guys."

Font's increased maturity came after spending more than a calendar year rehabbing his right elbow at the Rangers' minor league complex in Surprise, Ariz. But his mental development was no accident.

When pitchers are scheduled to spend a year on the dreaded ‘rehab crew' in Arizona, Comstock says that he and his staff––including medical and rehab coordinators Dale Gilbert, T.J. Nagakawa, and Matt Lucero––make the development of a player's leadership and mental aspects a priority.

"Once (the rehabbers) get to me, I really see a totally different character guy," Comstock said. "I see a totally different behavioral guy. I see everything that has been changed. And those four or five months that they've been in those (training) rooms––and not in my room––that's where all that stuff gets changed.

"So by the time they get to me, I've kind of got a finished product. Then it's up to me to finish it on the baseball side of it."

After spending more than 12 months with Font, Comstock is excited to see the prospect's progress both on and off the mound.

"He's really grown up," he said. "He has really, really grown up. The work habits have gone through the roof, and the leadership skills are coming in. Him and Brad have just done some great work. It was just so pleasing."

Font admits it wasn't always easy to stay focused over the long rehab haul, but he feels the experience helped him mature.

"It's hard because you want to play and you can't," said Font, who is now a fluent English speaker. "I had to be strong minded. My coaches helped me with that. It helped a lot in everything––my body, my mind, my maturity. Everything. I learned a lot of things about how to pitch."

During the first half, Holman said that Font was "basically just living on his fastball" and that "he really hasn't needed anything else."

Having shown the ability to dominate High-A hitters with solely his plus-plus fastball early on, Font's recent focus of late has been mixing in and pitching with his secondary stuff.

Prior to the 2012 campaign, Font had shown an intriguing changeup at times but always struggled with his breaking ball––a big, loopy low-70s curve. This season, the changeup was scrapped in favor of a splitter. Though he still technically has the curve, he's added a slider that is gradually becoming his primary breaking pitch.

"Now it's a matter of him rolling into his secondary pitches," Holman said in July. "He's starting to throw his curveball and the newly acquired slider and also his split for strikes. That was the issue early on––he was just kind of a one-pitch guy.

"But now he's starting to add those pitches in. He still doesn't really need them because I think the fastball plays out that well. But at the same time, just for the sake of his development at the next level, it's something that we've been kind of forcing on him."

While the changeup and curveball were more finesse pitches for Font––he threw both in the 70s on the radar gun––the splitter and slider could ultimately become power offerings that better complement his extreme velocity.

Neither pitch is particularly hard right now, but they should get harder as he gets more experience and comfort in using them.

Holman thinks the slider in particular will be a better asset than his slow curve. Not only does the slider better fit Font's approach to pitching, but it also should be less recognizable to hitters out of his hand.

"With his mentality––it's kind of an attack-type mentality," he said. "He's an aggressive kid. He's not afraid. With his fastball, he is able to throw it into the zone. And with his slider, I think he can carry the same mentality with that pitch. Then he can show the split and curveball more to get the hitters off those other two pitches."

For Font personally, it's all about having the confidence that he can throw his new offspeed pitches for strikes.

"Starting the season, every time I threw a slider, it was ball, ball, ball," Font said with a laugh. "Now I feel comfortable with all my pitches."

That includes his splitter, which is a notoriously difficult pitch to command both in and out of the strike zone––particularly right after it's learned.

"This is my first time (throwing a splitter)," he said. "And I feel really comfortable throwing the split. I can throw it for a strike. But the first time I threw it in spring training, it was so wild. Now I am more comfortable, and I feel comfortable with the grip."

There's no doubt that Font's secondary stuff is still miles behind his dominant fastball. But the slider and splitter are two pitches that should ultimately work well off his mid-90s heat.

But the development of his offspeed arsenal may be going on the back-burner temporarily. The Rangers are more focused on keeping their prospect healthy as he continues his return from surgery.

Coming into the season, the Rangers targeted Font for approximately 100 regular-season innings in his first year off Tommy John. Because he'd already worked 77 innings by July 18, the club moved him into a relief role for the remainder of the year, where he's most likely to live off his fastball while mixing in the occasional secondary pitch.

The move may be providing a glimpse into the future, however. The fireballing prospect is most likely to reach the majors as a bullpen arm––perhaps as soon as the 2013 season.

Font's heavy fastball, which generally sat between 92-96 mph in starts, has ticked into the 94-97 range––touching the occasional 98-99––out of the bullpen. The early results have been phenomenal.

In three relief appearances for the Pelicans, Font worked 6.1 hitless, scoreless innings while walking one and striking out 13. He's tossed 2.2 shutout frames with Double-A Frisco thus far, yielding two hits and fanning three without walking a batter.

It's difficult to project Font's slider and splitter because they're relatively new to his arsenal. But most scouts see Font as a future power big league reliever with a dominant fastball and potentially passable secondary stuff, giving him the ability to be a setup man or perhaps even a closer.

The Rangers may have Font return to a starting role in the minor leagues next season. It's a move that would make sense, as he'd have more opportunity to develop both his offspeed stuff and fastball command. But for now, at least, he's showcasing his potential out of the bullpen by pounding mid-to-upper 90s heat with late life in short bursts.

Font isn't worried about his stuff right now, though. He just wants to continue limiting free base runners.

"I want to try not to walk guys," he said. "I want less base on balls."

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