Ever since making the transition from the starting rotation to the bullpen in 2017, Matt Festa has been on the fast-track to the majors. He was the first member of the Mariners 2016 draft class to make his debut in the major leagues. He made his first appearance in July in Colorado and was one of the many call ups in September, making eight appearances in the majors by the end of the season.
The seventh-round draft pick was a starter throughout his college career but the change in role unlocked a new level of performance. He easily compiled a 5.21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in High-A Modesto in his first season working full-time as a reliever. A year later and a level higher, Festa dominated Double-A batters, upping his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 5.58. His excellence as the closer in Arkansas earned him the Jamie Moyer Minor League Pitcher of the Year award in 2018. Perhaps that’s more of an indictment of the amount of pitching talent in the organization at the end of the year. Still, Festa has legitimately improved by leaps and bounds and should play an emerging role in the Mariners bullpen this year.
His gaudy strikeout numbers in the minors show just how much more effective his stuff has played up in shorter stints. He possesses a four-pitch repertoire, though he’s mainly leaned on his fastball/slider combo since moving to the bullpen. At one point a few years ago, Baseball America called his curveball the best in the system, though he’s neglected it in favor of his harder, faster breaking ball.
Obviously, the slider is most effective against right-handed batters, but he isn’t afraid to use it against left-handed batters too.
With good command of the pitch, he’ll locate the slider down and in against lefties. In fact, his control of this pitch is so good, he managed to locate more than 50% of his sliders on the edge of the strike zone last year. The league average edge rate for sliders last year was under 40%.
His advanced control of his devastating slider is the engine driving his ascent through the organization. His fastball is decent, sitting 92-95 with late life, and his two other secondary pitches are nice to have in his back pocket, but his success will be driven by his ability to locate that slide piece day-in and day-out.
With the Mariners bullpen full of fresh faces, Matt Festa has a remarkable opportunity in front of him in 2019. He has the stuff to be successful in the major leagues. He has high-leverage experience in the minor leagues. And he has the eye of the organization after his outstanding season last year. Now all he has to do is put it all together and seize his moment.