Even in the best of times, people forget the bullpen. Unless a team has some sort of ur-bullpen, such as that of the 2017 Cleveland Indians, the faces all sort of blend together. Sure, you have your electric closer. Sometimes you have the luxury of having a set-up guy. If you’re really lucky, you have two set-up guys. Maybe even a long reliever.
For the most part, though, there’s a reason that we always call the Spring Training group of relievers “the pile”. Teams just throw dudes into a pile and see who sticks.
In the worst of times, the bullpen doesn’t just blend together. It homogenizes into a bland slurry, full of names like Tony, Matt, Sean, and Kevin. It’s basically like the bullpen is made of the non-Justin Timberlake members of *NSYNC, except instead of mediocre dancing, we have 93 MPH fastballs and nobody has a third pitch. That was last year’s Mariners bullpen. It was a group that was fine as a whole, but wholly forgettable.
In case you forgot, one of the worst members of that group was Matt Festa.
Festa came into 2019 with opportunity and optimism. Jake Mailhot wrote a detailed and great preview of him going into last season, and I would recommend reading it.
The long and short of it: the Mariners converted Festa into a reliever in 2017. Festa responded incredibly well to the transition, seeing his K% shoot above 30% in both Single-A and Double-A (25% is generally considered good). Festa did so well that he ended up winning the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year award in 2018.
He earned a call-up at the end of 2018 and pitched 8.1 innings in MLB with some success: he posted a 2.16 ERA, although his 5.46 xFIP suggested he got somewhat lucky in his limited sample size.
Last season, however, saw Festa drop off steeply. He made the team out of Spring Training, but was so inconsistent that he was optioned between Seattle and Tacoma four times throughout the year. He ended up posting a putrid 6.12/5.62 FIP/xFIP. His struggles weren’t bad luck: people hit him high and hard. Batters posted a 35.4% Hard% against him, and his 42.9% flyball rate was a career high among all levels of play.
So is Festa salvageable? Is there hope for him as a mid-game innings eater?
As Jake noted in last year’s preview, Festa’s bread and butter is his fastball/slider combination. He also has a curveball, but he throws it less than 10% of the time. His fastball sits at just 93 MPH on average, contrasting with 86.5 MPH for the slider. That speed drop is fine, but it doesn’t seem good enough to get away with not having a true third pitch. That is to say: he’s not exactly Edwin Díaz.
His opponents’ behavior further suggests the necessity of a third pitch. Batters simply weren’t fooled against Festa last season. They swung at just 26.4% of pitches out of the zone against him versus 68.2% inside the zone. Note that league-average is approximately 30% and 65% respectively.
So can Festa develop the curveball that he seems to so desperately need? It certainly didn’t rate as a good pitch last season, but the potential could be there.
After having looked so promising just a season ago, Festa’s potential now seems to be in question. He’s still just 26 years old, and he has plenty of time to develop into a useful bullpen piece. Unless he can find the answer to his struggles, though, his trajectory is to be lost into homogenized bullpen slurry with the other Nicks, Kevins, and Corys that litter teams across the league.