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40 in 25: Matt Festa

Do indeed call it a comeback.

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Baltimore Orioles v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

It could have easily been over for Matt Festa. Despite cracking the big league roster in 2018 and again in 2019, the 2016 seventh round pick of the Seattle Mariners was at a crossroads by both dint of both his skill and his health in early 2020. The righty was the last pre-COVID Tommy John surgery patient in New York City in March of 2020, forcing him to rehab alone for all of the shortened season until he could return midway through the 2021 campaign. Even then, his fortunes were uncertain. Seattle had designated him for assignment in the winter ahead of 2021, returning him to the minors off the 40-man roster, a wounded reliever in a system flush with pitching talent.

By the time he was throwing in games again, he was 28 years old, far removed from his 2018 peak as the terror of the Texas League when he struck out 32.2% of hitters and walked just 5.8%, with a 2.76/3.17 ERA/FIP. While TJ isn’t the bogeyman it once was, there’s hardly a guarantee that players return to form, a risk all the more daunting for a player like Festa whose unfortunate reality is that of hoping for a chance, not necessarily being assumed to have a spot. The only big leaguer this millennium to hail from East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, Festa is a longshot’s longshot, a comet colliding with the Earth against all odds and an entire universe of alternatives. Not only did Festa clamber out of unlikelihood to make the bigs in the first place, his reemergence on this year’s Opening Day roster is the quintessence of the famous quote on luck being the result of preparation meeting opportunity (often attributed to Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, but not necessarily something he ever said).

The opportunity is simple to understand. MLB expanded rosters to 28 players for the month of April so as to help clubs protect pitchers in the early going following a shortened Spring Training. That meant most clubs are rolling with an extra 2-3 relievers, and Seattle is no exception. Additionally, the unfortunate season-ending injury to Casey Sadler as well as the more short-term delay in return for Ken Giles due to a strain in his finger created two slots in the pen. Seattle opted to send Nick Margevicius to Triple-A Tacoma to work as a starter, leaving Festa competing with a few healthy arms - Wyatt Mills, Devin Sweet, and some fellow non-roster invitees. Festa out-dueled his compatriots and has snagged that final spot.

He did so in large part by building off the adjustments he made in September of 2021. Festa let no moss grow on his repertoire, accurately appraising that his off-speed pitches could improve. As we saw in his season debut during Sunday’s blowout loss, Festa’s slider has blossomed from a below-average offering into an impressive “sweeper” slider.

“Sweeper” sliders are sometimes referred to as “Dodger sliders” for the club that has recently pioneered their popularity. As is often the case in player development terms, if you can pick up what the Dodgers are doing or do something the Dodgers decide to start doing, you’re probably on the right track.

This won’t guarantee Festa a breakout, but these sliders in particular tend to move more than a hitter would expect based on their angle in flight, causing hitters to swing under them. Intriguingly, this makes for a breaking ball that can be effectively used in the upper levels of the zone. Lefty slugger Max Kepler obliterated a low-middle slider from Festa yesterday, but he made Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa look human, something unequivocally impressive given what they spent most of Sunday doing to M’s pitching.

MLB

Festa has managed to stick around and make it back to the bigs. Now, he might just have the repertoire to stay.