Jerry Dipoto’s first draft, in 2016, is usually remembered by Mariners fans as the Kyle Lewis draft. But it also opened another chapter that would become a hallmark during the early years of Dipoto’s tenure: the rise of the college pitcher, and specifically, the search for later-round values in those pitchers from smaller schools. Southern New Hampshire University saw its highest-ever drafted player (Tim Viehoff, 12th round), as did Millersville University in Pennsylvania (Brandon Miller, 6th round); an hour northeast of Millersville, Messiah University celebrated its fourth-ever drafted player and first in more than a decade (Stephen Ridings, 29th round). And just up I-76 from Millersville, East Stroudsburg University was also celebrating their highest-ever drafted player: Matt Festa, handily beating out the previous record-holder, Jeremy Gigliotti (19th round), for highest-drafted player from the school when the Mariners popped him in the seventh round. (It’s arguable that Festa’s high school, St. Joseph By-the-Sea in Long Island, is more well-known than his college; his high school classmate was Pete Davidson and the two were good friends—at least, if their respective Wikipedia articles are to be believed, which...)
So Festa and his small school brethren began the long and arduous climb up MiLB’s ladder, and as Festa climbed, those players drafted along with him began to fall away—in trades, or lost to injury, released or retired; the big-school guys along with the smaller school ones, high draft choices and later rounders alike. The process of working your way up through the minors as a pitcher is, almost universally, like one of those touch-a-truck contests where talent takes a back seat to consistency and durability (also, the bathroom conditions are pretty much the same). And for years, Festa was that picture of consistency. He pitched over 60 innings for the Everett AquaSox in his draft year, unheard of for top pitching prospects, following that up with 70 innings at Modesto en route to a Cal League championship. In 2018 the Mariners rewarded another strong, durable campaign at Double-A with a little late-season taste of big-league action. After all that climbing, it looked like Festa had finally arrived.
But 2019 didn’t go well. Festa went on the IL to start the season, something he’d never done in his pro career. When he returned to the mound, it was without the pinpoint command that had made him so effective in the minors, as his walk rate shot up more than double. Batters forced him to become patient and throw a fastball in the zone, and when he did, they punished his below-average-velocity offerings to the tune of a .769 SLG. Looking at things optimistically, we could praise Festa for being a good team player on a 2019 Mariners team that made their brand “unwatchable baseball.” I won’t embed them in-text here, but for those of you with a masochistic bent, here are some examples of Festa’s rough outings in 2019—losing his mechanics and falling behind in counts, allowing contact both soft and hard, and failing to tempt batters into offering at his best pitch, the slider (this last one needs to come with a special content warning as it is the 14-inning loss to the Astros on June 6 where the only people left in the ballpark were doing that godawful “woo!” sound. Proceed at your own peril). The capper for that rough year: TJ surgery prior to the 2020 season. And the capper on that: a surprise pandemic that would force him to rehab at home, alone, away from the watchful eyes of trainers and team doctors.
The thing about Touch-a-Truck contests is they measure want, maybe better than any other barometer conceived of by man. In 2017, a man and a woman in South Carolina battled it out for an entire weekend outdoors in a “Touch a Car” contest; she wanted the car for her kids so they could have heat and AC while being transported, and he wanted it because he didn’t have one, nor means to get one. In the end, “lack of car” won out over “broken car” (although in a rare happy-ending to this kind of story, both got a car). The pandemic was a touch-a-car moment for many minor-leaguers, confined to their houses and deprived of all the things that make the dull parts of working out fun: nice equipment, friends, and the spirit of competition. For Festa, that came with the additional challenge of having to become his own physical therapist and trainer, but it didn’t matter: “No baseball” turned out to be as powerful a motivator as “no car.”
Festa managed to come back in 2021 for about 20 games to close out the Triple-A season, and the Mariners liked what they saw enough—a return to command and an improved ability to miss bats—to keep his place warm on the 40-man over the winter. Injuries to Casey Sadler and Ken Giles opened a lane for regular work for Festa out of the Mariners’ bullpen, and he took the opportunity and ran with it. Aside from a bout of elbow tendinitis that sidelined him in May, Festa was able to return to his dependable form out of the Mariners’ bullpen, although he did fatigue down the stretch, losing effectiveness in August and September.
But the improvements Festa made during his downtime were even more evident in a larger sample. Please forgive me for rehashing something from an earlier 40 in 40, but you’ll recall that we looked at this chart when figuring out how new Mariner Justin Topa might fit in with the bullpen’s slider-throwers. Let’s take a look at that again and note where Festa is:
Only Matt “Unicorn” Brash’s slider breaks more than Festa’s; Festa gets over six inches more horizontal break (or “sweep”) than the average MLB slider. Let’s see how that looks in real life:
And while that slider wasn’t always there for him in the back end of the season, he busted out one of his best at one of the biggest moments of the season:
Festa has never been a flamethrower; even with his new bionic UCL he still averages 92-93 mph on his fastball, about where he was prior to surgery. But Festa was able to almost double his whiff percentage on his fastball between 2019 and 2022. How did he do it?
Like bullpen-mate Paul Sewald, Festa has been able to make use of a flatter VAA (Vertical Approach Angle): compared to a VAA of -4.5° in 2019, Festa has been able to “raise” that to -4.1°—a small but significant difference. For Festa, it could be the difference between a hitter’s eyes lighting up over a tasty baseball snack, and a hitter wondering “hey, where’d that ball go?”
No, really, where’d it go?
Festa’s next stop will find him even further afield, as along with teammate Sam Haggerty, he’ll be representing Italy in the World Baseball Classic. As he continues his baseball journey and whatever twists might lie ahead, Festa would be wise to take the approach of Dilini Jayasuria of Austin, TX, who didn’t just have to touch a truck: she had to kiss a Kia. Jayasuria smooched that subcompact for over 50 hours, telling WFAA her strategy wasn’t to meditate through it or attempt to escape mentally; rather, she allowed herself to ride out all the highs and lows of the experience with the knowledge it would all be temporary, refocusing her mind after each setback. Her advice rings as true for would-be truck-touchers as it does for professional baseball players:
“You think you can’t do it, but then you tell yourself you can do it.”