I’ve wanted to write about Steven Okert for quite some time now. There’s a strange little line I walk writing about prospects from a fantasy perspective. Ostensibly, I should write about prospects who are likely to make an impact in fantasy baseball in the relatively near-future seeing as, well, that’s my job. Why would I write about a relief pitcher in High-A?
But now, dear reader, the stars have aligned in such a way that I can finally write my long-awaited article about Steven Okert. He’s in the news for his standout performance in the clumsily named California-Carolina League All-Star Game (I recommend clicking that link if only to see the high level of swagger Okert possesses while rocking his replica championship belt), but the internet at large seemingly has no idea who he is. Seriously, do a Google search and see what you can learn about the kid. Spoiler alert: It’s not much. So there’s Solid Reason No. 1 for me to write about Steven Okert.
Solid Reason No. 2 for this article to exist is that Okert is looking more and more like the future closer I’ve always seen him as, left-handedness be damned. Pitching for High-A San Jose, the 22-year-old has more saves this season than any other minor-league player at any level, and while closing in the minors is far from a guarantee that a guy will end up closing in the majors, he’s been slamming the door shut in pretty ridiculous fashion this year.
Taking a quick step back to discuss why I’m so eager to write about Okert in the first place, I probably watched him pitch at least ten times during his one season at the University of Oklahoma in 2012. That team was stacked with pitching prospects like Jon Gray, Dillon Overton, Damien Magnifico and Okert, so I attended every single game that I could.
When Okert arrived at OU from junior college, he had never been anything but a starter, but his stuff played up in a big way upon being moved from the rotation to the closer’s role. He mostly used a two-pitch mix, featuring a big, heavy mid-90s fastball with some sink and a devastating slider with extreme late two-plane break. When he was on, he was easy to dream on. The problem was his inconsistency; there was really nothing in between bad Okert and good Okert, and bad Okert was pretty darn bad. The fact that he walked 37 college hitters in 85 innings speaks volumes.
This is all part of what made Okert so fascinating to me. His delivery had a ton of moving parts and wasn’t even remotely repeatable. Sometimes he had a change-up, other times it didn’t have any movement whatsoever, just kind of floating up there like an unusually slow fastball. “If someone could just harness this kid and teach him consistency, he’d be a stud,” is a sentence I said in some form pretty much every time I saw him.
Unfortunately, at the time, OU wasn’t the kind of place where consistency was taught. Sunny Golloway was near the end of his tenure as one of the most openly hated coaches in recent baseball history — something Auburn fans are now finding out the hard way — so I was able to wear rose-colored glasses whenever bad Okert would show up. “Someone at the next level will fix this,” I thought.
Thankfully, I was right. Ever since Okert was selected by the Giants in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, “bad Okert” has transformed from a split personality to a distant memory. Just look at the positive trends in his numbers as he has advanced through the low-minors in each of the last three seasons:
Okert’s splits don’t look great on the surface, but let’s take a look at them before I get into why they’re not as discouraging as they appear:
- vs L – .151/.237/.189
- vs R – .300/.356/.425
Okay, so that looks pretty bad, like I said. It looks like a future LOOGY. Then I started looking a bit deeper and noticed that righties have an insane .468 BABIP against Okert this year. He has allowed 24 hits to right-handers — 18 singles, four doubles, two homers — and righties are hitting nearly 40% more grounders against Okert than lefties are. I haven’t seen him pitch in person in two years, so this part is purely conjecture, but it sure seems to me like that line against righties could have a whole lot of noise in it from grounders getting past A-ball infielders.
The most encouraging data regarding Okert’s development against right-handed hitters is that his strikeout and walk rates are even better than his rates against lefties:
- vs L – 13.20 K/9, 3.00 BB/9
- vs R – 14.43 K/9, 2.79 BB/9
As anyone who watches a large amount of low-level baseball will tell you, the guys who catch your eye aren’t always the guys you came to see. Okert was arguably the third- or fourth-best pitcher on his college team, but I always perked up a bit when he entered the game. There’s just something about the guy that has always instilled confidence in me. I’ve never really doubted that he would someday been an impact reliever in the majors, and he’s well on his way to getting there. He’s certainly someone worth keeping an eye on. The big test will come at Double-A, and seeing as he’s striking out nearly 14 batters per nine innings, I’d expect that test to come rather soon.
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