San Francisco Giants minor league pitcher Steven Okert, and No. 10-ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline, had a spectacular 2014 season. Splitting time between the San Jose Giants and Richmond Flying Squirrels, due to a well-deserved promotion across the country in late June, Okert shut down hitters in both the California and Eastern leagues with a 2.11 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 92 strikeouts in 68.1 innings.
All of this came in late innings, as he entered the game in the seventh inning or later in 54 of his 57 appearances, leading to 24 saves.
He comes at opposing hitters with a mid-90s fastball and sharp-biting slider, all while swinging across his body with a jerky, low-three-quarter release. And though that helped the University of Oklahoma product hold left-handed batters to a .165 batting average in 103 plate appearances in 2014, Okert, as well as the Giants organization, knew there needed to be further improvements made to his pitch repertoire.
"The righties were fouling off a lot of pitches until I made a mistake and with only two pitches, they could guess a little easier," Okert said. "The organization told me I needed to get a changeup."
Facing 180 right-handers last year, Okert surrendered five home runs and eight doubles, compared to zero and two against the lefties. Lefties slugged just .209 while righties slugged .401. Overall, the .259/.320/.401 line right-handers posted off Okert isn't at all worrisome, but a changeup with down-and-away movement against those righties could be a drastic improvement for a pitcher who is sure to find himself on the Giants' major league roster as early as 2015.
Okert says fellow left-hander Josh Osich showed him the changeup he is currently employing — a circle-change he began using in the later months of 2014. Now, part of a Scottsdale Scorpions team in the Arizona Fall League, he's receiving further help from pitching coaches Mike Couchee and Ray Burris.
"During the season it was mostly just a little bit of downward movement and just slower," Okert said of the changeup. "But now with Couchee and Burris helping me it’s got more of the run.
"One thing they’re telling me is that it’s just a little too hard and that I need to back off of it. But the movement is getting there so that is good."
Facing some of the top talent in the minor leagues, Okert was dominant in 10 appearances in the Fall League. He struck out 17 batters in 12 innings while allowing just one earned run on five hits and one walk.
On Tuesday night, Okert struck out the No. 4-ranked prospect in the league, Indians switch-hitting shortstop Francisco Lindor, on four pitches in another scoreless inning.
Pitching well in October, Okert feels good looking back on 2014.
"I would say I progressed quite a bit coming back from the 2013 season," Okert said. "Honestly, my velocity was down and I walked more guys last season than I did this year. I felt I had a little better command and a better slider."
Okert's command has improved each year, as he averaged 2.9 walks per nine innings in 2014, down from 3.6 in 2013 and 3.8 in 2012.
Look for the 2012 fourth-round pick to begin the 2015 season with the Giants' new Triple-A affiliate Sacramento River Cats, just a short 90-minute ride from a major-league debut.
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