When Steven Okert joined the Marlins on a minor league deal ahead of the 2021 season, you could have reasonably expected him to earn a call-up at some point. Sticking on their active roster after the trade deadline once the team had fallen out of playoff contention? Sure.
But no one foresaw success of this magnitude: a 2.75 ERA, striking out 40 while pitching to a 1.028 WHIP in 36 innings. He also stranded 17 of 20 inherited baserunners. After barely contributing in the majors over the three previous seasons, Okert re-emerged as the best version of himself.
Okert is not the prototypical blow-it-by-you reliever—he finished in the 32nd percentile among MLB qualifiers in average fastball velocity. Rather, he relies on the slider, throwing it 59.6-percent of the time.
Run value, according to Baseball Savant, is defined as the “run impact of an event based on the runners on base, outs, ball and strike count.” Anything above zero—a positive run value—means the opposing hitters performed better than average against the pitcher, while anything below zero denotes favorable results for the man on the mound. Okert’s breaking ball registered a run value of minus-8 last season.
Of the 271 pitchers to have at least 50 plate appearances end on the pitch, Okert posted the 13th lowest hard-hit rate at 18.4-percent. Opponents hit a measly .141 on his signature pitch (63rd of 271), and the expected stats attest to its legitimacy. Okert’s .111 xBA on the slider ranked 11th, thanks largely to how he managed quality of contact.
The Marlins did not make any left-handed pitching additions over the winter. Entering 2022, that clears the runway for Okert to be utilized in their bullpen for the full season, which begs the question: is this sustainable?
Consider Okert’s 4.34 FIP in relation to his 2.75 ERA. None of last year’s Marlins pitchers (min. 20 IP) overachieved their peripherals by such a wide margin, per FanGraphs.
While his slider was borderline unhittable, the same can not be said for his fastball, which yielded a .242 batting average, a .455 slugging percentage (.515 xSLG), and a .395 wOBA. Barring a miraculous jump in velocity at age 30, Okert will have to sequence his four-seamer better.
One adjustment that Don Mattingly could make from 2021: finding “lanes” for Okert to pitch with the platoon advantage more often, rather than leaning on him so frequently for multi-inning outings. The fewers righties that Okert faces, the easier it will be for him to mitigate the risk of game-altering home runs.