What becomes of a baseball player once he retires?
It was a natural progression for Koehler, who always loved the business side of the game. He was involved with the MLB Players Association and prior Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations during his six-year big league career. So when the time came for him to hang up his cleats, Koehler's agent, David Pepe, brought up the idea of a hybrid role at Pro Agents Inc. Koehler would represent his own players and serve as the director of pitching performance. It was the best of both worlds.
"I have the ability to work with all our pitchers that we represent under our umbrella, and kind of help them as much as they want," Koehler said. "I'm not going to force myself upon anybody, but any of them know they can pick up the phone and we can talk pitching, routine, workout programs, throwing programs, pitch sequencing. If they want me to look at their analytic information, I'll do that."
While Koehler mulled his post-playing future, Okert thought it was odd that he hadn't receive any offers. Sure, his 5.31 ERA wasn't great at Triple-A Sacramento in 2019, but it was the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. He had an 11.7 K/9 rate and only 18 walks in 57 2/3 innings. He spent a few months sitting at home hoping someone would call. Nothing, not even independent ball.
A couple scouts watched him pitch, but only the Padres followed up. He threw three times and did well, but there wasn't any room for him. Then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Spring Training and everyone went home.
"I'm losing a season and I might never get a job again," Okert thought.
By August, alternate training sites and the 60-game season had begun. Okert's wife, Danielle, sent out an anonymous post on a social media group for the wives and girlfriends of players. Koehler's wife, Ashley, showed the message to Koehler, who wasn't sure about taking leads off social media. But it was relatively early in his new career, so he thought it would be a good way for people to find out he was in the business.
So Ashley and Danielle connected via direct message. Koehler had done his homework on Okert, who had parts of three seasons with the Giants from 2016-18. A couple weeks went by. Koehler constantly texted, asking whether Okert had made a decision on representation. Four agencies had reached out. Koehler was the second.
"It just seemed to me being so recently removed from the game that he was really wanting to work for it," said Okert, who didn't know Koehler beforehand. "It also seemed like something he wanted to do and not something he was doing for money. He made money in baseball. He was OK. So this was like something he was motivated to do. So I think that was one of the big factors with us going with him. He just seemed very motivated to try to get me a job."
Koehler calls his experience his greatest asset. He was selected in the 18th round of the 2008 MLB Draft out of Stony Brook, then worked his way up the Minors and received an opportunity in The Show. He was a starting pitcher and a reliever. He was optioned. He underwent surgery and rehabbed. Koehler pitched from '12-17 with the Marlins and Blue Jays. Before retiring at 33, he signed as a free agent with the Dodgers and Pirates. Koehler finished with a 36-55 record and a 4.39 ERA in 161 games (133 starts).
"The highs and lows on the field, I've experienced it," Koehler said. "There's nothing that a guy will go through that I don't have some sort of experience with on the field. How many guys can be like, 'I know what it was like to ride a 13-hour bus ride from Jacksonville to Jackson, Tennessee, and then pitch that night'? You just hope that they trust the fact that from the financial side that you know what you're doing, and I know the business enough to know what I'm doing from that end."
Okert also appreciated Koehler, whom he has met in person just once, being candid.
"Super truthful guy," Okert said. "He's going to let you know if it's not good enough. Stuff like that. We didn't want anybody that was going to blow smoke up my [butt]. You don't want somebody just telling me I was good to just tell me I'm good. I wanted somebody to be truthful, what I've got to work on, what needs to get better to try to get a job. He definitely let me know."
Their union began in late October 2020, making Okert Koehler's first pro client. Okert, who lives in Arizona over the offseason, began sending Koehler, who resides in South Florida, video of him throwing. In those days, his velocity on the Rapsodo reached just 87 mph. Koehler said he couldn't send that footage to clubs. A couple weeks later, Okert ramped up to 89 mph. It wasn't going to cut it. When Okert finally hit 90.1 mph, he felt confident. That still wasn't enough. Okert began to grow concerned.
But Okert had a lot of catching up to do. The last time he pitched in a game was mid-September 2019. For most of '20, he had nothing, just long tossing by himself at a field with a backstop. As Okert got more into throwing shape, the better he got. He trained at any facility -- if he could find a catcher and pay a day fee. By December 2020, he was working out at Push Performance in Tempe, Ariz. That's when he turned the corner with a structured throwing program.
Teams kept questioning Okert about his 2020. No one had given him a shot, he would say. In the meantime, Koehler used his network. He called Marlins assistant general manager Brian Chattin, who was the farm director when Koehler was drafted. Chattin was unaware Koehler represented Okert, whom the organization already had looked into as part of upper-level bullpen depth. According to Chattin, so much of negotiating deals are rapport and trust with the other party.
"He's like, 'Dude, I'm to the point that these teams might start blocking me because I've reached out so many times,'" Okert said. "But to me that was huge, because I knew that when he said that he was doing that, he was actually trying. If we didn't get a job, then it came down to me and not ... my agent not doing any work."
Okert signed a Minor League deal without a big league camp invite on Feb. 26, 2021. Neither Okert, Koehler nor the Marlins was sure what kind of impact he could make. By June 30, Okert had returned to the Majors, pitching 1 2/3 scoreless innings against the Phillies. Okert didn't allow a run in 25 of 34 outings and posted a 1.03 WHIP.
Not guaranteed a 2022 Opening Day roster spot but confident following his '21 results, the 30-year-old Okert has picked up where he left off (1.03 WHIP). In his return to Oracle Park on April 9, he struck out all four batters he faced in a 2-1 Marlins victory. The Marlins identified what would make him successful: Throwing his slider more than ever (74.3%) and ditching all of his other pitches except the 93.4 mph four-seamer.
"He's exceeded expectations," Chattin said. "He's become a prominent part of our bullpen. He's resilient, reliable and effective. He's been a great addition to our organization."