By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor
Hayden Kettler almost didn’t come to Baylor. As a legacy, the Coppell native grew up watching the Bears at Baylor Ballpark. He was looking for something different at the time.
But no other place really felt like home.
“I had received a couple of opportunities to play at other schools, and I went around and started visiting other places, a couple in the Big 12, and I just left thinking that this doesn’t feel like home. I don’t know if I can see myself here for four years,” Kettler said.
After Baylor hired Steve Rodriguez as its head coach in 2016, Kettler visited with the new coaching staff and was finally convinced that becoming a Bear was the path for him.
“When Coach Rodriguez, Coach [Jon] Strauss and Coach [Mike] Taylor got hired to be the coaches here at Baylor, I came on my second visit to Baylor. I had originally come on one before that new coaching staff was here, and you could just tell that things were going to go in the right direction and that they had a plan and they were going to execute that plan,” Kettler said. “It was pretty much a no doubter that I was going to be here as soon as I got the chance to come up here and see what they were doing and establishing the culture that they were building was just something that I wanted to be a part of.”
Like many other college players, Kettler’s been through the grind of college baseball. He came to Waco after pitching all of his four years at Coppell High School for coach Kendall Clark where he was a 2016 Rawlings/Perfect Game All-American honorable mention. He posted an 8-3 record with 72 strikeouts, a 1.77 ERA and hit .323 with five home runs and 62 RBI during his high school career.
The Bears got a taste of what Kettler could do when he made 19 appearances in 2017, four of them starts. He had nine multi-innings outings, pitching 37.2 innings with a 3.35 ERA. He put 27 strikeouts and allowed 19 runs (14 earned) on 37 hits and finished the season with a 3-0 record.
Before the Old Guys were officially the Old Guys, Baylor had a different set of leaders from whom Kettler said he learned a lot from his first year.
“During my freshman year, we had an excellent season from Nick Lewis. We had an excellent starting staff. We had Nick Lewis on Fridays, Montana Parsons on Saturdays and Cody Bradford on Sundays,” Kettler said. “I was able to learn a lot from those guys and see how they approach the game. And so that was something I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to have a day that I considered my day and go out there and just give everything I have and give my team a chance to win.”
An Exhilirating Year
In 2018, Saturday was Hayden Kettler’s day. The Bears were well on their way to their best year under Steve Rodriguez yet, which would culminate in a Big 12 Tournament title and a trip to the Palo Alto Regional. Kettler took over the day two spot in the starting rotation in between ace and future Texas Ranger Cody Bradford on Friday and then-freshman lefty Tyler Thomas on Sunday.
“The jump from freshman to sophomore year was really just a maturity thing,” Kettler said. “I was able to learn from guys ahead of me that had success and watch Coach Strauss work with guys and develop guys, creating a plan and executing and executing that plan.”
Kettler pitched a total of 87.1 innings as a sophomore, finishing the season with an 8-4 record and a 3.81 ERA. He struck out 56 batters and allowed 37 runs on 51 hits and 36 walks. He pitched a career-high seven innings against UCLA and George Washington in non-conference and versus Kansas in the postseason.
Baylor’s season started a bit slow in 2018 as the Bears picked up series losses in Los Angeles against the Bruins and in the Frisco Classic during non-conference after picking up a win over Houston Baptist to open the season. The tides began to change with a sweep of George Washington and a series win over Texas Tech to kick off Big 12 play. Kettler picked up back-to-back-to-back wins against the Colonials, Red Raiders and Jayhawks (in the Bears’ lone win against Kansas during the regular season).
But conference wouldn’t be an easy road for Baylor. The Bears dropped their next three Big 12 matchups, dropping two games in Lawrence, Kan., and suffering sweeps to Oklahoma and Texas. Baylor took a break from Big 12 play to face Memphis in a road victory. The Bears took the opening win 12-8 and Kettler grabbed another W with a shutout in the rubber match.
That was another turning point for Baylor — the start of a 13-game win streak that included sweeps over TCU and Kansas State in Big 12 play. Kettler pitched six innings of shutout ball against the Horned Frogs in a 6-2 Saturday win and allowed just three runs on three hits over five innings in Manhattan, Kan.
The streak ended with a loss to Oklahoma State, but the Bears were able to come back for a win in the rubber match to take the series. They also picked up two of three against West Virginia to wrap up the regular season.
Baylor then swept through the Big 12 Tournament to bring home its first conference tournament title.
“That’s an experience that I’ll never forget,” Kettler said. “I can’t tell you how exhilarating the games [were], especially in bracket play. I know I pitched versus Kansas in the [quarterfinals]. Then after a few days rest, I knew we were going to be in need of a starter for the fourth game because we had used our three starters and that was the day of my bullpen. I was supposed to throw my bullpen on the day the championship game.”
Kettler was only given two innings by the coaching staff, giving up just one run on three hits and putting up two strikeouts. It was an intense battle between the Bears and their rival Horned Frogs that ended with an extra inning walk-off single from then sophomore catcher Shea Langeliers to ice the win for Baylor.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” the Coppell native said.
Bumps in the Road
Coming off that exciting 2018 season, Kettler returned as the Friday guy in his junior season. Bradford was suffering through some shoulder soreness and was moved back to the Sunday role to start 2019. The Bears went on an 8-0 run to begin the year with Kettler picking up big wins against Holy Cross on opening day (seven innings, just four hits, no runs and eight strikeouts) and Cornell the following week (six innings, just three hits, no runs and nine strikeouts).
But just when you’re on top of the world is when things can come crashing down. The win streak came to an end with tough losses to Texas A&M and Rice in the Shriner’s College Classic. Kettler took his first loss that season after allowing five runs on four hits and three walks to the Aggies.
Then the injury bug hit the Bears. Bradford wouldn’t pitch again for Baylor due to thoracic outlet syndrome and would be drafted that summer by the Rangers, Langeliers broke the hamate bone in his catching hand, backup catcher/infielder Andy Thomas was already out with mono and several other guys were nursing minor bang-ups. After losses to Nebraska and Cal Poly, Kettler too would have to sit out for a while.
“It was tough,” Kettler said. “Anytime you get an injury or anyone gets an injury, the worst part about it is just not being able to go out there and help your team win. And so during that time, I just had to embrace the fact that being a part of the team is still an important aspect and being a leader on the team is still an important aspect. And so I put my head down and worked to get better and worked to get healthy and allowed myself to just kind of sit back and watch our team go up and go about it. Like I said, it was tough, but it definitely taught me a lot. It gave me an appreciation for the game, even more so than I already had for it and just what playing means to me and how much that I miss and love being on the field. And so I think it definitely made me tougher and stronger and allow me to see the game with a greater appreciation.”
Kettler was able to get back on the field later in the season in a bullpen capacity and finished the year with a 4.21 ERA after 36.1 innings pitched, giving up 18 runs on 35 hits and 12 walks with 32 strikeouts.
He returned to the starting rotation as a senior, making four starts in 2020, going 3-1 with a 3.38 ERA over 21.1 innings pitched. he struck 16 batters in the short season. His best game was against Arkansas in the Shriner’s Classic where he held the Razorbacks scoreless for five innings, scattering four hits and striking out five.
Maturity and Composure
Saving the bullpen arms for arduous situations is an important part of the game and when your starter can take up a large chunk of innings without giving up a lot to opponents, it can be a very good thing. As a fifth-year senior, Kettler has been effective in that regard.
After recovering from his injury in 2019, Kettler lost a bit of his velocity but was able to figure out how to execute without throwing as hard as he used.
“He has the ability to be crafty enough through four or five innings,” Rodriguez said after Kettler’s first start of the season.
The senior put up seven inning outings against Xavier, Texas and North Carolina A&T as well as closing out the sweep over Memphis before that. He had a hiccup in his five-inning outing versus West Virginia and pitched in tough spots against Kansas and Texas Tech, allowing just one run in each of those games. However, according to Rodriguez, Kettler’s maturity has helped in his success this season.
“Maturity, experience, understanding who you are as a person, is what really works for him. He has the ability to maneuver pitches in and out, be really consistent, with what he’s throwing,” Rodriguez said after Kettler’s outing against Xavier. “Strike percentage is a real big deal, especially with an aggressive team. The fact that you can throw that many strikes with an aggressive team like this and still only go with a two hit shutout is pretty impressive. That for me just kind of says what kind of deception and manipulation of the ball that Hayden has,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s really impressive when you can throw that many strikes with an aggressive hitting team and have that much success.”
So far in 2021, Kettler holds a 3.71 ERA over 43.2 innings, allowing 18 runs on 24 hits and just six walks. He has struck out 31 batters. The Bears still have three conference series left in the month of May before taking another shot at the Big 12 Tournament and possibly a fourth-straight regional.