October 16, 2003
The Improbable Inland Empire 66ers
The Inland Empire 66ers were anointed the ugly stepchild of the Seattle Mariners farm system in 2003, coming out of spring training with few prospects and a roster full of organizational players. When asked about the talent assigned to San Bernardino, Farm Director Benny Looper was quoted as saying, "As far as guys who are ever going to see a big-league uniform, it's pretty thin." That is not exactly the overly optimistic glowing that you will see from most front office personnel, but the sentiment was basically accepted; this team just isn't very good.
After a first month that lived up to expectations, things turned around in May, and the 66ers completed an improbable turnaround by capturing the 2003 California League championship in September. Perhaps the most important decision of the season came in early May, when Ryan Ketchner was rewarded for his excellent relief work with a spot start against High Desert. He proceeded to earn himself another start in the rotation with six strong innings of two-hit baseball. Given the opportunity, Ketchner made the most of it and did not look back. He pitched his way onto the mid-season and postseason All-Star teams before being named the playoffs MVP for his remarkable performance. His playoff line included 13 2/3 scoreless innings, a .167 opponents' batting average, and four walks against 16 strikeouts.
It was a fine way to cap off an outstanding year. Ketchner led the California League in strikeouts, finished second in wins, and was fourth in ERA despite making just 22 starts. His 159/33 strikeout-to-walk ratio is remarkable, and all of his peripherals are solid. His career line is as impressive as any you'll find in the game, and his numbers compare favorably to most top prospects.
Year Age Level ERA IP H HR BB K --------------------------------------------------------- 2000 18 Rookie 4.21 25.2 22 0 3 27 2001 19 Short-Season 2.92 52.1 38 3 18 58 2002 20 Low-A 2.59 111.0 75 3 39 118 2003 21 High-A 3.45 156.2 133 10 33 159Those are outstanding numbers at every level, though mostly coming in relief during his first three years. His strikeout rate of 9.12 K/9 was an impressive 23 percent better than the league average of 7.42 K/9, and his walk rate was among the lowest in the league. As a former 10th round pick who is outperforming all projections, Ketchner would normally be a feel-good story. As it is, the real story of Ryan Ketchner is amazing. He has done all this without the ability to hear.
Ketchner has 40 percent of normal hearing, which allows him to understand that noise is occurring but not decipher what it is. The hearing aids he wears in both ears pick up vibrations, but do not enable him to understand his teammates. He communicates through lip-reading and sign language, and has become good enough at both to be labeled a "chatter box" by teammates. However, neither of those skills can help him on infield pop-ups, where he has adopted the duck-and-cover method of avoiding charging infielders. He has befriended Curtis Pride, whom he admired while growing up in Florida, but the most important connection he has made in the game came from 66ers' outfielder Greg Jacobs.
Jacobs' older brother Brett was diagnosed with spiral meningitis when he was two years old and lost his hearing as a result. Greg learned sign language to communicate with his brother, and the skill came in handy with his new teammate. The presence of someone to understand what he was going through was valuable to Ketchner, and Jacobs helped him communicate and fit in with the team. Jacobs, himself, is an interesting story, having been selected in the 13th round of the 1998 draft by the Anaheim Angels. As a two-way standout at Cal State Fullerton, the Angels selected him for his arm, and projected him as a hard-throwing southpaw.
After some struggles with his command, he was traded to Arizona in 2001, which failed to find a use for him and eventually granted him his release. Rather than looking for another team to give him a job coming out of the bullpen, Jacobs took matters into his own hands, signing with the Long Beach Breakers of the independent Western League for the 2002 season. Despite the layoff in the attempt to have a career as a pitcher, Jacobs won the league batting title by hitting .382. He also posted a .447 on base percentage and a .643 slugging percentage, opening enough eyes to earn a contract with the Mariners for the 2003 season. However, his 2003 season would also be his age-26 year, and the Mariners viewed him as roster filler with no major league future. As such, he was assigned to the California League, where he was one of the oldest players, and not guaranteed an everyday job in the outfield.
Jacobs responded as well as humanly possible. He forced manager Steve Roadcap to pencil his name into the lineup by lighting up Cal League pitchers. His finished the year first in batting average (.357), on base percentage (.433), and slugging percentage (.576), and likely would have been league MVP if the Mariners hadn't promoted him to Double-A San Antonio for the last six weeks of the season. While we have to take the accomplishments of a 26-year-old playing in the Cal League in stride, Jacobs is not your ordinary journeyman prospect who has been toiling with the bat for years. This was, for all intents and purposes, his debut season as a hitter in affiliated minor league baseball. Instead of filling a roster spot and providing some leadership, Jacobs became the best player in the league, earned his way up the ladder, and finished the season by hitting .310 in a 34 game trial at Double-A.
While both had tremendous seasons, and were the lynchpins to the Inland Empire championship run, Ketchner and Jacobs both fall short in the eyes of scouts. Ketchner is a finesse left-hander with well below average velocity and no significant breaking ball. His change-up is his only above average pitch, but he has baffled hitters to date with his command and ability to change speeds. Despite throwing a fastball in the 85-88 mph range, his changeup is still deceptive and he gets good movement on both pitches. His slider is still flat, and his arm angle does not give him the best opportunity to put a tight rotation on the ball. Ketchner is often compared to fellow Mariners' southpaw Craig Anderson, who also dominated the California League with stuff that would fail to impress in high school. Anderson has not been able to repeat his success at higher levels, and Ketchner will continue to have his critics at every level.
The main knock on Jacobs is simply his age. At 26, he is essentially in the prime of his career, and there is no physical projection available for improvement. He lacks one above-average tool that stands out and does not have the range to play center field on a regular basis. He is a line drive hitter with gap power who doesn't run especially well, and that is not the usual profile a scout will look for in a corner outfielder. Jacobs does, however, control the strike zone, and he has a swing made for contact. While he may not improve as much as the usual prospect, his performance in 2003 was intriguing enough to give him a real look in Double-A next year.
While the story of the Inland Empire 66ers rise from mediocrity to champions is fun as a whole, the reasons behind the improvement are even more amazing. The two key players in the championship run were regarded as role players and bit pieces, but through hard work and dedication to the game, they overcame expectations and experienced an incredible season of baseball. Neither Ketchner nor Jacobs are likely regulars at the major league level, and they will both struggle to find an organization that will give them a real opportunity, but their 2003 season was one for the ages, regardless of what happens from here on out.