Arkansas head baseball coach Dave Van Horn has coached some hitters who have gone on to find success in the major leagues, and he believes that Orioles first-round pick Heston Kjerstad could be next.
Kjerstad played for the Razorbacks from 2018-2020, hitting .345/.425/.587 with 35 home runs and 124 RBIs. His junior season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he likely would’ve had a chance to break the Arkansas single-season home run record (24) held by Ryan Lundquist in 1997. Kjerstad hit six home runs in 2020 and had career-best marks in batting average (.448), on-base percentage (.513) and slugging (.791).
“I coached Andrew Benintendi, I’ve coached some pretty good hitters and he’s right there,” Van Horn said on Glenn Clark Radio June 17.
Benintendi played at Arkansas from 2014-2015 and was drafted seventh overall in 2015 by the Boston Red Sox. He made his major-league debut in 2016 and helped Boston win the World Series two years later.
Van Horn realized Kjerstad was special his freshman year during a tournament at San Diego State. The coach explained that the marine layer that comes in off the Pacific Ocean makes it more difficult to hit for power during night games on the West Coast. The game was scoreless heading into the fifth inning when Kjerstad came to the plate.
“Heston Kjerstad, the youngest guy on the field, hit a fastball left center. When he hit it we thought, ‘Wow, that sounded good but it’s not going to go anywhere,” Van Horn said. “He drove it out of the park and we just turned to each other. The coaches were like, ‘No way that just happened. He hit the ball 400 feet at 18 years old.’ We knew he was going to be special.”
Last summer, Kjerstad played for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team and was arguably the best player on the roster. He hit .395/.426/.651, better marks than No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson (.260/.361/.440). Kjerstad either led or tied the team lead in several categories.
Van Horn praised Kjerstad’s work ethic in fall ball and saw progression in his decision making. Kjerstad’s walk-to-strikeout numbers improved this spring.
“A lot of times juniors are bored in fall baseball. They’ve had enough. But he showed up every day,” Van Horn said. “All he does is hit, but we really saw the strike-zone discipline getting better and I think it’ll continue to get better because he likes to work and he likes baseball.”
While this season was cut short, the Razorbacks still faced top competition and Kjerstad continued to produce at a high level. They were one of six teams to play at the College Classic at Minute Maid Park in Houston (an early-season tournament that featured Big 12 and SEC teams this year). Van Horn said Oklahoma made sure its ace, right-hander Cade Cavalli, faced Arkansas. Cavalli was drafted 22nd overall by the Washington Nationals.
“[Kjerstad is] hitting guys that are throwing 96-97 mph and it doesn’t faze him. He’s used to it,” Van Horn said. “I think he would’ve been a finalist for the Golden Spikes, that’s the type of player that I saw.”
Van Horn repeatedly praised Kjerstad’s character and passion for the game. Asked if Kjerstad can handle the pressure of being the second overall pick, Van Horn said his former pupil is thick-skinned after having played with a Razorbacks program that’s tough on all players no matter where they stand on the roster.
The level of competition Kjerstad faced in the SEC also bodes well for his future, according to Van Horn.
“On the weekends we feel like we’re playing Double-A baseball or pretty close because of the arms we see,” Van Horn said. “If you put up numbers in the SEC on the weekends, you’re going to be fine at least until Triple-A because it’s awfully good.”
Van Horn also coached Blaine Knight, a right-handed pitcher in the Orioles’ system. Knight pitched at Arkansas from 2016-2018 and was drafted in the third round by Baltimore in 2018. As a Razorback, Knight recorded a 3.01 ERA with 244 strikeouts in 251.1 innings.
Last season, Knight spent time with Low-A Delmarva and High-A Frederick. He went 3-0 with Delmarva and recorded a 0.68 ERA, striking out 33 in 26.2 innings, but he struggled with Frederick once he was promoted. He went 1-12 with a 6.13 ERA and recorded 56 strikeouts in 83.2 innings.
“He’s been working hard up here, he just needs to gain a little bit of strength,” Van Horn said. “I think his better days are coming. He’s been good his whole life. If he stays healthy he’ll pitch for a while.”
For more from Van Horn, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Arkansas Athletics