Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn saw the potential of Heston Kjerstad when he was just a young, undersized player at Randall High School in Amarillo, Texas.
The Orioles also recognized that budding talent and selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft. The club officially signed Kjerstad June 30. The Orioles are hoping the 6-foot-3, 205-pound right fielder has the same trajectory in Baltimore as he did in Fayetteville, Ark.
“We grabbed him early. We got him to commit right after his sophomore year,” Van Horn said. “He wasn’t even 6 feet tall at the time. His name was starting to get out there a little bit. One of my assistant coaches basically asked me to look at it. He wasn’t sure about it. He wanted my opinion. About a week and a half later, we watched a tournament that he played in. I liked what I saw. I wasn’t sure if he was going to play infield or outfield for me at the time.
“I liked the way he swung the bat. I liked the way he played the game. Over the next couple of years, he grew like 4 inches and put on a bunch of weight. All of sudden he’s hitting the ball over everybody’s head, so it was a good get for us.”
Kjerstad didn’t waste any time making an impact at Arkansas. As a freshman for the Razorbacks, he slashed .332/.419/.553 with 16 doubles, 14 home runs and 58 RBIs in 313 plate appearances. He helped lead Arkansas to the 2018 College World Series finals, where the Razorbacks lost to Oregon State.
Even though he had liked Kjerstad’s potential, Van Horn was taken aback by that type of dominant performance by a first-year player, especially among other older and more experienced players.
“I don’t expect any freshman to make an impact like Heston did, especially in the spring of 2018,” Van Horn said. “We were a preseason top-10 team and I had a bunch of veteran players back. We knew we had an opportunity to make a run at Omaha. At the beginning of the season, Hess was the only freshman that started. I didn’t see that coming. Once he got on campus and we saw him swing the bat every day, we knew he was going to be in the lineup. It was just a matter of transitioning practice and scrimmages into the NCAA. He didn’t have much problem with that.”
Right-handed pitcher Blaine Knight, who was drafted by the Orioles in the third round (87th overall) in the 2018 MLB Draft, was a junior on that 2018 Razorback team. He knew right away that Kjerstad was a special talent. Knight remembers the difficulty of facing Kjerstad during intrasquad games in the fall, and that success carried over to the regular season.
“Heston is awesome,” Knight said. “I think he was the best lefty hitter in the draft by far. His power, his plate discipline, his ability to control the barrel of the bat — you know, it’s two strikes and be able to put something into play — and how much he grew from his freshman year when I played with him to what he did in the past two years is incredible.”
There was no sophomore jinx for Kjerstad. He followed that successful freshman season by slashing .327/.400/.575 with 13 doubles, one triple, 17 home runs and 51 RBIs in 300 plate appearances.
By that time, Van Horn knew Kjerstad was a legitimate major-league prospect and that his time at Arkansas would be abbreviated.
“Midway through his freshman year, he was pretty darn good,” Van Horn said. “We knew these kids’ personalities, the makeup and their work ethic. We felt that with normal development over the next couple of years that he was going to be a really good draft choice and have a chance to play in the big leagues.”
Kjerstad was on pace to be even better this year before the season was cut short because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kjerstad slashed .448/.513/.791 with five doubles, six home runs and 20 RBIs across 16 games.
Van Horn was impressed with his progress.
“Honestly, this past fall his game jumped big time as far as plate discipline and work ethic,” Van Horn said. “He took it to another level. He was full-steam ahead and kind of on a mission. We felt he was going to play in the big leagues and play for a long time if he stays healthy.”
Kjerstad was only loosely connected to the Orioles in the days leading up to the draft. Once the Detroit Tigers selected Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson with the No. 1 overall pick, many believed the Orioles would pounce on Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin.
However, Orioles general manager Mike Elias threw a curve.
“We feel that he’s the best left-handed hitter in the country this year, and this is somebody who’s going to hit for power and average and hit in the middle of our order for a long time while playing a quality right field defense,” Elias said. “Heston was a guy who was on the radar screen in high school out of a small high school in Amarillo, Texas, ended up going to Arkansas, was dominant from the minute he stepped foot on campus.
“The power came and he had two All-American-caliber seasons his first two years. Went to Team USA [in the summer of 2019], raked for Team USA, almost hit .400 with three homers and started off this year like absolute gangbusters until the shutdown. We think it would have been an historic season had it kept going.”
Kjerstad didn’t know what to expect in this year’s draft. However, he was pleasantly surprised when his phone rang so early in the draft.
“I wasn’t really trying to get my hopes up for any pick,” Kjerstad said after being drafted. “I was just waiting for the phone to ring and see what happened and sure enough, after the Detroit Tigers turned in their pick, the phone rang and it’s the Orioles and they wanted to pick me with their second pick. And, man, I couldn’t say yes quick enough to that.”
Van Horn expects Kjerstad to make a quick adjustment to the professional ranks. He’ll have to show more patience at the plate; he walked 53 times and struck out 125 times during his career at Arkansas. He’ll also need make some improvements defensively and develop more base-running skills. But Kjerstad is the type of player who can eventually be a mainstay in the everyday lineup for the Orioles.
“He’s going to be fine at the major-league level, especially the way they play the games these days with the power arms. It’s hard to score on these guys,” Van Horn said. “If you have a guy who can hit the ball out of the park foul pole to foul pole, [that] is going to be super valuable. Hess is a pretty good defender. He also runs a lot better than people realize. If you put him in the 60-yard dash, he’ll be up there with your middle infielders as far as speed. He can run.”
Knight, who finished last season with High-A Frederick, doesn’t expect Kjerstad to be in the minors very long. He’s looking forward to reconnecting with his former Arkansas teammate.
“I’m super excited we picked him up,” Knight said. “I think he’s going to play for us for a long time.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Arkansas Athletics