Ken Guthrie’s first memories of Heston Kjerstad aren’t on the baseball field.
Rather, the Orioles scout saw Kjerstad in the stands.
Guthrie, an Orioles area scout who covers Oklahoma, Arkansas and North Texas, once coached Kjerstad’s brother, Dexter, before he became a scout with the Orioles. Heston roamed the stands during those games.
Just a few years later, when Guthrie saw Kjerstad before his senior year of high school, he recognized his talents as a legitimate major league prospect.
So, in early June, Guthrie patiently waited for the player he’d known for years to hear his name called. The Orioles did so at second overall.
“It’s pretty nerve wracking, kind of like this interview — area scouts are not in the limelight,” Guthrie said with a grin on a call with reporters Wednesday. “First and foremost, this is not just my kid or my player. I’m elated to be associated with Heston, but this is from (general manager) Mike (Elias), Sig (Mejdal), Brad (Ciolek), to our midwest cross-checker in Jim Richardson, Hank Hendrik, our analytics department and our entire amateur scouting staff. It’s a group effort to get a player like this and certainly we’re all excited.”
Over the last few weeks, the Orioles have raved about Kjerstad’s ability to hit the ball with power to all parts of the field. Elias called Kjerstad the best left-handed hitter in the draft.
“As far as what attracted me to Heston initially was just his ability and his knack for squaring up the baseball routinely,” Guthrie said of the Arkansas standout. “He can do damage with pitcher’s pitches, he shows power to all fields, he has natural hitter’s instincts, he profiles well in right field, and the best part is he’ll maximize his potential and his tools with his hard work and ethic and his genuine love for the game.”
The relationship between Guthre and Kjerstad, however, isn’t one that’s particularly unique to those two. In fact, there are a handful of major leaguers who have unique or close relationships with their area scouts — notably Joey Votto and Howie Kendrick. Last season, Kendrick was the Nationals NLCS MVP en route to a World Series title.
Guthrie, in addition to knowing Kjerstad for a few years before he entered high school, has seen him play back when Kjerstad was a switch-hitting high schooler at Randall High School in Amarillo, Texas. But it wasn’t until Kjerstad’s time in college where he truly grew into his 6-foot-3, 205 pound frame.
“I knew right then and there I probably underestimated what his power tool was going to be,” Guthrie said. “Immediately going into the spring of his freshman year, he proved my notion right that day. Sometimes the scouts, we do the best we can to project, but players do get bigger, they get better, and certainly Heston showed the advancements that he made strictly physically coming out of high school.”
Kjerstad slashed .332/.553/.972 in his first season as a Razorback and had 14 home runs. For his career, he batted .343 and never posted an on-base percentage below .400.
In his shortened junior season this year, he had six home runs in 16 games and batted .448 with an OPS of 1.304. While he showed a tendency to strikeout a lot in college — he did so 129 times in his career — his 2020 season showed a brief sample of improvement. He tallied seven walks and struck out nine times, far better than the ratio he’d typically posted at Arkansas.
“What we saw that led us to select Heston with this pick was a rare combination of power and the ability to hit for average, and what we feel is a swing and an approach that will convert that production to the professional game and ultimately the major leagues,” Elias said.
Elias added he views Kjerstad as the headliner of a class that he thinks can be impactful to the organization. One day, he expects Kjerstad to be a power bat in the middle of Baltimore’s lineup.
What stands out about Kjerstad’s approach, though, is his swing — something he mastered through years of batting practice with pitches thrown by his father.
“I take all the credit for it, I was the one who mastered it,” Kjerstad said of the swing. “It’s kind of like playing the guitar, it’s my form of art. You kind of have your own unique rhythm or whatever you want with it.”
But even with his powerful swing, he might not have anywhere to show it off in 2020. Minor league baseball was cancelled this week, meaning the options for Kjerstad this season are still to be decided.
“It’s definitely tough not being able to go out and play games,” Kjerstad said. “Personally, I think that’s the best way to improve as a player. To be playing every day and facing high-level competition. Every minor leaguer is struggling with the same thing, nobody is going to face competition, so you’re going to need to be a little creative with your training and also making sure you’re getting live at-bats wherever you’re at, or getting a lot of machine work to simulate live at-bats.”
No matter when Kjerstad joins the organization in some way, though, he’ll be another addition to a franchise that needs younger talent in the worst way.
And if Kjerstad develops the way he and the Orioles hope it won’t be long before he patrols a corner outfield position at Camden Yards. Then, it will be Guthrie’s turn to watch Kjerstad from the stands.
“Honestly, it’s a great fit for me with the people and everything,” Kjerstad said. “They take care of everyone well. They definitely have a lot of talent coming up in the minor league system. I think it’s going to be a great place for me to develop and reach my full potential.”
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