Heston Kjerstad

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How Heston Kjerstad's relationship with an Orioles area scout came full circle

How Heston Kjerstad's relationship with an Orioles area scout came full circle

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.”

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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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Orioles announce signing of No. 2 overall pick Heston Kjerstad

Orioles announce signing of No. 2 overall pick Heston Kjerstad

The Orioles have officially signed their top draft choice, and the No. 2 overall pick in the MLB Draft, Heston Kjerstad. 

The team announced the move just after noon on Tuesday. 

According to Jim Callis, Kjerstad’s contract is worth $5.2 million, which is below the slot value of $7,789,900 the pick was valued at.

Kjerstad slashed a career .343/.421/.590 with 37 career home runs at Arkansas and played mostly in right field. He slugged 37 home runs in his career, which spanned 150 games. Orioles general manager Mike Elias said Kjerstad was the best left-handed hitter in the country.

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Kjerstad, 21, slashed .448/.513/.791 with five doubles, six home runs, 19 runs, and 20 RBI in 16 games during his shortened junior season. He led the Razorbacks in batting average, hits, home runs, RBI, total bases (53), on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. 

“This (Kjerstad) is a middle-of-the-order bat profile for us and we felt he was the best left-handed hitter in the country this year,” Elias said after Kjerstad’s selection. “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.”

The Orioles signed 30th overall pick Jordan Westburg and 39th overall pick Hudson Haskin over the weekend, meaning the Orioles have now signed all but one — Ole Miss shortstop Anthony Servideo — of their draft picks from this class.

Servideo was the 74th overall pick in the draft. The slot value for that pick is $844,000.

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Why the Orioles picked Heston Kjerstad second overall in the MLB Draft

Why the Orioles picked Heston Kjerstad second overall in the MLB Draft

Heston Kjerstad was hardly on Mike Elias’ radar in the winter. In fact, Elias and the Orioles didn’t have an in-person meeting scheduled with the slugger from Arkansas. 

Then, Kjerstad started the 2020 regular season with a bang and the Orioles took more and more interest in him. 

“This (Kjerstad) is a middle-of-the-order bat profile for us and we felt he was the best left-handed hitter in the country this year,” Elias said on a conference call with reporters. “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.”

The pick shook up draft boards just two selections into the night as Austin Martin, the widely-projected second overall pick in most mock drafts, went by the wayside as Kjerstad’s college stats were too much for the Orioles to pass up.

He slashed a career .343/.421/.590 with 37 career home runs as a Razorback and played mostly in right field. He slugged 37 home runs in his career, which spanned 150 games. 

Kjerstad, 21, slashed .448/.513/.791 with five doubles, six home runs, 19 runs, and 20 RBI in 16 games during his shortened junior season. He led the Razorbacks in batting average, hits, home runs, RBI, total bases (53), on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. 

RELATED: 5 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT HESTON KJERSTAD

Kjerstad said the Orioles had remained interested throughout the process, though he wasn’t trying to get his hopes up. When he got the call from the Orioles, he couldn’t say yes quick enough. 

“I wasn’t really trying to get my hopes up for any pick,” Kjerstad said. “I was just waiting for the phone to ring and see what happened and sure enough, after the Detroit Tigers turned in their pick, 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.”

But was the pick purely an under-slot selection, or was it a chess move by Elias and the rest of the front office? If you ask them, it’s the latter. 

One of the things Elias loved about the left-handed hitter was Kjerstad’s power from foul pole-to-foul pole, as he wasn’t specifically a pull hitter. His spray chart collegiately backs up that fact. 

“I’m going to be an impact player for sure,” Kjerstad said. “I bring a left-handed bat in the lineup that has power to all parts of the field. Left, right, center, and I also bring a good glove to the outfield. I’ll be a solid defender.”

The background noise to Kjerstad’s selection, however, was how the Orioles passed on Martin — who went fifth to the Blue Jays — to select Kjerstad. Many had projected Martin to the Orioles for months, considering his ability to hit to contact and his versatility in the field. 

Now, Kjerstad said he has something to prove.

“I’m just going to keep playing baseball like I always have,” Kjerstad said. “When I went to Arkansas, there were a lot of people who thought I shouldn’t have been there. When I was a freshman, they thought I shouldn’t have started as a freshman. And I proved them wrong. People can sit back and watch, and I’ll keep doing my thing. I’m pretty sure I’ll slowly change a lot of minds.”

When he’ll get his chance to start changing minds, however, remains to be seen. The coronavirus pandemic has halted all minor and major league play, meaning Kjerstad is now stuck in limbo as to his immediate professional future. 

Whenever he gets the chance, though, he’s hopeful fans will be able to see the power Elias mentioned. And when asked about the warehouse in right field at Camden Yards, Kjerstad just smiled.

“Maybe I’ll be able to put a few off it one day,” he said. 

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