PROSPECT SPOTLIGHT: HESTON KJERSTAD, OF BALTIMORE ORIOLES
As our dynasty league first-year player drafts approach, this piece continues in-depth looks at some of the top and most intriguing players that will be available. This time looking at an early surprise in the MLB draft, as many mocks had Kjerstad ranked in the 8 to 10 range, and projected Baltimore to select Austin Martin, but the Orioles got their man in the end.
A left-handed hitter, the Orioles selected Kjerstad second overall in this past First-Year Player Draft, out of the University of Arkansas. They signed him for $5.2 M which was significantly less than the $7.79 M slot value for the pick, though GM Mike Elias says he was right at the top of their draft board and their “favorite bat.” Heston’s currently 21 years old but will turn 22 before teams report to camp this spring (born February 12th, 1999). He measures in at 6’3”, and 220 lbs, and has a somewhat trim but strong, athletic build, with not much physical projection left if any at all.
Heston starts in an upright stance, leaning back with a deliberate front leg kick but maintains balance very well. Shifting his weight forward, there’s a slight dip down before the front leg lands, and the body weight and momentum arrive out front in time to help drive the ball. The handwork is excellent, as he’s regularly able to keep the hands back either through approach or necessity and hit breaking pitches the other way.
I’ve read reports the bat speed is above average, but I’d lean towards calling it average. His swing at balls up in the zone is inclining and conductive to very hard contact, with more of an uppercut swing on balls low in the zone, both fantastic swings for generating power. Kjerstad shows a good contact rate in the zone, putting bat to ball on a variety of pitches and spins. He will swing and miss some at breaking balls out of the zone, but not to the point that strikeouts are a glaring problem. In fact, he seems to have a relatively low whiff rate for someone with so much power through college.
While the hit tool is not classically plus, Heston helps himself immensely with his balance, use of hands, and ability to see spin. His pitch recognition is strong, and he deliberately hits the ball the other way, both on the ground and in the air. If this continues into the big leagues, it could reduce shifts, and combined with a solid hard-hit rate, keep his BABIP up and his batting average from being a liability. In fact, if there are seasons of .270 batting averages, I would not be surprised.
“I was just looking for something up that I could drive.” @hestonkjerstad on his first collegiate home run, an oppo shot in the 5th that proved to be the game winner last night against Arizona. pic.twitter.com/wiSTNKllb3
— Razorback Baseball (@RazorbackBSB) February 23, 2018
Kjerstad’s big body offers the pitcher a large zone, and he has a bit of a swing first approach, which puts a lot of balls in play. As mentioned, he’s able to get the bat on many different types of pitches with limited swing and miss in the zone. At UofA, he managed 54 walks and 129 strikeouts in 691 plate appearances over the course of three years. While that’s not a terrible walk rate, it is a bit low for someone who was likely feared at the plate. Similarly, an 18.6% strikeout rate for someone with so much power, is impressively low. It will be interesting to see if Heston can continue to get the bat on the ball against professional pitching, or if he’ll have to refine the approach to handle pitches he has the most success with.
🚨 BE ON THE LOOKOUT 🚨
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 10, 2019
The power is the carrying tool, and described on the MLB Network draft show as the second-best power stroke in the draft, behind only Spencer Torkelson. In fact, even though he stands 6’3”, it can be impressive how far Kjerstad’s can hit the ball in-game, especially to pull side. That’s not to say he’s a pull hitter at all, as Heston uses the entire field, and frequently hits the ball with power to any part of the ballpark. There are reports of Kjerstad’s exit velocity being high, which is not surprising given how far he can hit the ball and how hard he hits it with regularity.
The power generally is lofty, high fly drives that disappear in the sky, though he is able to drive the ball out of right field on a rope. While watching video I saw him hit a ball well over 410 feet to center field in Minute Maid Park, and several pull-side where the fielders didn’t move. These were shots that would likely have cleared any right-field fence in the major leagues.
Heston is not selling out for power either. He does from time to time, but he’s able to drive the ball out of the park with his natural strength. And he clearly doesn’t have a power-only approach, as he will frequently take what the pitcher is giving him to get on base and drive in runs. The power is there, but it’s not an all or nothing mentality. If everything comes together for him, we’re probably looking at 25-30 home runs a year, with some prime years capable of cracking 35 homers.
I’ve read reports his long speed is not terrible, but Heston should not be considered fast. His big body is a bit slow to get moving and any speed he does have seems to stem from strength and long legs, rather than good running ability. I wouldn’t project him to steal more than 5 bases at the major league level in any season, but he’s not slow to the extent doubles would frequently be kept to long singles.
Heston is a solid defender at the corner outfield spots, to the point that he’s not a liability. He has an average and at times accurate arm, that might play better in left than right. As someone who’s also not going to cover the most ground in the outfield, left field might ultimately be where he plays. He did play some 1B at Arkansas, but he seems capable of playing the OF and be of more defensive value there. Though if he did earn dual eligibility, I’m sure fantasy owners would be pleased.
The power for Kjerstad is real and should play very nicely at Camden Yards. As a 21-year-old college draftee, with plus power and an all-field approach he might not need very much minor league seasoning. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him end the 2021 season in Double-A, and in the major leagues by midseason 2022. The hit tool is a bit behind the power but he’s a see ball, hit ball player with low strikeout and walk rates for a player with such power. It will be interesting to see how that plays in pro ball, if he’s able to put more balls in play than the typical 3 true outcome power hitters in the game today.