Not long after Mike Elias made Heston Kjerstad the second overall pick in the 2020 MLB draft out of Arkansas nearly three full years ago, he described him with the scouting term of “hitterish” — meaning he likes to swing the bat, hits the ball hard and at good angles and with carry to all fields.
A lot has happened for Kjerstad and the Orioles since then: a heart condition (myocarditis) that put his career in jeopardy, then a hamstring injury last spring that further delayed his pro debut and finally an up-and-down few months once he got on the field last summer.
If all that turns out to just be prologue to a major league success story, Kjerstad is showing at Double-A Bowie over the first month of the season that it’s because those “hitterish” traits have either returned or never left.
“They told me he was a good kid, had some health stuff so hadn’t really been on the field as much as we would have liked as an org,” said Bowie hitting coach Sherman Johnson, who is in his first year in the organization. “And he’s a worker, came from a really good school, played in some really big baseball games with the College World Series and had really big power. I’ve seen all of that. What I didn’t expect was the bat-to-ball to be so good. He can cover a lot, and hit it on a line a lot — he can flatten out at the top when he wants to, he can get scoopy at the bottom when he wants to. That’s something that most guys are still working on in Double-A, and obviously he’s still working on it, but he’s got those two. The bat-to-ball is better than most people think, in my opinion.
“He’s got some sick thump. Obviously, I didn’t see him last year, but really improved his body. He looks great, he’s healthy, and he doesn’t hit it soft. He’s hitting the ball with authority.”
All that hard contact led to a strong Double-A debut for Kjerstad. He earned organizational player of the month honors in April, and entered Tuesday’s game in Harrisburg with eight home runs and a 1.044 OPS — second only to 2021 No. 1 overall pick Henry Davis among Double-A hitters.
Kjerstad debuted for Low-A Delmarva last June and won organizational player of the month honors in that month as well on his way to batting .463 with a pair of home runs and a 1.201 OPS at the level, though the player in Bowie now seems quite different to the one that got back on the field last summer.
At High-A Aberdeen, which has proven to be a challenging environment for left-handed hitters in particular, Kjerstad had a .674 OPS as his lack of game action showed up as he struggled to adjust to advanced pitching at the level and was catching up on building an attack plan. He starred at a weaker-than-usual Arizona Fall League and then came to major league camp ready to make an impression — and did.
There are plenty of encouraging markers within Kjerstad’s early-season performance that suggest he’s a more dangerous hitter than last year. Kjerstad’s hard-hit rate has spiked from 2022 to 2023. Between Delmarva and Aberdeen last year, 34.2% of his batted balls were above 95 mph. That was up to 61.90% in April, with his 90th-percentile exit velocity up from 103.3 mph to 107.2 mph. Through this weekend’s games, Kjerstad hit the ball on the ground 40.8% of the time, down from 53.1% at Delmarva in 2022 and 44.4% at Aberdeen, and his hard contact is much better rewarded in the air. He’s also hitting change-ups far better, though struggling with breaking balls while punishing fastballs.
That space is where there’s perhaps cause for concern. Kjerstad also chased more often in April than he did in 2022, swinging at 33% of pitches outside the zone versus 28% a season ago. His 24% in-zone whiff rate is also up, from 17% in 2022. Overall, his swinging strike rate was 12.3% at Aberdeen last season and was 16.4% through Sunday at Bowie.
In an organization that emphasizes swing decisions and attacking pitches hitters can drive, Kjerstad is in a bit of a unique spot in that he can drive all kinds of pitches. Johnson said he’s “an extremely intelligent hitter” who knows what he’s looking for and is consistent in developing, discussing and executing his plan at the plate.
That might vary from day to day, though.
“He knows what his strengths are,” Johnson said. “He knows in the zone where he hits the ball the hardest, and he’s matching that up with what the pitcher is capable of doing, and when the pitcher throws it to where he’s looking, and he’s done damage the most, he’s getting his swing off. He likes to swing the bat. He’s working on swinging at pretty much only that. It’s still a work in progress. He’s doing much better, and obviously the numbers are pretty good so far so it’s been fun to watch.”
Kjerstad’s batted ball ability and strength might mean the benefits of that outweigh his swing decisions. At the major league level, the Orioles have overlooked those deficiencies and worked to help sluggers like Anthony Santander and Ryan Mountcastle improve in that aspect without taking away their strengths.
Johnson said it’s a balance with Kjerstad, where there’s an element of performance driving what they do but also an understanding that as he climbs to Triple-A later this year and perhaps the majors, pitchers and their stuff will be a tick better and having those swing decisions trained now will help him sustain his success at higher levels.
It’s impressive in itself that Kjerstad has this level of success to sustain.
“It’s hard not to gush about that,” Johnson said. “You look up and he’s hitting balls 108 [mph] to the left-center scoreboard, left-on-left, and then he’s hitting hanging change-ups to right-center 108 [mph]. He’s hitting a lot of different pitches at a lot of different speeds, all in the air, all very hard. And he’s taking walks. He’s playing defense, he’s actually mixing in at first where sometimes psychologically there can be a drop-off if guys are focusing on a new position. I don’t think he’s missed a beat with the bat. He’s just like, ‘He’s going to throw it here and I’m going to hit it here.’ That just seems what he’s doing there.”