Finally, Heston Kjerstad had it all in front of him. He had missed two full seasons following the 2020 draft with inflammation of the heart muscle, then spent last year getting comfortable in the Orioles’ low minors before a successful stint in the Arizona Fall League.
He had a full offseason to work out and get stronger back at the University of Arkansas, where he developed into a slugger worthy of the No. 2 overall pick before the pandemic and health issues seemingly derailed his career.
Perhaps more than anyone, he believed he was about to get back on track and, in many ways, make up for lost time. His expectation was simple.
“Honestly, just going out there and tearing it up — wherever I was at,” Kjerstad said last month in Norfolk. “Just tearing it up offensively, seeing how good I could become throughout the season.”
He’s done just that, and earned an invitation to the prospect-laden MLB All-Star Futures Game Saturday in Seattle alongside fellow top pick Jackson Holliday. Kjerstad laid waste to Double-A Bowie, with 10 home runs and a .960 OPS and hasn’t missed a step at Triple-A Norfolk, with a 1.022 OPS and five homers after he went 4-for-4 with a home run Wednesday.
His power potential was his calling card coming out of that shortened 2020 college season, and the Orioles made a big bet on it. There were questions whether those two years away would affect that. His performance so far suggests it hasn’t.
“I’ve never been around a hitter like Heston, and in this organization, we’ve been around some really good hitters,” minor league hitting coordinator Anthony Villa said. “But the batted ball quality, the ability to hit the ball hard and at good angles so consistently is truly amazing. … When he swings the bat and makes contact, it is absolutely electric what comes off the barrel.”
Norfolk hitting coach Brink Ambler was at Delmarva last year when Kjerstad made his long-awaited pro debut. He saw then a hitter who was still getting comfortable back in the batter’s box against live pitching.
“It’s been cool to see him feeling a little bit better physically,” Ambler said. “Mentally, he’s obviously in a really good space, and just being able to go out and play, and go out and not worry about all that stuff he’s had to go through, it’s really awesome. This is what we thought he was going to be, you know what I mean? As far as everybody knew, this is Heston. It’s awesome that he’s put that behind him and he’s able to be that guy now and let the rest take shape. He’s really good.”
In that first full season, the time away manifested itself in different ways. He was still formulating a plan on how to best attack opposing pitchers, and though he hit the ball hard still, the power numbers didn’t materialize in Aberdeen. He went to the Arizona Fall League and made some subtle tweaks in his swing — standing a little more upright, not overly loading on his back leg — but used the continued at-bats to get more comfortable and emerged as the best hitter in the league. Villa went out for a visit as Kjerstad was gaining steam, and the first at-bat he saw, Kjerstad crushed an opposite-field home run.
“I thought, ‘He just made that look way too easy,’” Villa said. “It’s weird to say, but he’s been off to the races since then. He’s just continued to slug.”
Major league coaches raved about Kjerstad’s power throughout major league spring training, and Bowie proved no match for him. Neither has Norfolk, where Kjerstad’s ability to slug pitches in different parts of the plate is expected to be challenged by advanced pitching.
Ambler said it’s been a “very mature” approach.
“I think he can sort of have the reputation sometimes of being a swinger who doesn’t maybe have a plan, but I’ve been really impressed with his actual ability to game plan for these pitchers,” he said.
Kjerstad describes his plan as simply as can be: “Just look for a good pitch and put a good swing on it,” he said. But he’s noticed the quality of pitchers at Triple-A is higher, given many of the arms there either have major league time or are about to be called up.
“They don’t miss as much,” he said. “They live on the inside and outside of the plate a bit more, but that’s the same thing as a hitter — when they leave a pitch, we probably don’t miss as much as other levels. But you have to keep refining your plan because the pitcher is doing the same thing.”
For a player who can turn on those pitches on the inner half for home runs and also drive balls on the outer half the other way, that approach offers plenty of opportunities to swing. Kjerstad’s chase rate this year is on the high side — 34% as of July 4 — but he’s consistently hitting fastballs and hitting the ball hard in the air. He has a 46.8% hard-hit rate — up from 34.2% last year — with his 90th-percentile exit velocity at 105.9 mph. The consistency he’s shown jumping from Double-A to Triple-A bodes well for how that approach will play going forward.
“With Heston, everything we’ve talked with him about … is he just has to control the strike zone enough to get to his slug,” Villa said. “That could be at a lesser rate than a lot of our other hitters because the slugging capability is so good, he is able to do some things on less-than-advantageous pitches that other hitters just can’t do. But, one of the reasons we’re excited he’s at Triple-A now and just one step closer to the big leagues is to learn those lessons of, ‘What’s a pitch I can do damage on, what’s a pitch that I can’t?’ And if I can’t, it’s probably best for me to just take it … force him to make another pitch, and there’s a good chance at some point in the AB he’s going to throw me something I can slug.”
The results so far have put Kjerstad back in the upper echelon of Orioles prospects, and made the potential for a major league debut this year a legitimate one. With Colton Cowser now up in an Orioles outfield that already features Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Anthony Santander, Kjerstad has been working at first base to potentially be an option there. Wherever it is on the field, he’ll have gotten there with power production he says he “100 percent” expected to return.
“That’s the type of hitter I’ve always been, throughout college and everything like that,” Kjerstad said. “That’s what I’m capable of if I take care of my business when I’m prepared for every at-bat.”