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Heston Kjerstad Is Ready to Take Flight in Baltimore

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For Hog baseball fans, one of the biggest and most recent “What ifs” in program history is what would have happened if Heston Kjerstad had played his entire junior season.

The former Razorback star played only 16 games this season, but he slashed .448/.513/.791 with five doubles, six home runs, 19 runs, and 20 runs batted in during that torrid stretch before the coronavirus pandemic shut down college sports. Kjerstad was playing the best ball of his life after a great offseason honing his already advanced hitting skills. “I was like ‘This is sweet. My plate discipline’s there, my swing’s there. I’m just gonna ride this out and just keep my same approach,’” he told podcast host Bo Mattingly.

All signs pointed to Kjerstad notching the greatest hitting season in Arkansas history, and perhaps winning a Golden Spikes Award and leading Arkansas to a third straight appearance in the College World Series to boot. But those dreams went up in smoke when the sports world was shuttered.

Instead, Kjerstad had to return to his parents’ home in Amarillo, Texas, where he’s been doing yoga every morning, mowing their lawn, working out with garage equipment and practicing with dad at his old high school.

On June 10, though, Kjerstad’s life changed forever. The Baltimore Orioles selected him with the second overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, making him only the third Razorback of all time to be picked in the top two of a draft of the MLB, NBA or NFL. The pick, a few spots higher than most analysts forecasted for Kjerstad, helped wipe away some of the disappointment over the 2020 season while validating Kjerstad’s hard work.

Even though Heston Kjerstad had been an All-SEC player his first two seasons, the outfielder was barely on Baltimore’s radar until this past winter. But the more Orioles management studied how he led Team USA in hitting in 2019, and then saw him reduce his strikeout rate from 19.6% to 11.5% in the 2020 season, the more they liked him.

So, they rolled the die and nabbed him before Austin Martin, the widely presumed No. 2 pick from Vanderbilt.

On air, Martin’s coach Tim Corbin said he wasn’t surprised in the least. As an analyst for the MLB Network, he immediately broke down what makes Heston Kjerstad elite. “My first thought is ‘That warehouse in right field in Baltimore is in trouble. They better cover up their windows because this kid has a lot of power,’ Corbin said, referencing the B&O warehouse that only Ken Griffey, Jr. has hit in 28 years.

“There’s a lot of emotional stability with this kid and it helps him to make adjustments,” Corbin added. “I do not think he has a complicated swing. There’s a little bit of waggle in his hands in his preparation to hit, but he stays centered, there’s some bat lay back and there’s a lot of strength in his hands. He has some bat speed as well.”

MLB analyst Dan O’Dowd, former general manager of the Colorado Rockies, then said Kjerstad’s swing technique reminded him of Todd Helton, the greatest player in Rockies history.

Helton, a lefty like Kjerstad, is a surefire Hall of Famer who was among the league’s best hitters in the early 2000s. The five-time All Star first baseman became the only player in MLB history with 100-plus extra base hits in consecutive seasons.

But Kjerstad isn’t worried about his place in history — yet. For now, he’s just enjoying the thrill of entering the pros and ready to get back to baseball as soon as possible.

“I’m going to be an impact player for sure,” Kjerstad said after the draft. “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.”

As far as what he feels he needs to improve, the “main thing going forward is my plate discipline and swinging at good pitches consistently,” he added. “That will help me out the most.”

Whenever professional baseball gets up and running again, Kjerstad will begin his career in the Orioles’ minor league farm system. Fortunately, he already knows a familiar face there. Kjerstad’s former Razorback teammate, Blaine Knight, has played a couple of summers for Baltimore farm teams and can’t wait to see what Kjerstad can do.

“I’m fired up for him,” Knight recently said. “I think he’s very worthy of the second pick overall. I mean, the bat’s there, the athletic ability has gotten better, the speed has gotten better, the defense has gotten better. So I think Baltimore made a really good choice.”

Not everybody believes the same. A lot of Orioles fans wanted Austin Martin to be taken instead. CBS Sports’ Jim Bowden, a former MLB executive of the year, said Kjerstad going at No. 2 instead of No. 5 — where he’d had him slotted — was the “biggest reach” of Round 1.

At this point, it’s unknown exactly why Orioles executives chose Kjerstad over Martin. Perhaps financial considerations played a role. Perhaps Martin’s lack of a clear position in the pros hurt him, as SEC Network broadcaster Ben McDonald points out. Then there’s the hitting. “I loved Austin Martin too because of the athleticism, but Heston Kjerstad has to me a much more powerful bat,” McDonald said. “He’s going to hit home runs at the big-league level more so than an Austin Martin would.”

Regardless of the Orioles’ motives in picking Kjerstad so high, they would not have done it unless they felt he had the potential to produce like a Hall of Famer one day. For Kjerstad, meanwhile, reaching his vast potential on the biggest stage will be the latest in a series of challenges he’s been tackling since high school.

“When I went to Arkansas, there were a lot of people who thought I shouldn’t have been there,” Kjerstad said. “When I was a freshman, they thought I shouldn’t have started. 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.”

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Little Rock native Evin Demirel is the author of African-American Athletes in Arkansas: Muhammad Ali’s Tour, Black Razorbacks and Other Forgotten Stories. Follow him on Twitter @evindemirel.

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