After the Detroit Tigers selected Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson first in the 2020 MLB Draft, it was anybody’s guess who the struggling Baltimore Orioles would take with the No. 2 pick. When Rob Manfred announced Heston Kjerstad’s name, the Hog fans across the nation erupted.
The 6’3’, 205-pound sweet-swinging lefty caught the eye of the Orioles, who were evidently very interested by his potential as a power hitter at Camden Yards, a park that is very keen on lefties. Because of the Orioles’ lack of talent, especially in the outfield, expect Kjerstad to get his chance in the MLB very soon.
He took one step closer to his major league destiny on Tuesday when he signed a minor league contract with Baltimore that includes a $5.2 million signing bonus — significantly below the slot value of $7,789,900 assigned to the No. 2 overall pick.
Longtime MLB writer Jim Callis points out why:
Deal makes sense for both sides. Kjerstad is a legit talent but likely would have gone at No. 9 if not at No. 2, got more than the slot value at No. 8 & the bonuses at Nos. 8 & 9. @Orioles got lefty power & saved $ to sign HS picks in 4th & 5th rds. @MLBDraft https://t.co/9r0oD0OtEZ— Jim Callis (@jimcallisMLB) June 30, 2020
Heston Kjerstad will likely be alongside new teammate, ex-rival and 2019 No. 1 pick Adley Rutschman, whom he faced off against in the 2018 College World Series. Rutschman was selected with the first pick in the 2019 MLB Draft. He also joins former Hog pitcher Blaine Knight in the Orioles organization.
Kjerstad’s swing has garnered some attention from analysts, who have deemed it a little odd because of his high leg kick and looping swing path, but I’m not really sure why. A ton of great hitters utilize leg kicks, including the likes of Josh Donaldson, Javier Baez, Justin Turner and the great David Ortiz. They have pointed to his strikeout-to-walk ratio and swing-and-miss tendencies as issues in his game, but I don’t believe those should be attributed to his swing.
Who are Kjerstad’s best comparisons?
Kjerstad has been compared to Rockies legend and future Hall of Famer Todd Helton by O’s legend Jim Palmer and several others. I think that comparison is generous but warranted, considering Kjerstad and Helton had almost the same build coming out of college and almost identical swings. They both stand up fairly upright, feature high and straight leg kicks and have swings built for turning low strikes into upper deckers.
Helton was one of the best left-handed hitters of all time. The career-long Rockies first baseman was a five-time All-Star who earned four Silver Slugger awards, while hitting over .300 for 10 straight seasons. Helton was an incredible hitter because he possessed the ability to hit for both power and average. Helton put up prolific power numbers from 1999-2004, hitting more than 30 home runs each season with an OPS above 1.000 in four of the five years (.981 in 1999).
I think the Helton comparison fits, although they have different strengths and weaknesses. Kjerstad could be even more powerful than Helton was, but I don’t think he is as well-rounded in the batter’s box. Kjerstad is more of a raw power hitter, whereas Helton was able to consistently hit for average for his whole career. I think Kjerstad will post more consistent power totals for his whole career, whereas Helton’s power numbers sort of fell off after his power surge from 1999-2004.
A player that Kjerstad more reminds me of is another long-time Rockie: the three-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. Gonzalez is a bit smaller, quicker and more agile, but their similarities lie in the batter’s box. Gonzalez has a different batting stance than Kjerstad, but his swing is so similar. Gonzalez uses a leg kick to load, though he has a wider stance than Helton and Kjerstad so it looks a little different, but his looping swing path is very similar to Kjerstad’s. Like Kjerstad, Gonzalez has good bat speed and great pop from the left side, and has no problem dropping the bathead to send low fastballs into orbit.
Gonzalez in his prime was an offensive force. Though he never had a reign of greatness like Helton did, Car-Go had a couple of monster seasons where he was crushing baseballs and driving in tons of runs. In 2010, Gonzalez led the league in hits, average and total bases, and drove in 117 runs while mashing 34 homers. Gonzalez hit more than 20 home runs and tallied more than 70 RBI’s each season from 2010-16 (excluding 2014 due to injury). This is exactly the player I think Kjerstad will be — perhaps even better.
Because Kjerstad is more of a pure power hitter archetype, he compares more favorably to Gonzalez as opposed to Helton. I think Kjerstad will put up high home run and extra-base hit totals in the bigs when he gets the chance.
Projecting Kjerstad’s career path is a difficult task, however. Given that Kjerstad is not extremely fast or agile, I still think he can play the corner outfield positions at the major league level because he has such a good arm, but the question is how well he can field the position. Unless he improves his agility, I could see him moving to first base, or even solidifying himself as a DH if he stays in Baltimore.
I believe Kjerstad can establish himself as a 4, 5 or even a 3-hole hitter in Baltimore, and I see him being a .260 average, borderline 30 home run, 80 RBI consistently in the bigs. I could also see him turning into a superstar. It’s always tough to predict how a player’s talent will translate to the MLB, but Kjerstad’s upside is undeniable.
For an even more detailed breakdown of Kjerstad’s swing, see this:
And Parker Tillson delivers more insight here:
So how good was Kjerstad in college?
For Hog baseball fans, one of the greatest “What ifs” in program history will always be what would have happened if Heston Kjerstad had played his entire junior season.
Kjerstad played only 16 games in the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season, but he slashed .448/.513/.791 with five doubles, six home runs, 19 runs, and 20 RBI in 16 games during his junior season.
We’ll never know if Kjerstad would have followed through on the potential he’ showed. If you extrapolate his 16-game numbers to 56 games, he would have had the great hitting season in Arkansas history with 21 home runs and 70 RBIs on 105 hits and 67 runs scored going into the SEC Tournament and a likely NCAA tournament appearance.