During this year’s shortened MLB Draft we had the privilege of watching players get drafted out of dozens of BCTeam college programs. This week we will be doing a mini blog series highlighting some of these draft picks and looking at the stats and metrics that make them so special.
With the second pick in the 2020 Major League Baseball Draft, the Baltimore Orioles selected University of Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad. This was a surprise pick to many, as MLB Pipeline had him ranked as the #10 draft prospect, and Baseball America ranked him at #13. Initially, many considered this selection an under slot pick by Baltimore – who, granted, was able to sign both Coby Mayo and Carter Baulmer at over slot values – but all indications point towards Kjerstad being the guy Baltimore had their sights on for a considerable amount of time. Ever since Kjerstad elected to attend Arkansas over a 36 round pick by Seattle in 2017, he has done nothing but excel at the dish.
In 150 career games at Arkansas, Kjerstad slashed .345/.425/.587 with 37 home runs, 34 doubles, and 14.56 cumulative WAR according to Driveline Baseball’s cWAR metric. While his first two seasons helped solidify Kjerstad as a first-round pick going into this year’s draft, it was his 2019 season with USA Baseball and 2020 shortened season that led to Orioles GM Mike Elias calling him the “best left-handed hitter in the country this year”. During the summer with USA Baseball, Kjerstad led the Collegiate National Team in all triple slash categories at .395/.426/.651. And in 16 games in 2020, he was even better. The preseason Golden Spikes Award Watch List member slashed .448/.513/.791 with 6 homers and an off the charts 244 wRC+. Most notably, Kjerstad appeared to be righting the ship towards a lower strikeout percentage that sat at 18.92% during his first two seasons to 11.54% in 2020.
Tools: Hit, Power
In case you could not tell from his gaudy numbers, Kjerstad can absolutely swing it. Given 70-grade power by Baseball America, both BA and the Orioles consider Kjerstad a future middle-of-the-order bat. His 93.8 MPH average exit velocity led the Razorbacks as it helped produce hard-hit balls of greater than 90 MPH in 27.84% of his batted ball events, mirroring his line drive percentage of 25.09%, both of which led the team. From a peak exit velocity perspective, Kjerstad hit a ball 112.56 mph in his time at Arkansas, which was ahead of number one overall pick Spencer Torkelson’s peak exit velocity of 112.14 mph at Arizona State. If the ball was in the strike zone, it was getting hit hard to all parts of the field as we see in his spray chart.
At first glance, we see a lot of red on this chart with exit velocities registering over 90 mph in all but up and out to Kjerstad based on batted balls from 2020. Kjerstad was able to do damage on anything thrown over the plate. Pre-pitch, Kjerstad employs a unique hand-circle load creating the need for precise timing to avoid high swing and miss counts. In fact, one of the biggest concerns regarding Kjerstad going forward will be his whiffs. However, Orioles domestic scouting operations supervisor Brad Ciolek recently acknowledged the fact that on pitches in the zone, there is not much swing and miss, which is confirmed by the heat map above displaying strong plate coverage.
Where Kjerstad gets himself into trouble is chasing out of the zone, specifically away. This could make him susceptible to struggling against left-handers when their breaking balls dive to the outer half of the plate. When we isolate left-handed pitchers below, we see a much more specific contour plot of his swings and misses.
As we may have expected, there is that low and away corner specifically against lefties that accounts for a significant portion of Kjerstad’s whiffs. The best way for Kjerstad to get around that is to stay away from bad counts where he could be increasingly likely to chase. Cutting down on whiffs could be the difference between Kjerstad reaching his ceiling as a middle of the order hitter, or being relegated to a platoon role who can beat up on right-handed pitchers. His college numbers indicate it will be the former.
Tools: Run, Field, Arm
While the prize of Kjerstad’s skill set is his bat, he has average to slightly above average speed. It won’t result in him ever being considered a threat on the base paths, but it gives him the range to play the outfield with a level of competency. Kjerstad profiles as a corner outfielder, and will likely settle in right due to his arm strength. After being selected, Kjerstad displayed a strong work ethic and profound confidence stating that he would be an “impact player” and a “solid defender.” When you combine his plus arm strength with big power potential at the plate, Kjerstad fits the mold of a prototypical right fielder.
During the span of a few months, Kjerstad elevated his draft stock from a dark-horse candidate to solidify his status as a top prospect. The Orioles love how his left-handed bat will play in Camden Yards where we should expect to see him routinely launching homers to Eutaw Street for years to come. When I consider all aspects of his game, I see a floor of Joc Pederson – a guy who crushes right-handed pitching, though Kjerstad will spray it more – and a ceiling of an everyday middle of the order hitter like Austin Meadows. Orioles fans are entering an exciting period where they can look forward to very soon seeing a lineup consisting of Heston Kjerstad to go along with the current top prospect in their system, Adley Rutschman.
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