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How ‘dark horse’ Heston Kjerstad climbed the Orioles draft board to be their choice at No. 2 overall

Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias traveled the country this winter for in-person visits with potential candidates for the second overall draft pick to get a feel for them as a person.

Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad didn’t get one.

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“I just figured that we’d wait and see kind of how the spring went before arranging that meeting — not just to see how he did, but also part of it is if I go meet with a guy like that in the wintertime that’s ranked in the middle part of the first round, it can make some waves, so that’s part of the gamesmanship of the scouting process,” Elias said.

“But we knew. We were keeping an eye on him for this pick.”

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The surprise pick of the first round, one Elias referred to as a dark horse, shouldn’t be confused with a surprise pick for the Orioles, though.

A combination of institutional scouting knowledge and analytics created reams of background and information on the eventual top pick and made Kjerstad “an extremely attractive fit in our eyes,” domestic scouting operations supervisor Brad Ciolek said.

The club’s interest in Kjerstad long preceded Elias, who is in just his second year with the Orioles.

Area scout Ken Guthrie coached Kjerstad’s older brother Dex on an elite Dallas-area travel team that also featured former Orioles pitcher Dylan Bundy, so he knew the family from when Heston was “a little rugrat running around the ballpark."

They reconnected when Kjerstad’s own DBAT team played in the Connie Mack World Series in 2016 and he spent the week squaring up the top prep pitchers in his class.

“That’s when I first fell in love with the bat,” Guthrie said.

Guthrie resolved to check in that spring, and left an early-season tournament game Randall Canyon High played in Waco, Texas thinking, “OK, this guy is a major league prospect.

“I saw it that day,” Guthrie said. “I want to say he was either 1-for-4 or 2-for-4, but he squared the ball up four times that day.”

There were still questions. He noted that Kjerstad’s father, Dave, plus Dex and his uncle "were all big strong men,” but Heston hadn’t hit his growth spurt yet and his facial features favored his mother.

“I didn’t know how much power he was going to have, so I turned him in as a projection corner outfielder,” Guthrie said.

The Orioles passed, and that fall Guthrie was at Arkansas checking on some draft prospects when Kjerstad walked into the clubhouse.

“I can’t say what I really said at that moment, but it was like ‘Oh my word,’” Guthrie said. “In three months, that dude got big and strong. The numbers say what happened from there as far as how it translated."

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Kjerstad became Arkansas’ starting left fielder as a freshman and hit .322 with a .976 OPS and 14 home runs for the College World Series finalists. Sophomore year came with great expectations. He met them, batting .329 with a .978 OPS and 16 home runs.

His summer showing with the US Collegiate National Team was where the Orioles’ brass took notice. By the winter, Kjerstad was among the top seven players in their 2020 draft rankings.

“He was definitely a target for our group to get as many looks as possible going into this year’s draft,” Guthrie said.

Guthrie saw a weekend series against Gonzaga this spring. Others were at a weekend tournament in Houston, where Kjerstad hit a home run at Minute Maid Park to “dead-center field in a place where I rarely saw homers go when I was working there,” Elias said.

It was one of six spring home runs, and research into his improvement showed plenty of data to back it up.

"We were just kind of intrigued by the bat potential, the power and the high contact in the strike zone,” Ciolek said. "That’s one thing that was intriguing us about Heston this year more so than in years past, that we looked at his swings in the strike zone and with pitches in the zone, there wasn’t a whole lot of swing-and-miss.

“Initially, leading up to the draft we did more research on that and we also looked at his batted balls and the exit velocities, essentially how the ball jumped off the bat to all fields. Our scouts also had plus raw power grades across the board on him.”

According to TrackMan data provided in a Driveline Baseball breakdown on D1baseball.com, Kjerstad improved several statistical markers like exit velocity (up from 89.8 mph in 2019 to 92.6 mph in 2020) and barrel percentage (from 10.81 percent to 17.86 percent) in the small sample of a season, one when he greatly improved his strikeout-to-walk rate.

Guthrie saw a player who was starting to work counts and attack when they favored him instead of swinging at everything just because he could hit it.

“The scouting term is hitterish,” Elias said. “He’s a hitter first, he likes to swing the bat. He’s really good at making really high-quality contact, meaning it’s hit hard and it’s hit at a good angle for getting past the defenders, and the ball jumps off his bat and it can go to all fields. …

“He and his coaches this year said he made a more concentrated effort to be selective with the pitches he was swinging at. We saw evidence of that.”

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said scouts quickly realized they needed to look more closely at Kjerstad.

“You could just tell he was just better,” Van Horn said. “He wasn’t swinging out of the zone nearly as much, and his strength, he really had worked hard with our strength and conditioning coach. He really was a lot stronger than he was, even as a sophomore. I think that the plate discipline and the strength really started pushing him to be an elite player.”

The shutdown allowed for three months of debate in the Orioles’ draft ranks as to who they should take at No. 2 overall. Kjerstad had climbed into the top couple of spots off his strong start, and had support from the team’s field scouts and data analysts.

Instead of in-person, Kjerstad met with Elias over Zoom in late May. His mother, Jody, said he came away from that call thinking “not that he knew they were 100-percent interested in him, but that it was very positive.”

Heston Kjerstad said: “I think for them, the makeup is what really helped push me along on their board, the type of kid I am. ... I think that Zoom went pretty good with him and convinced them to have confidence in picking me.”

Van Horn said word got to him at Arkansas that “the Orioles were all of a sudden starting to be right in the middle of this” around 10 days before the draft.

Just a few days before the pick, Guthrie said they had a “significant discussion” on Kjerstad’s makeup and approach that made him realize he was in serious consideration for the second overall pick.

“I personally think the way we do it and the protocol we go through, that Mike and his staff has set forth, really gives us the best opportunity to take the best player because we don’t come into it with a premeditated sense on who we’re going to take,” Guthrie said.

It might be true that Kjerstad was picked in part for his willingness to accept less than the recommended signing bonus slot of $7.8 million for the second overall pick, allowing the Orioles to spread some of that pool out for later-round picks. They explored similar such deals with Florida prep outfielder Zac Veen and New Mexico State infielder Nick Gonzales.

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But considering the Orioles forecasted this would have been a historic season for Kjerstad, there’s no telling what another productive season would have meant for the player’s draft expectations. They acted accordingly.

“It’s a really special bat in our opinion,” Elias said. “He took some steps forward this year. I think had he been able to finish that season, he probably would have just continued to cement it. I think if we hadn’t taken him, he was going to go pretty quick after us. So, I’m glad it worked out."

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