Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Fall ball report: Kjerstad gives Hogs new option at first base
Arkansas' Heston Kjerstad warms up Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, during practice at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas junior Heston Kjerstad has found himself at a new position again.
Kjerstad, a two-year starter in the outfield for the Razorbacks, is practicing at first base this fall as Arkansas looks to replace departed all-conference first baseman Trevor Ezell.
At 6-3, 200 pounds, Kjerstad has more of the prototypical frame for a first baseman than the 5-8, 200-pound Ezell. And with Kjerstad's draft year fast approaching, it offers scouts another position at which to evaluate one of college baseball's best left-handed hitters.
"We talked to him about it and for his future to play first base," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said, "he would be a strong candidate when you’re thinking about down the road in the big leagues to be able to play both corner outfield positions and first base...as a power, left-handed bat."
Kjerstad started every game as a freshman left fielder and started all but one game last season in right field, missing the only game of his career because he was suspended due to an ejection the game before. He has experience playing in the infield from his high school days.
“He has good hands at first," Van Horn said. "He can really catch the baseball, as far as picking balls in the dirt and catching those pickoffs. Pitchers are throwing them 90 mph, so you can’t just stick somebody over there; it has to be somebody that has some glove skills and he’s got that. He’s had a few good days in practice in skill work. He’s learning the position and we didn’t want to experiment with this after fall ball. We’ve got 29 team practices and 45 days to put him out there. We already know he can play outfield and he’s still getting his work out there, but you’ll see him at first a lot this fall.”
Also playing first base this fall is Jason Hodges, a top prospect from the Chicago area who turned down pro ball this summer to play for the Razorbacks. Hodges (6-3, 215 pounds) played outfield mostly in high school but, like Kjerstad, has shown good potential at first.
“I’ll tell you, he’s done a nice job over there,” Van Horn said. “He’s a big kid, but he’s not real strong for his size just yet, but we’ll get him there.”
Kjerstad and Hodges playing first base would give the Razorbacks some options from an offensive perspective by opening up playing time in a crowded, talented outfield.
“I like our guys being able to play a few different positions,” Van Horn said, “but I’m also trying to get all of our hitters in the lineup.”
Arkansas right-handed pitcher Connor Noland started a team-high 19 games last season, but he is going through his first fall practice season with the Razorbacks.
Noland, a sophomore, left Arkansas' football program earlier this year after playing two sports as a freshman. The Greenwood native did not practice with the baseball team until January, three weeks before the start of the 2019 season.
Both Van Horn and Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs remarked last season about what a full offseason devoted to baseball could do for Noland's development, primarily his velocity. Both said they are seeing that play out after a summer spent in the weight room.
"His stuff is better, his work is really good and it's been really nice having him around for the younger guys to see how he works and how he goes about his business," Hobbs said.
Noland's fastball was clocked at 90-93 mph Thursday. It is difficult to say just how much better his velocity is, Hobbs said, because Noland didn't go through fall workouts last season.
"We're kind of comparing him to where he was when he was at his most fatigued (last season) to today when he's more rested and fresh," Hobbs said. "I think his breaking stuff is better than it was last year already. I think everything else will continue to climb."
Noland has had some good and some bad in four innings of live work this fall. He allowed a home run to freshman catcher Dominic Tamez last Saturday, and allowed two hits and walked two batters during his final of two innings Thursday.
He struck out three batters in two innings last week.
Noland and sophomore left-handed pitcher Patrick Wicklander are expected to be the Razorbacks' first two pitchers to throw in next Friday's exhibition game against Oklahoma at Baum-Walker Stadium. Like Noland, Wicklander took the summer off from competition, and he has had two good outings this fall with five scoreless innings. His fastball velocity has been sitting at around 89-91 mph this fall.
"I'm very impressed with where he's at," Hobbs said. "You always expect him to be around the zone and he's added a curveball, which has been a nice surprise. His fastball has taken a leap in terms of what he's able to do with it. The velocity is not as good right now as it's going to be in the spring, but I kind of expected that with a freshman coming off a huge workload.
"If you take a step back and look at what he did as a freshman in the SEC, he threw 66 innings and had like 90 strikeouts. That's unheard of....Inside the building, we kind of know what we have with him and I think the rest of the country is going to find out what we've got with him this year."
Arkansas has 48 players going through fall practice.
Van Horn said the competition has been strong so far. Van Horn said he likes the balance of his roster, which includes 16 players who are in their third, fourth or fifth season of college, and 20 true or redshirt freshmen.
“You’ve got some experience and some young guys fighting to get in the lineup,” Van Horn said. “You’re getting ready for spring, but you’re also getting ready for next spring and the spring after.”
Among the freshmen who have performed well this fall are right-handed pitcher Peyton Pallette from Benton and catcher Cason Tollett from Little Rock Christian.
Pallette, who was not recruited heavily in high school, is young for his class and has developed well physically in the past 15 months. His fastball was clocked between 87-90 mph on the weekend of Memorial Day in 2018, but has been between 92-94 mph in two outings this fall.
"I heard a lot from scouts about him last spring, things like, 'You don't know what you're getting,' and, 'He's really good,'" Hobbs said. "I kind of thought we were going to get this little 88 mph strike thrower with an OK breaking ball, and the first ball out of his hand the other day was 94 mph and he continues to do it.
"Anytime you have a freshman who everybody is telling you is going to be really good when they get there, you don't believe it until you see it. I didn't have a whole lot of history with the kid, quite honestly, because I was coaching at Wake Forest when he was committed here, and last season I was trying to play catch up and didn't have a chance to see him in the spring. From what I've had a chance to see so far he's really impressive and really has a chance to help us."
Tollett has had some offensive success, such as the first scrimmage of the fall when he hit a double, drew a walk, stole a base and scored a run, and he has looked good defensively.
"We're throwing a lot of stuff at him right now," Hobbs said. "He's watching (junior catcher Casey Opitz) and learning from Casey, and that's a lot of information because Casey handles such a big workload with our team; it's not offensive and blocking and throwing with Casey, it's calling a game and being involved in scouting reports and pitch calling and how we're going to handle our bullpen - being really involved in every facet of the pitching staff. Now (the freshman catchers) have to learn how to do that.
"But Cason has been really good and he's only going to get better because he's a beast and an absolute worker."
Van Horn called the freshman class “underrated” and said it “has a lot of potential.” The Razorbacks' freshman class was unranked by Baseball America last week in its post-MLB Draft rank of signing classes.
“I’ve seen freshmen with ability and big upside,” Van Horn said, “and if they’ll just work and develop, watch and listen, there will be some of them who will impact our team this year, and no doubt in the future.”
Arkansas' fall roster includes four players who transferred from other Division I programs, but not all will be eligible to play in 2020.
Coby Boulware, an outfielder/infielder from TCU, is eligible to play after sitting out last season. Also eligible is infielder Cole Austin, a graduate transfer from Arizona State who began his career at West Virginia.
Miller Pleimann, a right-handed pitcher from Fayetteville who played last season at Wichita State, is appealing for immediate eligibility, while Cullen Smith, a utility player who transferred from East Tennessee State, will sit out the 2020 season.
Pleimann had two strong innings of work Thursday before struggling some in his third inning, which included a long three-run home run by Casey Martin with two outs. Hobbs said Pleimann throws three pitches - a fastball, curveball and changeup - and, if eligible, would add game experience that could prove valuable to a young pitching staff.
At least four players from Arkansas' 2019 roster have transferred to other Division I programs this offseason.
Senior Jordan McFarland transferred to Missouri State and is listed on the Bears' roster as an outfielder; redshirt freshman catcher Andrew Stanley transferred to Southern Miss; redshirt freshman outfielder Dillon Lifrieri transferred to San Diego; and redshirt freshman infielder Caleb Denny transferred to Oral Roberts.
Hunter Milligan, a left-handed pitcher from Greenbrier who left the program after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018, is on the roster again this fall.
Milligan faced live hitters for the first time since the surgery last Sunday when he walked one and retired three in one scoreless inning.
Milligan is one of two pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery who could factor into the Razorbacks' plans next season. Caleb Bolden, who like Milligan is a redshirt sophomore, is not as far along in his recovery. Bolden, a right hander, underwent surgery in December 2018, about five months later than Milligan. Hobbs said Bolden threw a bullpen earlier this week and looks good at this point in his recovery. Bolden is expected to be able to face live hitters for the first time early in 2020.
Around the Horn
Here is a look at where players have been practicing in the field this fall:
• Catcher: Casey Opitz, Cason Tollett, Dominic Tamez, Nate Stevens
• First base: Heston Kjerstad, Jason Hodges, Gus Collins, Cason Tollett
• Second base: Braydon Webb, Zack Gregory, Jesse Pierce
• Third base: Cole Austin, Jesse Pierce
• Shortstop: Casey Martin, Jacob Nesbit
• Left field: Bryce Matthews, Cullen Smith, Coby Boulware
• Center field: Coby Boulware, Christian Franklin, Curtis Washington
• Right field: Curtis Washington, Trey Harris, Zack Gregory
• Kevin Kopps is being evaluated as a starting pitcher this fall. Kopps allowed 2 hits, struck out 2 batters and walked 1 in a 2-inning start last Sunday and will start again in Friday's scrimmage.
• Coby Boulware has shown speed and instincts on the bases. As a freshman at TCU in 2018, Boulware successfully stole 24 of 28 attempts.
• Freshmen Blake Adams and Gus Collins are being evaluated as two-way players this fall. Both pitch from the right side.
• Matt Goodheart, the team's starting designated hitter in 2019, will be limited this fall after undergoing offseason surgery on his labrum.
• Arkansas retained almost its entire coaching staff from the 2019 season. The Razorbacks' only loss was former player Jared Gates, who was a student assistant last season and is now a volunteer coach at Central Arkansas.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated Arkansas did not lose any assistant coaches from last season. It has been corrected to reflect the departure of Jared Gates.
A previous version of this article first appeared in Hawgs Illustrated
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