Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year three times.
Kjerstad's climb: UA outfielder nears top of mock MLB drafts
Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad (18) is congratulated by hitting coach Nate Thompson after hitting a home run during a game against Texas on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, during the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
FAYETTEVILLE -- It was a sweet 16 baseball games for University of Arkansas right fielder Heston Kjerstad this season.
Kjerstad, named a preseason All-American by several websites, lived up to the hype and was ranked as the top college outfielder by D1Baseball.com after the season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"I think it's awesome for Heston, and I think it's right on," Arkansas hitting coach Nate Thompson said. "Honestly, if you're trying to put together a team of college players, he's the first outfielder off the board.
"There's no doubt. Put him in right field and let him do his thing."
Kjerstad, a junior from Amarillo, Texas, figures to be off the board quickly when the Major League Baseball Draft, scheduled to begin June 10, gets rolling.
Multiple media outlets have reported that the draft will be cut to five rounds from its usual 40 because of the lost revenue organizations have suffered with the delay of the 2020 season. That decision likely won't affect Kjerstad's status.
Kjerstad is a consensus first-round pick in mock drafts, with ESPN.com projecting him as the No. 7 pick by Pittsburgh, MLB.com ranking him the No. 10 overall prospect, and Baseball America and CBS ranking him No. 15.
"I mean, that's what they're saying," Kjerstad said. "That's what I've worked for. I guess we'll know in a few [weeks] if it's going to be where everybody's talking or not."
Kjerstad is home in Amarillo working out as he awaits the draft. He said his daily routine includes hitting in batting cages at Randall High School, where he was a star player, and lifting weights in his garage at home.
"I'm just kind of hanging out and trying to keep getting better and that'll take care of itself," he said. "I can't make up a team's mind. They're the ones making the decision, so I'll just try to control what I can control and then everything will line up the way you want it to eventually."
Kjerstad started every game this spring and batted .448 with 6 home runs, 5 doubles and 20 RBI. Including drawing seven walks and being hit by three pitches, his on-base percentage was .513.
"I think he's probably the best left-handed hitter in the country, being able to use the whole field, and you throw in the power and power to all parts of the field," Razorbacks Coach Dave Van Horn said. "The development I've seen, I don't know how there could be a better left-handed hitter in the country right now."
Kjerstad had at least one hit in all 16 games, and multiple hits in 10 games.
"I would think his draft stock would be pretty high," Van Horn said. "I know it is from talking to people. I think he showed early how much better he was."
Kjerstad started 69 games in left field as a freshman and batted .332 with 14 home runs and 58 RBI. As a sophomore, he switched to right field and made 65 starts while hitting .327 with 17 home runs and 51 RBI.
In 2020, Kjerstad was on pace for his best season.
"He was really good as a freshman. He was really good as a sophomore," Van Horn said. "But I'm telling you, this year he's better. A lot better.
"If we'd have played 60-plus games -- which we would have -- I think you would have seen him do some special things on the field."
Arkansas was getting ready to open SEC play at Mississippi State when the season was postponed and eventually canceled, but Thompson said Kjerstad faced tough pitching in nonconference games.
"The truth is the caliber of pitching we saw through the first 16 games this year in my opinion was quite a bit better than the caliber of the pitching that we saw in 2018 and 2019 through that portion of the season," Thompson said. "We saw a lot of legit arms.
"It didn't matter to Heston. He just kept raking."
Kjerstad batted .538 (7 for 13) in the Shriners College Classic in Houston against Big 12 teams Oklahoma, Texas and Baylor.
"It was pretty impressive," Thompson said. "I mean, he was really performing. He was really showing the growth in his game and showing that maturity.
"The power, the batting average, the on-base percentage, driving in runs. I think he was having the kind of year we all thought he very well could. It's just fun to see a guy who in that big year -- his junior year -- is able to put it all together."
Arkansas was going for a third consecutive College World Series appearance.
"Just a real bummer for all of us to not be able to finish it out for the team's sake and what we could have done," Thompson said. "But a real bummer for Heston's sake, too.
"It would have been neat to see where he would have taken it. I'm not saying he would have stayed that hot all year, but he was well on his way to putting up big numbers."
In a three-game series against Eastern Illinois to open the season, Kjerstad was 7 for 12 with 4 home runs, 10 RBI and 6 runs scored. He also walked twice.
"I had a scout reach out to me that first weekend and say, 'Wow, Heston sure is some kind of locked in,' " Thompson said. "I said, 'That's just pretty much who he is. I don't think he's that hot right now, to tell you the truth. He's just really good.' "
Kjerstad played for Team USA last summer, and in 14 games batted .395 with 2 home runs, 8 RBI and 8 runs. He batted .480 (12 for 25) with runners on base.
"The opportunity that Heston had to go play for Team USA, he figured out, 'I'm just as good as any of these guys,' " Thompson said. "That just carried over into his junior season and grew his confidence even more."
Thompson said Kjerstad's offensive numbers this season were reflective of a more mature approach.
"You get to a place where you know yourself better," Thompson said. "You know how to prepare yourself better. You've figured out the things that are small adjustments that need to be made, and you go work on them and you clean those things up.
"It's physical, but it's also mental. I think he got better at his mental game. His two-strike approach got better. He figured out he didn't need to chase and try to do too much with two strikes.
"He knew he needed to make sure that pitcher threw strikes to him. So that cut down on his chase and on his swing-and-misses and going out of the zone with two strikes and getting himself out."
Kjerstad combined for 613 plate appearances as a freshman and sophomore.
"So he's seen a whole bunch of sliders, he's seen a whole bunch of breaking balls, and changeups and the ball running," Thompson said. "Every one of those pitches goes into the data bank and helps him be better for the next one."
Kjerstad didn't make an error this season while recording 40 putouts and having one assist.
"I felt like he improved pretty dramatically as an outfielder," Thompson said. "Not that he was ever a bad outfielder. As a freshman, he made quite a few plays. But to be honest with you, I felt like his defense didn't really improve that next year. He was determined to improve his defense this season.
"That's a credit to Heston and his willingness to work on something where he knew he needed to get better."
Thompson said Kjerstad worked with strength and conditioning coach Blaine Kinsley to improve his speed. They also focused on his defense in practice.
"This spring before it all got shut down, he made a few plays in the outfield that made me go, 'Wow, he didn't make that play before,' " Thompson said. "His ability to turn and run and get his hips clear and create an angle on a ball hit over his head and run it down was impressive.
"I think he's starting to turn his play in the outfielder into an asset, and his arm strength's always been there."
Since early March when the college baseball season was canceled and professional teams suspended their season, there had been speculation the draft could be pushed back to July, but according to more recent reports it is expected to keep a June 10 start date.
"I'm not really worried too much about that," Kjerstad said. "I can't really control when the draft is.
"When it happens, it happens. I've just got to keep doing my thing, working out and hitting and staying ready. That way if it happens in June or July, I'll be ready for it."
As a high school senior, Kjerstad was a 36th-round pick by the Seattle Mariners at No. 1,083. Perfect Game ranked him the No. 369 high school prospect nationally.
"I always wanted to go to college. That's what I told everyone," Kjerstad said. "I really would encourage a lot of high school athletes -- unless things work out in the right way -- to go to college and get that three years of experience, because it's really grown me up as a person.
"The amount of progress I've made over the last three years as a baseball player has really, really helped me come along. That's been huge for me, being able to develop in college. Everything that I got to experience has been great for me.
"I'm also really close to finishing my degree. I'll try to finish that up hopefully, eventually. That way I can get that college degree and say I finished it and I'm a college graduate. So that will be kind of exciting, too, to have that done."
Thompson said it's understandable for draft-eligible college juniors to feel extra pressure, but Kjerstad never showed it this season.
"I think he's got a great head on his shoulders," Thompson said. "That's part of his success as well. The physical tools are there, but so is the confidence. Not in a brash way or anything. Heston just knows he's good.
"The hay's in the barn for him. So when it comes to the draft, he has nothing more to prove."
Sports on 05/12/2020
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