Heston Kjerstad’s path to the big leagues began with a serious speed bump. Shortly after being taken second overall by the Orioles in the 2020 draft out of the University of Arkansas, the left-handed-hitting outfielder was diagnosed with myocarditis. He has since fully recovered, but because of a high-grade hamstring injury incurred last spring, he wasn’t able to make his professional debut until June. He didn’t forget how to hit during the long layoff. In 284 plate appearances between Low-A Delmarva and High-A Aberdeen, Kjerstad slashed .309/.394/.457 with a 135 wRC+. Moreover, he proceeded to earn MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League by pummeling pitchers to the tune of a 1.007 OPS.
No. 7 in a loaded Baltimore Orioles system, Kjerstad will celebrate his 24th birthday on Sunday. He talked hitting during his stint in the AFL.
David Laurila: Tell me about your progression as a hitter. You were obviously out of action with the health issue for some time.
Heston Kjerstad: “You know, it’s part of the game. Everybody misses time here and there, but you’ve done it for so long and practiced it so much that while there is a little rust to be knocked off, it’s going to come back to you. And honestly, there are some things you learn from being away from the game, and you apply them once you are back.”
Laurila: Did you study hitting while you were out, or did you more try to put baseball aside?
Kjerstad: “Probably a little bit of both. There were times where I dove into some things because I had extra time, but there were also times where I didn’t even want to talk about it because I couldn’t do it. But again, you can learn from that. Sometimes being away from the game makes it feel a little bit easier. You make it a little bit simpler, just like you can find yourself trying too hard and overcomplicate it.”
Laurila: Are you ever guilty of complicating hitting?
Kjerstad: “Oh, 100%. I think all of us… I mean, sometimes you get caught up in some stuff that you think is going to help you get better. It may distract you, or it might just be too much, so for me, personally, I try to keep it as simple as possible. Hitting is already a complicated thing to do in baseball, so sometimes you’ve got to take it back to basics and just try to have fun while you’re doing it.”
Laurila: Hitters sometimes say that they’ve had to take a step back and return to the basics that got them there in the first place. At the same time, the higher the quality of pitching you’re facing, the more little things matter.
Kjerstad: “Oh, yeah. There are subtle things, or little differences. Sometimes what guys think they’re doing isn’t necessarily what they are doing. It’s just something that works for them. It maybe gives them a placebo effect to help them be more confident or something of that nature.”
Laurila: Simplicity aside, what works for you?
Kjerstad: “Basically just keeping my head still and driving the ball all over the park. Hitting it where it’s pitched is my bread and butter. If they throw it away, hit it away. If they’re throwing in, let’s pull it.”
Laurila: Have you made mechanical adjustments since college?
Kjerstad: “Honestly, I’m pretty similar. Actually, really, really similar. I’m maybe more refined, because there have been more reps, but through and through, I wouldn’t say I’m different. There haven’t been any crazy changes.”
Laurila: What is an example of analytical data that you’ve found especially intriguing?
Kjerstad: “Probably just my hitting certain pitches at certain times. I feel like that changes from time to time. You’ll have a month where you absolutely destroy fastballs, and then — this without really changing anything — the next month, the pitch you’re hitting best is a changeup. You don’t even know what you did, or what you might have changed.”
Laurila: No explanation for how that happens?
Kjerstad: “Yes and no. Sometimes it just syncs up with your timing, or you’re seeing different guys where you see their stuff well. Sometimes you’ve just got to roll with it. If you’re hitting well, you don’t want to overanalyze anything; you don’t want to get in the way of yourself.”
Laurila: Have you found yourself getting overpowered by high-velocity heaters?
Kjerstad: “Not necessarily, because… man, as the hitter, that’s what you love to hit. You see one and you get your swing off; you want to get your barrel out there. That’s the pitch we’re all hunting. Every once in awhile you’ll get beat by one, but it’s what we all want to see.”
Laurila: Any final thoughts?
Kjerstad: “I guess just that you’ve got to figure it out yourself. Not everybody hits the same. Not everything that someone does will work for somebody else. Adley [Rutschman] and I talked a lot of hitting when we were both coming back from injuries earlier in the year, and some stuff that works for me won’t necessarily work for him, and vice versa. Then maybe a couple of things do translate.”
Laurila: Can you give an example of what works differently for the two of you?
Kjerstad: “I hit with a little bit more rhythm, preload, than he does. He’s a little simpler with his load before he swings. He barely picks up his leg most of the time — it’s just a little small load — whereas mine is a pretty high leg kick. But then we are really similar in the nature of getting our hands to a consistent spot, using our lower halves very well, and hitting off our backsides.”
Laurila: Basically, you’re more of a rhythm hitter…
Kjerstad: “Yeah. I always have been. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always liked that feeling. I’ve always stuck with it.”
Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Jo Adell, Jeff Albert, Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Alex Bregman, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, JJ Bleday, Bobby Bradley, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis, Jacob Cruz, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Josh Donaldson, Brendan Donovan, Donnie Ecker, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Justin Foscue, Michael Fransoso, Ryan Fuller, Joey Gallo, Devlin Granberg, Andy Haines, Mitch Haniger, Robert Hassell III, Rhys Hoskins, Eric Hosmer, Tim Hyers, Josh Jung, Jimmy Kerr, Steven Kwan, Trevor Larnach, Doug Latta, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Gavin Lux, Dave Magadan, Trey Mancini, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Hunter Mense, Owen Miller, Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, Daniel Murphy, Vinnie Pasquantino, Brent Rooker, Drew Saylor, Trevor Story, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Mark Trumbo, Josh VanMeter, Robert Van Scoyoc, Chris Valaika, Zac Veen, Mark Vientos, Matt Vierling, Luke Voit, Jared Walsh, Jordan Westburg, Jesse Winker, Nick Yorke, Kevin Youkilis