It’s not a secret that the Milwaukee Brewers don’t exactly have a sterling record at the top of the draft in the recent past. Sure, the team has selected three 10+ bWAR players in the first round of the draft since 2008, but each of those draftees — #16 overall Brett Lawrie in 2008 (15.1 WAR), #32 overall in 2008 Jake Odorizzi (13.3), and #38 overall Mitch Haniger (10.7) — have accrued all their value while suiting up for teams other than the Brewers. Of the 20 first round or supplemental picks that the franchise has drafted and signed since 2008, 13 have either failed to or have yet to reach the majors.
That’s what makes the rookie year that Keston Hiura put together all that much more special.
Selected with the #9 overall pick in 2017 during Tod Johnson’s first draft at the helm as scouting director, Hiura was almost immediately dubbed a “hitting savant” by scouts and analysts around the game. He raced towards the big leagues, playing in only 202 minor league games in the ensuing two years before making his MLB debut as a 22 year old on May 14th, 2019. His otherwise rapid ascent was slowed only by a balky throwing elbow that he needed to rehab in the minors, though that same malady — and the uncertain timeline that followed it — was the reason that Hiura fell to Milwaukee at ninth overall in the first place.
Hiura’s first game for the Cream City Nine came against the Philles at Citizen’s Bank Park. He hit sixth, and in his first MLB at-bat, he beat out an infield single against Jerad Eickhoff. He has not stopped hitting since.
Hiura slashed .281/.333/.531 with five home runs in his first 69 plate appearances through June 2nd before he was sent back to Triple-A for, uh, reasons. Maybe the team really did want to give Travis Shaw another lengthy shot to recapture his role as the regular third baseman. Perhaps there was concern about the possibility of Hiura eventually becoming Super Two eligible in arbitration. It could have been some combination of those two factors and others that we haven’t considered. In any case, Hiura didn’t get back to the big leagues until June 28th. But once he was back in the Menomonee Valley for good, he was even more outstanding at the plate.
In 67 games as the regular starter at the keystone though the end of the season, Keston batted .308/.376/.580 in 279 plate appearances with an additional 14 home runs and 22 doubles. That brought his season-ending slash line to .303/.368/.570 in 348 plate appearances, which translates to a 139 wRC+. He swatted 19 home runs, slugged 23 doubles, and swiped nine bases while only getting caught three times. He recorded line drives at a 24% clip; his average exit velocity ranked in the 90th percentile among big leaguers while his hard contact percentage was in the 97th percentile.
As the venerable Adam McCalvy puts it simply, the man can hit.
Dating back to the start of the franchise in 1969, there have been 45 instances of a rookie-eligible position player accruing at least 300 plate appearances in a season. Among that sample, only Ryan Braun (155 wRC+, 2007) has recorded a higher wRC+ than Hiura did as a first-year player in 2019. His 19 dingers are tied for fifth-most by a Brewers rookie, and his 23 doubles are tied for 11th-best.
But even as incredible as Keston’s introduction to the game’s highest level was, there are some reasons for pause going forward. At the dish, Hiura fanned in 30.7% of his plate appearances and rode a .402 Batting Average on Balls in Play, which is also the highest BABIP a Brew Crew rookie has ever posted. He consistently received hit tool grades of 60 to 70 as a prospect, though, so most scouts would agree that he’ll be able to make the necessary adjustments to lower that whiff rate and counter a likely drop in BABIP. In the field, though, is where most of the concern about Hiura’s future rests.
Errors are no longer the gold standard when it comes to judging defense, but still, 16 of them charged over 81 games and 679.0 innings at second base isn’t something to brag about. He made misplays both with his glove and his below-average arm, with 10 fielding errors and six throwing errors on his ledger. In terms of the more advanced fielding statistics, Hiura was rated with -4 Defensive Runs Saved, -8.2 Ultimate Zone Runs, and -4.9 Fielding Runs Above Average. “Butcher” might be too strong a descriptor for Keston’s work at the keystone, but his defensive inability did indeed end up weighing down his overall value.
Hiura was worth a composite 1.83 Wins Above Replacement in 2019 when taking into consideration the WAR calculations from the three major websites, ranking him tied for 8th among his teammates this season. Those casting ballots were somewhat willing to overlook his miscues on the dirt, however, and Keston Hiura was voted by the BCB community as the #6 Most Valuable Brewer in 2019 based mostly upon his superlative rookie season with the bat.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Savant