He was proclaimed as the purest collegiate hitter in the 2017 MLB Draft class. He’s been called a hitting savant. He has been awarded as the Most Valuable Player in the Arizona Fall League. The consensus among every scouting service is that he is one of the top prospects in all of baseball. And now, Keston Hiura is a big leaguer.
Third baseman Travis Shaw of the Milwaukee Brewers has been in a horrendous hitting slump all season long, and today it was revealed that he is dealing with a wrist issue significant enough to warrant a stint on the Injured List. That will shift Mike Moustakas back to his natural position at the hot corner, opening up the keystone for the player some have dubbed as the best positional prospect to come through Milwaukee’s farm system since Ryan Braun. When Hiura makes takes the field tonight — he is batting 7th for the Cream City Nine — he will become the first positional player from his draft class to make his MLB debut, completing a meteoric rise through the minor league ranks that lasted all of 202 games over the span of a year-and-a-half. So what can we expect from the former 9th overall pick who has spent the last six weeks laying waste to Pacific Coast League pitching?
Hiura is not the most physically intimidating specimen, standing at 5’11” and weighing in at 190 lbs. But what he does possess a specific trait that gets his new manager very excited about his future:
“It’s still the holy grail of hitting — hitters who possess great timing. Keston possesses it. That’s probably the first thing that I thought of when I saw Keston, that this guy must have incredible timing.”
Timing at the plate is incredibly important for Hiura, who certainly has an unorthodox hitting style compared to most batters in today’s game. He employs two timing mechanisms, first dragging his front foot back into a quick toe tap as he transfers his weight on to his back leg, then striding into a pronounced leg kick to add extra torque to his swing as he comes through the ball. Scouts from Baseball Prospectus have referred to “Swiss-pocket-watch precision” that makes it all work, along with lightning-quick bat speed and a “remarkably advanced approach.”
“I don’t necessarily think my swing is for everyone. It’s definitely different in a unique way where it’s comfortable for my body. I’ve always been a big preacher where one swing isn’t for every person.”
MLB Pipeline scouts describe Hiura as able to generate “consistently loud contact, with the ball jumping off his bat to all fields” thanks to his “tremendous bat-to-ball skills and barrel awareness.” A “preternatural feel for impacting the baseball” helps fuel hit grades of 60 and 70 from just about every scout who puts eyes on him. There is a bit more swing-and-miss in Hiura’s game than perhaps was originally projected when he was drafted, and his reliance on timing and aggressive hitting style lead some scouts like Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs to suggest that he could be a somewhat streaky player. His 27.2% strikeout rate is a little misleading after he began the year by whiffing in 11 of his first 17 plate appearances, but you will notice the punchouts as evidenced by a 20.7% K-rate in his minor league career. The trade-off for some additional strikeouts, however, comes in the form of an increased power projection, and Hiura now seems like a good bet to top 20+ home runs annually.
In 37 games this season at the highest level of the minors, Hiura torched opposing hurlers to the tune of a .333/.408/.698 slash line, ranking 8th among all Triple-A hitters with a 164 wRC+. His 11 homers in 147 plate appearances also tied him for 8th between both Triple-A circuits. His walk rate has ticked up, too, as he took a free pass in more than 10% of his plate appearances after walking only 6-7% of the time in A-ball and Double-A. In 869 plate appearances across all minor league levels, Hiura has put together a .316/.380/.534 batting line. Simply put, the man can hit.
The ceiling here is the type of perennial All-Star talent that we all dream about — a .300+ hitter who mashes 25 or more homers per season while playing a premium defensive position on the middle infield. Maybe the swing-and-miss means his batting average is ultimately somewhere closer to the .260-.270 range against the world’s best pitching at the MLB level. But even if he only maxes out at his peak ZiPS three-year forecast, a .268/.328/.456 slash line would be pretty dang good out of a second baseman. He’s not a burner on the bases, but Hiura might be able to tally double-digit steal totals using his average speed in conjunction with his awareness and smarts on the basepaths.
While Hiura’s development at the plate has always been considered a pretty sure thing, his defensive questions are what caused him to slide to Milwaukee in the 2017 draft. Keston dealt with an elbow issue that limited him to DH duties during his final collegiate season at UC-Irvine and there was heavy speculation that he would eventually need Tommy John surgery to correct the ailment. But the Brewers took a chance on him being able to heal without going under the knife, and he responded well to a PRP injection and the team’s throwing program. He was eased into regular action at second base at the outset of his career, playing only three games in the field during his pro debut season in 2017 and then splitting time between the keystone and designated hitter at Class A-Advanced to begin 2018. But he started playing second base just about everyday upon his promotion to Double-A last season and that continued to Triple-A San Antonio this year. It seems that any lingering concerns about how his elbow will hold have been alleviated by this point in the minds of the front office.
Hiura’s work at second base has been described as “unspectacular” and he’s considered an average defender at the position. His decent actions and footwork help make up for a below-average arm, but he’ll be exposed on longer throws from deep in the hole. If he can’t stick at second, his arm strength limits him to either left field or first base as backup options. But as long as he’s at least a passable defender at second base, his middle-of-the-order hitting profile projects to more than make up for any deficiencies with the glove. Milwaukee’s aggressive shifting strategy should help Hiura in that regard, too.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball-Reference