Fans of the Milwaukee Brewers waited a long time for that top prospect who is an immediate star upon arrival in the big leagues. That first round draft pick or high profile international signing who carries huge expectations, comes up, and starts his career by meeting — or exceeding — even the loftiest projections. And last season, Keston Hiura’s debut provided almost everything that could have been hoped for.
The Brewers appeared to be pretty well set around the infield when the 2019 season started. Travis Shaw had posted a 120 OPS+ across 2017-18 and was a Gold Glove nominee at third base, Orlando Arcia looked like a bounce back candidate after a strong September and postseason run, former All-Star Mike Moustakas was re-signed and on the move to second base, and Jesus Aguilar was coming off an All-Star campaign of his own at first base with Eric Thames still present to back him up.
That situation obviously didn’t work out as well as anyone hoped, however. No one could have foreseen the extent to which Aguilar and especially Shaw would regress with the bat. Thames was able to pick up the slack at the cold corner, but third base became a black hole. That is, until Keston Hiura was called up for the first time on May 14th.
When Shaw went on the Injured List, Hiura was inserted at the keystone while Moose was moved back to his more familiar spot at third. Hiura developed a reputation as a “hitting savant” while he was coming up through the minors and immediately began to translate those skills against big league pitching. He recorded two hits in his MLB debut against the Phillies and would go on to hit .281/.333/.531 with five home runs during his first 17 games at baseball’s highest level. After a 4-2 win against the Pirates on June 2nd, however, Hiura was sent back down to the minors. The justification from the front office was that Travis Shaw was healthy and they wanted to give him a chance to bounce back from his truly horrid start. But service time considerations and the projected Super Two cutoff surely played a factor in the decision, as well (Hiura finished with 114 days of MLB service time in 2019).
It would be nearly four weeks until Keston’s return on June 28th, during which time the club went 9-12 and slogged through a five-game losing streak. Motivated perhaps by his exile back to the minors despite his successful stretch in May, Hiura went on a tear to conclude the 2019 season. From June 28th on, Keston appeared in 67 games, starting 63 of them. He collected 77 hits in 250 at-bats, with 14 of them landing over the fence. A hamstring injury that sidelined him for a couple weeks in early September didn’t slow him down, either. Hiura finished with a flourish upon his return, posting a .313/.358/.563 slash line across his final 14 games and helping to pick up the slack offensively after Christian Yelich’s season-ending knee injury.
When the dust settled on Hiura’s rookie season, his batting line read .303/.368/.570 with 19 balls going #OuttaHiura in 348 plate appearances across 84 games. His 139 wRC+ ranked second-best among all MLB second baseman with at least 300 plate appearances, trailing only the 150 wRC+ that Ketel Marte posted. That 139 wRC+ was also the second-best total produced by a rookie with at least 300 plate appearances in the Miller Park era, trailing only 2007 Ryan Braun (155) and right in front of 2009 Casey McGehee (126).
The question now is if Hiura will be able to maintain that level of production and become a perennial All-Star candidate going forward. It is true that Hiura’s average exit velocity (90th percentile) and hard contact rate (97th percentile) were both elite in 2019, and that he recorded a ‘barrel’ at a rate that was more than twice the league average. But his peripheral stats are a little troubling. Hiura whiffed in 30.7% of his plate appearaces while walking at only a 7.2% rate, and his batting line was buoyed by a .402 batting average on balls in play, the third-highest mark among MLB hitters with 300+ PA. Both expected weighted on-base average (.360 xwOBA versus .388 actual wOBA) and Deserved Runs Created Plus (115 DRC+ versus actual 139 wRC+) believe that Keston outperformed in a significant way last season. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these underlying facts lead projection systems like ZiPS and PECOTA both to see Hiura as a legitimate candidate for major regression in 2020.
Keston also needs to do some work on his defense at the keystone. Manager Craig Counsell has said several times that Hiura simply needs more reps after an elbow injury limited him to DH duties for a period after he was drafted, but the problems appeared to be a little more significant than that. He was charged with 16 errors in 679.0 innings, 10 fielding and six throwing. Defensive Runs Saved graded him at -5 runs on the season, while Ultimate Zone Rating places him at -8.2 runs. Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric placed him in only the 4th percentile among all infielders.
If Hiura can’t shore things up with the glove and/or experiences a sophomore slump at the plate, the Brewers have Brock Holt to back him up. A playoff-tested veteran who has appeared in parts of eight MLB seasons, Holt signed with the Milwaukee Nine for one year plus a team option late in the winter after he lingered on the open market. The left-handed hitter has been mostly competent with the bat during his career, displaying solid bat-to-ball skills and a decent OBP ability but with little power to speak of. He’s a career .271/.340/.374 hitter (93 wRC+) with 23 home runs across 2,295 plate appearances, and is coming off of one of the best seasons of his career after batting .297/.369/.402 with three home runs in 295 plate appearances for the Red Sox in 2019. Holt set new career-highs in batting average and on-base percentage while posting the second-best wRC+ (103) that he has ever manufactured as a big leaguer.
Holt’s greatest value comes from his defensive versatility, as he’s proven to be a capable utilityman all over the diamond. He started games at first, second, third, short, left field, and right field last season, and has previously appeared in center field as well. Holt played a good deal of shortstop during Spring Training while Luis Urias was on the shelf, and could be another option to see regular time there if neither Urias nor Orlando Arcia can lock down the job. Also listed on the second base depth chart are Jedd Gyorko and Eric Sogard, although those two appear to ticketed for a timeshare at third base.
In the Minors
The Brewers have a handful of infielders with MLB experience that figure to begin the year in Triple-A San Antonio, including waiver claim Ronny Rodriguez and non-roster invitees Jace Peterson and Andres Blanco. Also present is 40-man infielder Mark Mathias, though he has yet to make his MLB debut after being acquired from the Indians during the offseason.
Further on down the ladder there is CJ Hinojosa — picked up from the Giants prior to 2019 — as well as guys like Gabe Holt, Yeison Coca, Nick Egnatuk, Felix Valerio, and David Hamilton.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Savant