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Milwaukee Brewers 2021 preview by position: First Base

Can Keston Hiura return to form while learning a new position?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers-Workouts Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The cold corner has been a position of extreme turnover for the Milwaukee Brewers over recent years. 2021 will mark ten seasons since the departure of Prince Fielder, perhaps the most talented homegrown hitter in franchise history. Barring something unforeseen, this year will also mark the tenth consecutive season that someone different will get the nod on Opening Day at first base. In some years, the Brewers have received solid-to-strong production out of their starter at the position — Adam Lind in 2015, Chris Carter in 2016, Eric Thames in 2017. In 2020, however, the position was largely a mess as the team received a sub-replacement level -0.1 fWAR and cumulative 86 wRC+ from the four players who manned first base during the summer.

With the signing of Kolten Wong, however, the time could finally be coming where the Brewers have a consistent, multiyear answer for “who is the first baseman of the future?!” Former top prospect Keston Hiura, who has held down second base for the majority of the last two seasons, is shifting one spot over to first base after largely struggling with his defense at the big league level.

Up until this point, Hiura has only officially appeared at second base during his professional career from the minors to the big leagues, and had admittedly never played first base before in his life. Some have expressed concern about his lack of height for the position and how he’ll adjust to his new spot on the diamond. So far during Spring Training, there have been some growing pains, but the expectation is that Hiura will be able to handle the position well enough not be a detriment, and potentially have plus range after spending years on the middle infield.

Now that he’s occupying a corner spot at the bottom of the defensive spectrum, the pressure is even greater on Hiura’s bat to carry his value. If he’s the 2019 version of Keston Hiura, then that should be no problem. But the 2020 version of Keston Hiura was a below-average hitter with numbers that won’t play at first base, and there’s work to be done in order for the 24 year old to get back where he needs to be.

After a 140 wRC+ during his debut season in 2019 — fueled by a .402 BABIP — Hiura crashed down towards the Mendoza line in 2020 as pitchers figured out ways to beat him. Keston struggled particularly with balls up in the zone and failed to consistently punish the baseball as he did in 2019. His hard contact rate fell to the 50th percentile from the 97th percentile, and his average exit velocity plummeted from 89th percentile all the way down to the 26th percentile. Keston finished with a .212/.297/.410 batting line last summer with 13 home runs, good for an 87 wRC+. Statistics like expected batting average, expected slugging, and expected weighted on base average largely support Hiura’s bottom-line numbers as a below-average hitter during the pandemic-shortened campaign.

Hiura’s overall approach was largely the same last summer, with his swing rates at pitches both inside and outside the strike zone and overall swing rates within 1-2 percentage points of where they were in 2019. But the hole in Hiura’s bat led to a 20.3% swinging strike rate (second-highest among qualified hitters in 2020), a nine percent drop in contact on pitches inside the strike zone (down to 67.9%), and more than a six percent decrease in overall contact rate (down to 59.3%). His already high strikeout rate rose another four points to 34.6% as he led the league with 85 total punchouts across his 246 plate appearances.

Can Hiura break through his proverbial sophomore slump and get back to hitting the ball with authority? Will he be able to make the necessary adjustments at the plate while also learning the brand new position on the fly? The early results haven’t exactly been promising as Keston owns a .111/.158/.333 batting line through 18 Spring Training at-bats. But the ability he’s demonstrated in the past inspires some hope that he could provide some stability at a position that hasn’t had much of it over the last 10 seasons.

Depending on how the Opening Day roster construction shakes out, Dan Vogelbach is another player who could factor into the equation at first base. The former All-Star joined the team via waiver claim last September, then proceeded to hit .328/.418/.569 with four home runs in 67 plate appearances. But the front office and coaching staff have long suggested that he’s better suited as a designated hitter than at first base, where he has accrued -8 Defensive Runs Saved across just 90 appearances and 77 starts at the position in the big leagues. Without the universal DH in place, there may not be a spot for Vogelbach on the roster, even after he agreed to a pay cut in arbitration to avoid a non-tender.

In the Minors

Unlike catcher, first base is and has been a bit of a weak spot organization-wide in terms of quality depth. Billy McKinney, who is competing for a spot on the bench, has some experience at the cold corner but is mostly an outfielder. Former top-100 prospect Dustin Peterson was brought into the fold on a minor league deal. Zach Green and Lucas Erceg have experience at first base but are thought of more as third baseman right now. Further down the ladder, Weston Wilson and Gabriel Garcia are more utility types with some experience at first. Luis Castro and Chad Spanberger are a couple more names to watch as they finally get the chance to make their organizational debuts in 2021, too.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant