Few hitters across Major League Baseball have gotten off to a worse start than Keston Hiura this season. Hiura’s 48 wRC+ is in the bottom 10 of qualified hitters. His 36% strikeout rate is in the bottom five. The Brewers have been patient with Hiura, and rightfully so. An important player should not be cast aside simply due to a couple of rough weeks. The former top prospect was supposed to play a key role in Milwaukee’s lineup this season, particularly as protection behind former National League MVP Christian Yelich.
That has not been the case, however. With the first month of the season now in the books, Hiura continues to struggle mightily at making contact. Over the past week, he has ceded playing time at first base to Daniel Vogelbach. The defensively-limited Vogelbach started four consecutive games at the cold corner before Hiura returned to the lineup for Sunday’s game on a getaway day. The Brewers have had a long leash with the 24-year-old, but they appear to be reaching their limit. Hiura’s difficulties at the plate have crossed over from “he’s just in a slump” territory to a serious cause for concern.
Strikeout problems are not new for Keston. Even in his successful rookie season, he punched out at a 30.7% rate. However, the issue has worsened to the point where it has prevented the former first-round draft pick from being a remotely productive hitter. Hiura’s swinging strike rate as a rookie was 17.5%. In 2020, it jumped to 20.3%, and it has now ballooned to 22.9% this season. That mark is the second-worst among qualified hitters.
Those overall swing and miss rates are not even the most alarming element of his struggles. Hiura has now stopped making consistent contact on pitches over the plate. Whether it’s high-velocity fastballs, hanging breaking balls, or even slower fastballs right down the middle, Hiura is not touching them. This is where Keston has been historically awful. In April, his contact rate on pitches in the strike zone was just 59.4%. Not only is that is the worst among all qualified hitters, but it is also the second-lowest zone contact rate on record by a qualified hitter through the first month of a season (plate discipline splits are available on FanGraphs dating back to 2002). The only hitter to “beat” it is Chris Davis back in 2009, when he began the season with a zone contact rate of just 56.5%.
It only continues to get worse from there. Not only is Hiura missing an extraordinary amount of pitches in the strike zone, but he is also swinging right through plenty of pitches directly down the middle of the plate. According to Statcast, Hiura has a whiff rate of 40% on pitches in the middle-middle zone. The league average whiff rate on such pitches is 14.9%. On pitches labeled as being over the heart of the plate, he is coming up empty on 42% of his swings. Once again, that’s a horrifying stat in comparison to the league-wide rate of 16.8%. Keston’s 29 empty swings on “heart” pitches are the second-most in the sport behind only Randy Arozarena.
Being in a slump is one thing. Struggling to make contact on pitches down the middle at one of the worst rates ever recorded is another. Continuing to roll Hiura out there no longer makes sense as it did a couple of weeks ago. Craig Counsell’s recent handling of the first base position could indicate that the Brewers are ready to change course and try a new approach with their struggling slugger. With the minor league season kicking off this week, the Brewers could option Hiura to their Triple-A squad. This would give him a mental break and the opportunity to work on his swing out of the spotlight in a low-pressure environment.
Such a demotion would not be long term. The Brewers need Hiura, who has demonstrated an ability to hit the ball on the screws when he does make contact. He posted an elite 13.5% barrel rate and 50% hard hit rate as a rookie. However, the recently converted first baseman has developed an alarming hole in his swing, and it has gotten to the point where more serious action must be taken. For the time being, both Hiura and the Brewers are better off without him on the active roster.
This issue also has an impact on Hiura’s long-term outlook. As he continues to whiff at alarming rates, it becomes much more difficult to envision the UC Irvine product being the kind of hitter he was hyped up to be. Even in his rookie campaign, he struck out at a concerning rate. Instead, Hiura’s best path to success may be leaning into the home run power he developed as he progressed through Milwaukee’s system. At this point, hitting 30 long balls most seasons to make up for batting averages in the .230-.250 range and middling on-base percentages seems more likely than hitting above .300. For his power to make an impact, Hiura needs to make contact at a halfway decent rate. Right now, he isn’t coming close to that. For the sake of both Milwaukee’s playoff hopes and his own development, it’s time for the Brewers to take action before Hiura’s swing and miss problem snowballs even more.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.