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What to make of Keston Hiura’s early spring training success

Former top prospect is capable of bouncing back from tough 2021 season, but it will not be foreshadowed by his spring training slash line.

MLB: MAR 20 Spring Training - Padres at Brewers Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the biggest storylines for the Brewers entering the year is if Keston Hiura can rebound after a pair of rough seasons. After a successful rookie season that saw him post a stellar 139 wRC+, Hiura’s output fell to an 87 wRC+ in 2020. Last season, he collapsed, slashing just .168/.256/.301 for a 52 wRC+.

Hiura has been a star for the Brewers in the early stages of this spring’s shortened camp. In four games through Wednesday night, he has tallied three extra-base hits (two home runs and a double) while slashing .500/.583/1.200.

His performance on Wednesday evening may have further fueled hopes of a bounce back. Hiura went 2-for-3, smoking an opposite-field line drive for a double in the second inning and homering to left-center in the sixth.

Given his struggles, fans have been desperate for any signs of life in Hiura’s bat. He has also made some adjustments to his load, and observers are curious if these changes are making a difference.

When he was drafted, some scouts expressed concern regarding the busy lower-body movements Hiura exhibited as he began his swing. His load featured a quick toe-tap and a dramatic leg kick. The Brewers insisted that this timing mechanism helped more than it hurt and did not push him to make any changes. Fast forward a few years, and Hiura has eliminated his toe-tap and reduced his leg kick in response to his struggles.

Observe the differences between the two loads pictured below. Last season, Hiura’s front leg was parallel with his back knee at the height of his leg kick. This year, the front leg is remaining well below the knee.

By scrapping the toe tap and downsizing the leg kick, Hiura’s load now features less movement than it previously did.

Hiura’s prospect reputation, past success, and recent adjustments make it easy to overreact to any positive results. While he is more than capable of bouncing back this season, it would be wise to pump the breaks on any hype generated by these few games.

A four-game sample means nothing statistically. This is especially true of spring training samples. Furthermore, considering the root of Hiura’s struggles, his slash line in these games will not indicate whether he has figured something out.

Hiura has barreled up the baseball early in camp, but he never lost that ability at any point in his young career. His 15.2% barrel rate in 2021 was the highest of his career. The problem was that Hiura was not making enough contact for that to matter. His strikeout rate, which already sat at a concerning 31% in his otherwise successful debut season, ballooned to 39% last year. Most concerningly, his whiff rate against fastballs shot up to an unfathomable 46%.

Those proved to be too many empty swings to overcome at the MLB level, but they did not hamper Hiura much in Triple-A. He punched out in 34% of his appearances with the Nashville Sounds last season but still posted a solid 127 wRC+. It also did not limit him in last year’s spring training, when he hit four home runs and posted a .936 OPS despite a 35% strikeout rate.

In hindsight, that spring training strikeout rate may have been a sign that Hiura’s timing was never quite right from the very beginning of 2021. Similarly, former Brewer Travis Shaw struck out in nearly half of his plate appearances in the spring preceding his 2019 collapse. In Hiura’s case, a shiny slash line in low-stakes games masked what was becoming a severe contact problem.

The same thing could easily happen again this spring. To be successful at baseball’s highest level, Hiura must cut down on his whiffs. We do not yet know if he has improved in that area. He likely will not accumulate enough at-bats in a shortened spring for his strikeout rate to mean much.

The eye test is also inconclusive. Hiura has put good swings on some pitches but missed others. On Wednesday night, he struck out on a high fastball in his second at-bat. Before hitting his home run, he began that at-bat by whiffing on a fastball right down the middle and taking another over the plate for a strike.

Swings and misses are at the core of Keston Hiura’s struggles. He can still hit the ball hard and collect plenty of hits in preseason play without demonstrating that he has improved upon his greatest weakness. While it certainly is not a bad thing to see Hiura finding some success, keep in mind that his spring training numbers will not prove that he’s back to being a productive hitter.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and MLB.com.