Keston Hiura is having an odd season. His significant reverse platoon splits are well-documented, but that’s not the only aspect of his performance that stands out.
Among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances this season, Hiura ranks second with a 60.4% three-true-outcome rate. He and Joey Bart are the only two hitters to eclipse 60%. That means that well over half of Hiura’s plate appearances this season are ending in a walk, strikeout, or home run.
Such a profile dramatically differs from the complete hitter Hiura was advertised to be when the Brewers drafted him ninth overall in 2017. Scouts praised his bat speed, timing, power and ability to go to all fields.
Instead, the Brewers currently have a hitter who more closely resembles the dollar store version of Joey Gallo.
The first signs that Hiura would not live up to some scouts’ expectations were on display in his rookie season. While he slashed a strong .303/.368/.570 (139 wRC+), he struck out 30.7% of the time.
The swing and miss issues only worsened from there. Hiura’s strikeout rate ballooned to 34.6% in 2020 and 39.1% in 2021. His performance continued to deteriorate to the point where he spent most of the second half of last season in Triple-A.
What remained consistent was Hiura’s ability to crush the baseball when he made contact. He posted a 13.5% barrel rate as a rookie, which increased to 14.2% and 15.2% the following two seasons.
Last season, Hiura was swinging and missing at historic rates. Combine that with impressive numbers when he put the ball in play, and it became apparent that a power-centric approach was his best path to success.
It appears both the Brewers and Hiura realized this and have begun adjusting accordingly. As the season has progressed, it has become increasingly clear that he is leaning into a three-true-outcomes approach.
The first piece of evidence is in Hiura’s plate appearances.
Two of the three outcomes—strikeouts and home runs—have been present for his entire career, but he was missing the walks. Over his first three seasons, Hiura drew free passes at a below-average 7% clip.
This season, Hiura is walking 11.1% of the time. For the first time in his career, his swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone is lower than the league average.
Meanwhile, Hiura is destroying the ball when he puts it in play. He is currently boasting career-highs in barrel rate (16.9%), average exit velocity (93.1 mph), and expected wOBA on contact (.552). He would be near the top of the league in all those categories if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.
A comment from Craig Counsell in a postgame press conference from early June also hints that Hiura has embraced a three-true-outcomes style of hitting.
"We have to figure out a way to score." #ThisIsMyCrew manager Craig Counsell reacts after being shutout by the San Diego Padres on Saturday. pic.twitter.com/Q90P6hoGKF— Bally Sports Wisconsin (@BallySportWI) June 4, 2022
There’s strikeouts in there, and there’s damage in there. Today, we saw the one we didn’t want to see. That’s who Keston is. and we gotta live with that with Keston.
With this remark, Counsell publicly acknowledged that the Brewers are aware of Hiura’s strikeout problem, but that’s not much of a revelation. What’s more interesting is that his words imply that the organization thinks the problem has grown to the point of being unfixable. Consistently high strikeout rates are a fundamental component of who Hiura is as a hitter.
If there is no remedy for the strikeout issue, Hiura and the Brewers instead need to find a way to work around it. It sure looks like the new plan is for Hiura to spit on anything out of the zone and try to do serious damage (“there’s damage in there”) on anything over the plate.
Because his swing-and-miss issues prevent him from racking up hits, Hiura must draw plenty of walks to get on base at a respectable rate. He also needs to maximize the value of his batted balls by hitting for as much power as possible.
Adam Dunn and Gallo are perhaps the most well-known examples of recent hitters to use this approach. Dunn hit .237 over his 14-year career with a 28.6% strikeout rate, but strong on-base and slugging numbers (15.8% walk rate and .253 ISO) helped him produce a solid 123 wRC+. Gallo is the most extreme example, hitting just .202 for his career with a 37% strikeout rate. Thanks to a 15% walk rate and .273 ISO, he has been able to manage a 112 wRC+.
The early results look promising for Hiura, who is slashing .238/.354/.451 for a 128 wRC+, a fairly typical line for a three-true-outcomes hitter. However, looking beyond those surface-level numbers reveals that he is still far from finding sustained success with his new approach.
Despite scrapping the toe tap before his load and reducing his leg kick, Hiura has not eliminated nearly enough swing and miss from his game. This season, his whiff and swinging-strike rates are still 43.8% and 19.3%, respectively. For reference, Gallo has a career 41.2% whiff rate and 17.4% swinging-strike rate.
It only gets worse from there. Hiura is making contact on just 62.9% of swings at pitches in the strike zone, which is the lowest rate of any hitter with 100 plate appearances this season. Gallo’s career zone-contact rate is 67.4%. Gallo is notorious for striking out 35 to 38% of the time in each of his full big-league seasons. Hiura is striking out at a 43.8% clip.
While Hiura has become much more patient in the box this year, he is still nowhere close to Gallo’s level of selectivity. Hiura’s 26.6% chase rate is lower than the league average of 28.7%, but Gallo’s career chase rate is 24.6%. Hiura’s solid 11.1% walk rate is also a far cry from Gallo’s career 15% rate.
All of that translates to a 0.25 walk-to-strikeout ratio for Hiura this season versus a career 0.41 ratio for Gallo.
Gallo is an anomaly, and his profile is so extreme that his exact approach works only for him. Hiura still swings and misses more often than Gallo and walks less, which does not bode well for his hopes of sustained success (or even competence) offensively.
This issue does not stem from Hiura’s platoon splits, either. While he struggles even more against left-handers because they attack his weakest zones, he still has a 42.6% whiff rate and 20.3% swinging strike rate against right-handers.
Metrics that emphasize underlying data to more accurately evaluate performance have taken notice. Strikeouts and walks are among the factors these metrics take into account, so it is no surprise that they do not favor Hiura.
Statcast-based expected metrics believe he should have a .196/.320/.445 line. That would still make Hiura a slightly above-average offensive player. However, it is worth noting that these metrics favor hitters because they are based primarily on past results with a livelier ball that is no longer in use.
Baseball Prospectus is exceptionally bearish on Hiura’s performance, pegging him for a “deserved” line of .200/.295/.379 line, which translates to an 83 DRC+. Gallo, meanwhile, owns a career 95 DRC+.
Hiura’s success this season stems from a .412 BABIP, including a .520 BABIP against right-handers. While his ability to hit the ball extremely hard with a high line-drive rate makes Hiura a strong candidate to be a high-BABIP hitter, sustaining a BABIP north of .400 is extremely rare. Sustaining one for an entire career is borderline impossible.
There have been 13,418 individual seasons of 500 or more plate appearances in baseball history. Just 29 of them (2.2%) have featured a BABIP of .400 or higher. Among hitters with at least 4,000 career plate appearances, the highest career BABIP is .378 and belongs to Ted Williams.
Even if Hiura has hit the ball well enough to deserve a .412 BABIP, no hitter can continue to produce at that rate.
Hiura is working through a transition phase. He is shifting to a three-true-outcomes approach in an effort to establish himself despite his high strikeout tendencies. While he has made some progress, he is still nowhere close to establishing himself as a reliable big-league bat. As of now, he still swings and misses too much for even a Joey Gallo-esque hitter. If he cannot even marginally improve his bat-to-ball skills, his career may be destined for failure.
For now, all Hiura and the Brewers can do is keep working and hope for the best.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus.