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The writing was on the wall for Keston Hiura’s Brewers tenure

Signs of Milwaukee’s willingness to move on from former top prospect date back to last season

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

After the Brewers pulled Keston Hiura from their Cactus League lineup Friday afternoon, General Manager Matt Arnold confirmed that Milwaukee’s 2017 ninth-overall draft pick would not make the team’s roster out of spring training.

The Brewers are actively attempting to trade Hiura before Opening Day. If a deal does not come together, they will expose him to waivers. While the club is open to keeping him in the minor leagues if he goes unclaimed, several teams would be interested in scooping Hira up. His Brewers tenure is likely over.

The news was not surprising. Hiura entered camp on the roster bubble and slashed .156/.229/.219 with 15 strikeouts in 35 spring training plate appearances. Given his lack of a defensive home, Hiura needed to prove that he found something at the plate this spring, and he did not.

That said, Hiura likely would have missed the cut even with a better performance in Arizona. It never seemed that he was seriously considered for a roster spot. Instead, Hiura was in camp as a fallback option in the event of injuries and perhaps with the hope that a solid showing might boost his trade value.

How the club handled Hiura’s playing time in 2022 suggested that he was not part of its future plans.

Hiura slashed .226/.316/.449 in a part-time role last year, belting 14 home runs in 266 plate appearances. That output made him an above-average hitter (115 wRC+) for the first time since his rookie season in 2019.

Few hitters inflicted as much damage on balls in play as Hiura. Among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances, his .542 wOBAcon (weighted on-base average on contact) was fourth, trailing only Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, and Trayce Thompson.

Despite those seemingly-encouraging numbers, Craig Counsell declined to give Hiura an extended look in the lineup for much of the year, instead keeping him in a limited role. The Brewers even optioned him to Triple-A a few times when they needed to open up a roster spot on the bench.

While Counsell denied it publicly, Hiura did not receive more playing time because the Brewers never believed his output was sustainable.

Initially viewed as a long-term anchor of Milwaukee’s lineup, Hiura lost his grip on a starting role when he struggled to a 53 wRC+ in 2021. At the root of his collapse was a 39% strikeout rate.

To work his way back into the lineup, Hiura needed to improve his ability to make contact dramatically. On the heels of such an alarming strikeout rate, he made several adjustments to his setup and swing. Despite those changes, Hiura set a new career-worst by fanning 42% of the time in 2022.

A deeper dive into Hiura’s plate discipline reveals some minor improvements. He improved his contact rate on pitches in the strike zone from 61% to 71%, and his overall contact rate improved from 54% to 62%.

Those improvements did not mean that he was close to figuring things out. Hiura’s contact rates in 2021 were historically poor, and they still ranked third-worst among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances last season.

Why is Hiura’s strikeout rate such a big deal? Historically, players who swing and miss as often as he does do not find consistent success.

Hiura’s career strikeout rate is 36%. There have been six other hitters in major-league history to receive at least 500 career plate appearances (just under enough to qualify for a batting title) while striking out at least that often.

The list is so short because most hitters will stop getting opportunities if they struggle that badly to make contact. These players had other standout skills that afforded them more chances.

Of these six, three have been above-average by OPS+: Miguel Sano (116), Joey Gallo (109), and Patrick Wisdom (107). Tyler Austin (96) has been below average. Keon Broxton (79) and Brett Phillips (72) have been dreadful at the plate but are regarded as top-tier defensive outfielders.

Sano, Gallo, and Wisdom are decent reference points for Hiura because they also have tremendous raw power, but Sano and Gallo walk at much higher rates. Gallo is also a strong defender.

Based on the limited historical precedent, a realistic best-case scenario for Hiura is that he is an above-average but unspectacular offensive player. That was the case last season, albeit in a limited sample. Such production would be welcome if he brought some value in the field but is less useful as a strict designated hitter.

A more pessimistic observer would point out that Hiura’s career strikeout rate is nearly seven percentage points lower than his 41% strikeout rate over the past two seasons. That means he must make significant strides to produce at the Sano and Gallo level moving forward. He would also need to continue posting some of the best results in the sport on batted balls to compensate for his lack of contact, leaving him with no room for stretches in which he is not producing elite exit velocities.

What if Hiura’s strikeout rate is stuck in that 40% range? Let’s change the criteria of the previous list to hitters with at least 500 plate appearances and a career strikeout rate of at least 40%.

There is no list. No big-league hitter has had such a level of sustained success while striking out at least 40% of the time. Wisdom’s 118 OPS+ in 2021, when he struck out at a 41% rate in 375 plate appearances, is the closest. In 2022, his strikeout rate and OPS+ fell to 34% and 102, respectively.

The bottom line is that Hiura’s outlook is highly questionable at best and bleak at worst. It’s been that way for quite some time, and the Brewers have long been aware. It’s partially why they stood by the mediocre output of Andrew McCutchen at designated hitter instead of rolling the dice on Hiura. Counsell attempted to shoehorn his reverse splits into the lineup when the club needed a jolt against left-handed pitching, but until Hiura projected as a reliable hitter, that was largely the extent of the playing time he would receive.

While a change of scenery seemed inevitable in recent months, the events leading up to it would have seemed unfathomable early in Hiura’s professional career.

No prospect is a sure thing, but most scouts pegged him with 60 and 70 hit grades on the 20-80 scale at the time of the draft. Many believed he had the best hit tool in the 2017 draft class. Hiura was supposed to be as close to a slam dunk as it gets.

Things changed in 2019, the year of Hiura’s major-league debut. After striking out at a manageable 18% rate in Double-A Biloxi the previous season, Hiura’s strikeout rate spiked to 26% in Triple-A. Underneath his strong rookie output in the big leagues was a somewhat concerning 31% strikeout rate. From there, the issue exacerbated into an insurmountable weakness that helped bring about the likely end of his time in Milwaukee.

It’s unclear how a player with such a highly-regarded hit tool became one of the sport’s worst contact hitters. Hiura, for his part, recently took personal responsibility for his career arc, saying that he developed bad habits mechanically in 2020 and failed to address them soon enough.

However, Hiura’s profile shifted the year before. There were rumblings that the Brewers altered his swing in search of more home runs, resulting in Hiura’s swing-and-miss problem and inconsistent MLB output.

Even if there is no truth to those rumors, the Brewers still bear responsibility for failing to steer a natural talent back on track. The club has been dreadful at developing reliable homegrown bats in the David Stearns and Arnold era. Hiura’s unsuccessful development will likely go down as the organization’s greatest failure in that area.

It also prompts a discussion about the current wave of prospects on whom the Brewers are set to rely this year. Will players like Garrett Mitchell, Sal Frelick, Joey Wiemer, and Brice Turang be the product of an organization that has figured out how to identify and develop hitters, or will they be the latest in a growing line of disappointments?

Whether the Brewers failed Hiura, Hiura failed the Brewers, or the two failed each other, one thing is certain: Friday’s announcement was a moment everyone knew was coming. It is the culmination of a snowball that began rolling downhill shortly before he reached the major leagues.

The Brewers waited as long as they could for Hiura to make strides offensively. Those strides never came. Time is up.