Few players with just 594 major league plate appearances are as polarizing as Keston Hiura. With a ready-made bat coming out of college, top-prospect pedigree, great minor-league track record, and strong first season at the plate the Milwaukee Brewers‘ second basemen was highly coveted heading into 2020 fantasy drafts. However, the Valencia, California native disappointed last season, mainly due to his struggles with pitches up in the zone. With his 2021 draft cost still relatively high, is there enough evidence to believe in a rebound?
A Hot Start
Taking a look at Hiura’s minor-league statistics, it is not surprising that he got off to a torrid start at the plate in his first stint in the majors. After being selected with the ninth pick out of the University of California Irvine by the Brewers, Hiura put a hurting on minor-league pitching. The lowest wRC+ he had in the minors was 116 at AA in 2018, but that was after being promoted from High-A where he put up a 156 wRC+ through 50 games.
In 2019, the Hiura hype grew out of control as he made a mockery of Triple-A pitching, hitting 19 home runs in 57 games with an outstanding .681 slugging percentage. He hit another 19 home runs at the big-league level with a 139 wRC+ and added nine stolen bases for good measure. The Beer Makers seemed poised to have another strong bat to pair in the lineup with Christian Yelich and fantasy managers who stashed the former Anteater were rewarded with a terrific power-speed combo at the keystone position for 84 games.
Taking a look under the hood made the 2019 July NL Rookie of the Month’s first season even more impressive. Hiura’s 2019 Statcast charts were riddled with coveted red ink as he ranked near the top of the league in almost every key hitting metric. The second basemen raked in the 96th percentile in hard-hit rate, 92nd in barrel percentage, and 89th in exit velocity. Hiura found himself ahead of guys like Yelich, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Cody Bellinger on Baseball Savant leaderboards. The hype seemed justified.
Not everything went well for Hiura during his rookie season. There were a few underlying metrics that caused some concern, mainly his high strikeout rate. His 30.7% K-rate was in the bottom 4% of the league and his 36.2 whiff percentage was in the bottom 3%. Perhaps even more concerning was his 74.6% zone contact percentage (league average is 84%), meaning that he was swinging and missing at a quarter of the balls inside the strike zone.
Hiura’s upside made it easy to shrug off those red flags. His tantalizing power-speed combo in today’s high-strikeout environment allowed for fantasy managers to make him one of the first second basemen off the board in drafts last spring and summer. Similar high-strikeout, power profiles like Ronald Acuna, Javier Baez, and Aaron Judge provided a blueprint for Hiura to follow. Plus, there has been some interesting research showing that high strikeout rates correlate with higher exit velocities and better swing paths:
Ever wonder why K% has no impact on overall performance?
..Higher exit velocity and better swing paths drive K rates up
..What you need to look at is ‘Isolated K Rate’ – After taking out the ‘good stuff’
..also, hoping to have our Member Zone up in another week or two. pic.twitter.com/aPYy6GsbyU
— SwingGraphs (@SwingGraphs) December 7, 2020
All things considered and despite the high K-rate, Hiura looked like a fairly safe buy heading into 2020.
The Worst-Case Scenario
Pretty much any meme about how awful 2020 has been could also be used to describe Hiura’s year at the plate in his second season as he struggled to a .212/.297/.410 line. While he did still manage to hit 13 home runs, the underlying numbers made those surface stats look even worse. Using Baseball Savants’ new Year to Year Changes tool is great unless your name is Keston Hiura.
|Hard Hit %||50||39.6||-10.4|
|Sweet Spot %||38||34.3||-3.7|
|In Zone Swing %||47.6||48.2||0.6|
|Out of Zone Swing %||52.4||51.8||-0.6|
|First Pitch Swing %||31.6||26.8||-4.8|
|First Pitch Strike %||62.6||54.1||-8.5|
Perhaps most the most alarming parts of Hiura’s season were a decline in his plate discipline and a deteriorating batted-ball profile. His already-high strikeout rate jumped almost 4%, whiff-rate skyrocketed to a staggering 42.7%, and zone-contact% dropped to a concerning 67.9%. On top of this, he lost 4% in his line drive rate. A worsening batted-ball profile with a plate approach that clearly wasn’t working was a recipe for disaster. Even Hiura’s still-elite barrel rate couldn’t save him.
A Cause and Possible Solution
There is a reason for Hiura’s issues in 2020: a hole in his swing. That hole is located at the very top of the strike zone. He saw 133 pitches in the upper third of the zone (13% of all pitches he saw in 2020) and had exactly one of those pitches result in a hard hit. Looking at his Savant heat map, it is clear where Hiura struggled:
Last year, Hiura had a 23.3 K% and a .275 xBA on high fastballs.
This year…it’s jumped up to 85.7% and he has yet to but a ball in play 👀
As a side note…Chavis has a 100 K% 😲
— Shelly ‘First-Rate’ Verougstraete (@ShellyV_643) August 22, 2020
Hiura did not fare any better on pitches up in the zone for the rest of the season. However, his “Michael Chavis Problem” was a new one as he did have some success with the high stuff in 2019:
|wOBA||wOBA||xwOBA||xwOBA||Whiff %||Whiff %||K%||K%||Hard Hit %||Hard Hit %|
|Up & In||.099||.359||.188||.273||61%||33%||57%||22%||0%||2%|
|Up & Middle||.109||.350||.092||.362||53%||32%||75%||27%||0%||11%|
|Up & Away||.323||.506||.230||.553||65%||43%||83%||33%||3%||14%|
Given that the 24-year-old displayed some strong numbers up in the zone in a larger sample in 2019, it is safe to say there should be some regression in his favor in 2021.
Additionally, with the short time frame to make an adjustment and the large problem that this is, Hiura couldn’t salvage his 2020 season. However, there are some reasons for optimism. He showed much better plate discipline in the minors, carrying much more palatable walk-rates, and only striking out more than 21% of the time just one year (his final year in AAA when he put up 155 wRC+ with a .438 wOBA). Hiura was known for his work ethic and commitment to hitting throughout the minors and in college (he has been working with a hitting coach since he was nine years old) and was putting in the time during the season to improve.
A Path to Get Back on Track
It is hard to just throw your hands up and say this is now the hitter that Hiura is. A bat with his track record, even at the collegiate and minor league levels, would be foolish to give up on. With a full offseason to address the hole in his swing, Hiura could be back on track to be one of the best second basemen in fantasy baseball once again. There have been trajectories to long-term success for a hitter such as the one Hiura is currently on: Trevor Story’s up and down start to his career comes to mind.
The senior-circuit middle infielders have more in common than their high power, high strikeout profiles. In fact, the Rockies’ superstar shortstop had a similar issue to Hiura during his first two major league seasons. After a strong rookie campaign, the Texas native flopped in 2017 (82 wRC+ after posting a 122 in 2016).
However, the similarities go beyond the surface stats (they posted an eerily similar 31% and 34% K-rate during their first two seasons, respectively). A big reason for Story’s struggles was that pitchers were exposing him up in the strike zone. In 145 games Story had just 4 barrels on pitches in the upper third of the zone (out of the 311 pitches in that location).
|wOBA||wOBA||xwOBA||xwOBA||Whiff %||Whiff %||K%||K%||Hard Hit %||Hard Hit %|
|Up & In||.188||.67||.163||.333||23%||28%||43%||50%||0%||3%|
|Up & Middle||.264||.462||.219||.385||28%||39%||34%||25%||7%||8%|
|Up & Away||.160||.312||.129||.211||29%||29%||61%||44%||5%||3%|
After the league adjusted to Story, he adjusted back. After hitting .224 on high fastballs in 2017, he was able to improve that number to .267 in 2018 which led to a remarkable bounce-back season and MVP votes in each year since then. Story has also been one of the most valuable hitters in fantasy baseball racking up 83 homers and 65 stolen bases the past three years.
While he still swings and misses a lot, Story has increased his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate on pitches in the upper third of the zone, and pitchers can no longer attack him in one area. He made those adjustments in 2018 with a youth hitting coach and a more aggressive approach. This is very similar to the approach Hiura was taking at the end of last season:
Contact is everything because Hiura holds a K rate above 55% in 2-strike counts.
He needs to be aggressive early in the count & he needs to make contact.
In Sept, he made a slight adjustment to quiet his upper body w/ his leg kick & stand more upright. pic.twitter.com/pxZPnMBld1
— Matt Williams (@MattWi77iams) December 14, 2020
The blueprint is there for the Brewers’ second basemen, but if he can make the strides Story did in his third season remains to be seen. If Hiura is successful in adapting to pitches up in the zone, a great combination of power and speed (albeit with fewer stolen bases as he does not have elite sprint speed) with a decent batting average is not out of the question.
While that may be a lofty expectation, Hiura still provides that upside which is a tempting thing to gamble on come draft day. Recency bias is a helluva drug, an even stronger one with the pandemic-shortened 2020 sample. Combining Hiura’s first two seasons is a fair baseline for his projections (Steamer currently pegs him for a more-than-serviceable .255/.323/.474 line with 30 homers and 11 stolen bases in 149 games), but there is an even greater upside and a different “Story” if Hiura makes the right adjustments and can do damage on the high pitch in 2021.
Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)