The newly-minted first baseman has struggled to start the year.
The Milwaukee Brewers are only three games into the 2021 MLB regular season, meaning that it is, of course, far too early to be hitting any sort of panic button just yet. But the current campaign did not get off to an encouraging start as the Brewers dropped two of their first three games at home against the Minnesota Twins over the weekend. A year after their lineup was among the league’s worst at scoring runs, the Brewers’ offense began 2021 by collectively going 17-for-100 during the opening series while amassing a total of eight runs — including six of those coming on Opening Day.
While there is plenty of time for the team to swing out of it, beginning tonight with a series on the road at Wrigley Field, there is one player whose situation warrants some extra attention during the first month of the season. That would be newly-minted first baseman Keston Hiura, who has so far dealt with issues on both sides of the ball during the outset of this season.
Hiura, as has been well-publicized, is brand new to the position of first base after growing up as a middle infielder. He had admittedly never played at the cold corner in his life before he was moved to accommodate the addition of Gold Glove second baseman Kolten Wong, who joined the roster in February. Growing pains were certainly expected, and while Hiura remained mostly anonymous in the field during the first two games, his defense became a focal point when he committed a throwing error and was involved in an ugly collision during Easter Sunday’s series finale. There have been lots of questions about Hiura’s height — or lack thereof — and how that may affect his ability to play the position, and his overall defensive aptitude suggests that he will likely always be a bat-first player.
The Brewers can certainly live with lackluster glovework at first base so long as Hiura is hitting, but he is to this point 0-for-the-season and there aren’t many signs of encouragement after last year’s debacle at the plate. Hiura has so far taken 12 trips to the plate, reaching base once via hit by pitch. He is otherwise hitless in 11 at-bats, including six strikeouts.
Last year, Hiura led Major League Baseball with 85 strikeouts across his 59 games played while hitting .212/.297/.410, a massive drop-off from the .303/.368/.570 slash line he posted as a rookie. Opposing pitchers learned to exploit weaknesses regarding chasing pitches outside the zone and issues with high fastballs thrown for strikes, and thus far it does not appear as though Keston was able to make an adjustment during the offseason. His early results show a 10% increase in O-swing rate from 2019-20; he is currently chasing pitches out of the strike zone at a 45.2% clip. Additionally, his contact on pitches inside the strike zone has plummeted down to 50%, meaning that when Hiura is swinging at strikes, he’s only making contact half of the time. Keston is swinging and missing at a rate of 26.4%; that is up more than six percentage points from 2020 and is currently the fifth-worst rate in baseball.
As mentioned above, it is still far too early to be raising the alarm regarding Keston Hiura’s struggles to begin the year. But it is worth remembering that for as outstanding as his BABIP-fueled results were in 2019, Hiura still cannot be considered an “established” hitter at the MLB level. He has fewer than a full-season’s worth of experience (146 games, to be exact) in the big leagues and was well a below-average hitter in 2020. The Brewers obviously have quite a bit invested in Hiura and appear to be counting on him as a long-term contributor; he has certainly demonstrated high offensive upside (139 wRC+ in 2019) and has yet to reach his 25th birthday. But they won’t be able to wait forever for his bat to come back around, especially if he continues to struggle defensively with his transition to first base.
The only way Hiura will be able to improve is with more innings and at-bats, so fans shouldn’t expect any moves to be made in the immediate future. Hiura does have minor league options remaining, but it wouldn’t seem to make much sense to send him down at any point before the minor league season begins in May. That gives Keston another four weeks or so to shore things up with the glove and start contributing positively at the plate, and if that doesn’t happen, then innings and at-bats at Triple-A will become available. At that point, guys like Travis Shaw, Billy McKinney, Dan Vogelbach, or even someone like Zach Green could become candidates to see more regular time at first base…but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves with speculation.
For the Brewers’ sake, hopefully Hiura begins to figure things out tonight.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs