By Joshua Iversen
At first glance, Keston Hiura (listed at 5’11”, 190 lbs.) might not look like much, but watch a few at-bats from the Milwaukee Brewers prospect and it’s easy to see what all the hype is about.
Undrafted out of Valencia High School despite gaudy numbers, Hiura attended UC Irvine and showed the world what he does best: hit. Over his three seasons at UCI, Hiura slashed .375/.466/.581 with 22 home runs in 165 games. His junior year, in particular, he went ballistic, leading all NCAA players with at least 110 plate appearances in batting average (.442) and OBP (.567). Despite an arm injury that kept Hiura out of the field during his junior year, he was drafted 9th overall by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017.
Hiura made only three starts at second base for the Brewers in 2017, but he kept on hitting and found his way back onto the infield in 2018. He finished the 2018 season in Double-A and between his two minor league seasons has slashed .313/.374/.502 with 17 home runs and 17 stolen bases in 165 games. The 22-year-old is now ranked the Brewers’ number one prospect by MLB.com.
Even Mike Killinger, head coach at Valencia High School, was surprised by the level of success Hiura has achieved.
“I 100 percent expected Keston to have some sort of a professional career after he was done with college,” said Killinger. “Did I expect him to be the number nine pick in the draft? Not at all. As good as he was in high school, he was able to step it up to another level at UC Irvine.”
The Brewers sent Hiura to the Arizona Fall League this offseason to get more work in defensively at second base. He has continued to shine on the plate, as his 30 RBI lead the league by a landslide, with the next-best hitter having only 19. He also ranks 10th in the league in OPS with a .935 mark. But Hiura hasn’t lost sight of why he’s in the AFL in the first place.
“I like going up there and seeing a bunch of great arms and challenging myself at the plate,” Hiura told William Boor of MLB.com. “But a big reason for me being here is to get more reps on the defensive side and work hard in that aspect.”
Hiura is ranked MLB.com’s 30th best prospect overall. Defense remains his only question. According to an AFL report by John Eshleman of 2080 Baseball, Hiura has “Fringy arm strength, must really step into it.” However, Eshleman also noted that Hiura’s bat will play anywhere, and should more than make up for any lackluster defense.
“Throughout the year I was able to get a good amount of reps at second base,” Hiura told Boor. “Obviously the more you take live ground balls off the bat, the more comfortable you feel out there. Being able to throw from different lengths and arm angles definitely help when it comes to my future.”
Hiura hasn’t gotten this far based on talent alone. Hiura’s great mental attitude has left an impression on Killinger, even four years after Hiura graduated high school.
“Keston was and probably still is the easiest kid to coach,” Killinger said. “Work ethic was through the roof on the baseball field and in the weight room.”
According to Hiura’s father Kirk, Hiura has always had his head in the right place, even since a young age.
“When he struck out [when Keston was young], it didn’t really affect him,” Kirk told Mirin Fader of the Orange County Register. “Whenever anyone doubts him, he’s out to prove them wrong.”
MLB.com lists Hiura’s hit tool as 70-grade, one of the best in the minors. But you don’t need to be a professional scout to tell that Hiura’s bat is something special. Take it from the men that have coached him – Killinger, and Hiura’s head coach at UCI, Mike Gillespie.
“The best story of him was basically his entire senior season,” Killinger said. “It was amazing to watch. He hit .500 with 12 doubles, 14 home runs and it sounds crazy to say, but he had no luck that entire season. He squared up so many balls it was just amazing. He would line out somewhere every single game. He made a total of 48 outs that year and at least 25 were line drives.”
“The ball comes off different. It’s a louder sound,” Gillespie told Fader. “His line drives, they carry farther than the normal human being.”
Hiura isn’t just unique for his on-field ability and strong work ethic. Half Chinese and half Japanese, Hiura is one of only a few Asian-American players in the game today, and he uses this as motivation.
“That’s something I have noticed, growing up and playing in high school and college,” Hiura told Fader. “I definitely take pride in it. That’s been something that has really inspired me to be the person I am today.”
Hiura is knocking on the door of the big leagues, and the Brewers have a spot ready for him at second base. The 2018 NL Central Champions will likely give Hiura a taste of Triple-A to begin 2019, but by midseason, Hiura should be making an impact at the Major League level for the Crew.
“He has [Jose] Altuve-esque potential and has constantly hit well as he rises through the minor league ranks,” said CBBSN scout Daniel Schiff. “He was great in college, so I expect a starting second baseman or designated hitter, depending on his health.”
Killinger has zero doubts that Hiura will continue his success, even against the highest level of competition.
“The key to his future success will be health and opportunity,” Killinger said. “I have no doubt that when he gets the opportunity he will show up and perform, even at the Major League level.”