Brewers second base / left field / designated hitter prospect Keston Hiura rocketed to the top of the farm system upon the completion of the Christian Yelich trade, and his 2018 minor league campaign has expanded the pure hitter’s fan favorite status. With previous hype favorite Corbin Burnes finding a tough Triple-A pitching atmosphere realigning his minor league surface statistics with his realistic middle rotation MLB role (a good thing), there was a notable void to be filled for fans suddenly finding themselves watching a near-Bottom Third (middle at best) farm system. After Burnes, Hiura, and maybe Corey Ray, perhaps a couple of others if you find the right light, there is quite a chasm in roles even within the Top Five of the current system. With a clear lack of organizational prospect star power, Hiura’s excellence on the field breathes hope that the Brewers can bolster their stunning contending squad with a right-handed batting middle infield prospect.
In a way, I don’t need to write this article. So many minds are already made; I see it on Brewers Twitter everyday, that Keston Hiura is a slam dunk, guaranteed superstar prospect, and it does not matter where or how you look at it. Hiura should be untouchable in midseason trade talks; Hiura will be a guaranteed top of the order bat for the Brewers for the foreseeable future; when the Brewers’ impressive 40+ Wins Above Replacement (WAR) First Round Draft record was noted on draft day, it was easy for some to emphasize that Keston Hiura is next. Never mind that according to Baseball Reference, approximately 500 players in the entire history of baseball have reached this plateau, this next prospect is a certain thing. But my mind has waivered on Hiura, and I gather I’m not the only one who not only cringes at the unnecessary prospect hype (these will be the same people leading the torches to Miller Park should Hiura “settle” as a 5.0 WAR player or become a DH-trade asset, yet another unnecessary practice with judging MLB players), but who is genuinely perplexed about the issue posed by Hiura’s potential role. For it is easy to focus on the Top Percentile outcome, “Keston Hiura, All Star Second Baseman for the Brewers,” and end the dreaming there; if that’s your position, you probably do not need to read this article. Yet serious questions remain about how Hiura fits in the organization in his secondary, realistic risk roles of Left Field or Designated Hitter, and those questions are tied up in the thorny information asymmetry wrapped in the prospect’s throwing elbow.
It is obvious that none of us know who Hiura will be. One could look at his hitting mechanics and doubles-oriented pop and see a realistic chance that he sticks in the MLB regardless of his fielding role. His fielding roles might not be certain, or even linear; he could begin his career at second base in Milwaukee, fall off defensively, and move to designated hitter or left field. A development in his game could theoretically find him at a different position all together, especially given the flexibility-oriented mindset of many contemporary MLB teams (he could be a PH / DH / 2B / LF). He could fall off second base before even leaving the minors, but prove himself worthy of a shot in left field (this is the phenomenal Willie Calhoun role comp provided by Baseball Prospectus on their Top 10 list). All that is before considering any potential development courses derailed by the elbow injury. Yet even some members of the Baseball Prospectus prospect team have changed their public voice on Hiura, leading one to wonder whether the floor of that realistic / risk role is diminishing in likelihood.
This feature is meant as an exercise in probabilistic thinking, in which aspects of the historical record in MLB are used to define Hiura’s potential outlook using the structure of the game. The assumption is that because of MLB’s competitive organizational environment, including the quick learning of new strategies as well as the constant search for viable alternative or underappreciated strategies, there are legitimate organizational-structural constraints that define Player Development. This does not mean that history forms the future, but rather that the history of the game used in a narrow, comparative manner will provide some evidence that can inform projections about contemporary players. Here, I will focus on body type, pedigree, and defensive profile to outline just some of the extremely diverse futures that could greet Hiura.
Entering 2018, the PECOTA comparison system viewed Hiura as a bat-first prospect, and developed a projection that pegged the prospect as a replacement player second baseman for Milwaukee (a good thing). Hiura’s MLB batting line according to the March 23, 2018 PECOTA projection (CSV download, March 23, 2018) was .225 / .274 / .363, which is not bad for a prospect leaping to the MLB within a year of the MLB Amateur Draft. Much more interesting than the stats are the player comparisons generated by the underlying patterns and age curve recognized for Hiura.
|PECOTA Comparisons||Preseason 2018|
|Jose Osuna||age-21 in 2014 / Advanced A repeat / Contact-oriented bat with some pop|
|Dominic Smith||age-21 in 2016 / Class AA debut / Contact-oriented bat with HR breakout|
|Matt Davidson||age-21 in 2012 / Class AA debut / Three-True Outcomes bat|
PECOTA compared Hiura to three strong MLB role prospects. Matt Davidson ranked in the second tier of a stacked Arizona Diamondbacks Top 10 for 2012, with a clear bat-first role based on his power. Entering 2016, Dominic Smith ranked fifth in the New York Mets system with a 45 Overall Future Potential role as Second-Division Starter. Here the batting question awaited power at a limited defensive role. Jose Osuna was the only member of this trio unranked by Baseball Prospectus entering their age-21 season, although it’s worth emphasizing that this is not a knock against Osuna. The Pirates prospect was fighting within a system that saw Alen Hanson, Luis Heredia, and Harold Ramirez as prospects 8-through-10. Nevertheless, this trio provides interesting minor league statistical performances in their age-21 campaigns, drawing some comparison to Hiura in terms of relative discipline profile (here I am using strike outs (K) and walks (BB)), especially for both Smith and Osuna.
In terms of draft pedigree, Hiura’s First Round, Ninth pick standard is quite interesting because this area of the draft begins to shift from “going for a clear superstar territory” to “gambling on many comparable ‘best player available’ types,” leaving an unclear expectation for the pick. Yet, according to Baseball Reference, 34 of 54 players have historically made the MLB from this draft slot, and that ticks up in the modern draft era (17 of 21 Ninth overall picks from 1995-2015 reached the MLB). These players are typically not superstars in the sense one would use to discuss the most elite players in the game. Of the 21 Wild Card era Ninth picks, Geoff Jenkins, Michael Cuddyer, and Mark Kotsay are the best retired position players, and Javier Baez, Austin Meadows, and Ian Happ are just now establishing their careers. Historically, each Ninth pick is worth approximately 5.0 WAR with 62 percent odds of reaching the MLB, while more recently (1995-2015) each Ninth pick is worth approximately 7.0 WAR (and counting) with 81 percent odds of reaching the MLB (the standard deviation is 10.1, which demonstrates the absurd volatility of the MLB draft and MLB career trajectories). In other words, the baseline for Hiura’s professional career features quite strong odds of reaching the MLB (they are not set in stone) and a very solid average performance (5.0 to 7.0 WAR is nothing to sneeze at in terms of the grand scheme of baseball). In fact, in a crude sense, a 7.0 WAR performance would extrapolate Hiura’s 50th Percentile PECOTA over the course of approximately four seasons: a solid career, indeed, and potentially one that is viewed as reasonable by projection systems.
It is fun to see that, thus far, several of the active Ninth Pick players are playing in the National League Central, adding intrigue to the standard divisional competition. If Hiura wishes to make his mark on this Overall Pick, Javier Baez, Austin Meadows, and Ian Happ could each impact Hiura’s potential assessment of greatness.
Keston Hiura is a relatively short ballplayer, and one can use his body type to investigate MLB roles as well. This is not an insult to Hiura; it’s simply a fact, as even on his own Double-A Biloxi Shuckers squad, 33 Shuckers taller than Hiura have played in 2018. Height has real world consequences in defining MLB roles, as Hiura may become less likely to play at first base than other bat-first prospects in search of a positional home; given that the arm may also keep Hiura off right field, the nomadic defensive spectrum speculation for Hiura’s future mightily limits the prospect’s path. This is not a problem, but it should help to round out some role risk probabilities. Height also affects Hiura’s positional future in left field, as Baseball Reference Play Index shows that Kiké Hernandez is the first 5’11”, 182-200 pound MLB player since 1989 to play Left Field while debuting at age-22; the last 5’11”, 182-200 pound MLB player to debut at Left Field during their age-21 season was Danny Heep in 1979. During the Expansion Era, only 94 MLB position players debuted at age-21 with a listed height of 5’11”, while only 134 MLB position players debuted at age-22 with a listed height of 5’11”.
The historical path to an early (age-21 or age-22) debut for a 5’11”, 182-200 pound player is much clearer at second base. Here, a fascinating range of roles emerge.
|2B / 5’11” / 182-190 LB / age-21||Performance||Career (Best)|
|Steve Sax (1981)||.277 / .317 / .345 (127 PA)||14 Seasons / 23.1 WARP (1986 5.6 WARP)|
|Tomas Perez (1995)||.245 / .292 / .327 (106 PA)||12 Seasons / -1.8 WARP (2002 0.6 WARP)|
|Abraham Nunez (1997)||.225 / .289 / .375 (45 PA)||12 Seasons / 2.6 WARP (2005 1.9 WARP)|
|2B / 5’11” / 182-190 LB / age-22||Performance||Career (Best)|
|Pete Rose (!!!) (1963)||.273 / .334 / .371 (696 PA)||25 Seasons / 82.4 WARP (1973 9.7 WARP)|
|Blake DeWitt (2008)||.264 / .344 / .383 (421 PA)||6 Seasons / 4.7 WARP (2008 3.0 WARP)|
|Carlos Triunfel (2012)||.227 / .261 / .318 (24 PA)||3 Seasons / -0.8 WARP (2012 0.0 WARP)|
|Yolmer Sanchez (2014)||.250 / .269 / .300 (104 PA)||5+ Seasons / 0.2 WARP (2017 1.6 WARP)|
|Kiké Hernandez (2014)||.248 / .321 / .421 (134 PA)||5+ Seasons / 6.5 WARP (2017 2.3 WARP)|
|Daniel Castro (2015)||.240 / .263 / .344 (100 PA)||3+ Seasons / -0.9 WARP (2015 0.3 WARP)|
It’s impossible to unsee Pete Rose, and that’s just such an interesting comparison for a million reasons, not the least of which that Rose’s general lack of home run power in favor of a high average, doubles-oriented approach might actually fit Hiura’s batting profile in some ways. But I do not find it helpful to focus on 80 WARP players while discussing potential prospect roles; obviously that would be an “everything goes perfectly,” elite percentile prospect outcome that would challenge Robin Yount as the greatest player in Brewers history (in terms of WARP). Kiké Hernandez, Steve Sax, and Blake DeWitt are my favorites on this list in terms of rounding out potential role determinations or profiles.
- Hernandez is a positionally flexible player that showed an early career ability to hit (2015) prior to becoming a utility player;
- Steve Sax was a batting-average and doubles hitter that used those skills to drive valuable profiles even when the glove was not there (ultimately, Sax’s 23.1 career WARP occurred with -18.8 FRAA contrasted by a .260 TAv);
- DeWitt was a player that saw an early career (first year, actually!) surge coupled with some positional trouble and a steep, almost immediate drop off.
- A “Steve Sax” career would be a phenomenal outcome for Hiura, which would also help Hiura contend with Geoff Jenkins as the best Ninth Overall position player (thus far); yet I think a “Blake DeWitt” career shows how a ballplayer can be a good prospect, produce MLB value, and also encounter some role shifts and decline at the MLB level while ultimately having a good career. To my mind, this is one way it might look if Hiura storms the MLB out of the gate at 2B, and then encounters some positional shift and offensive adjustment issues.
One final role question concerns Hiura’s potential quality of defense at second base. Outside of the prospect’s own injury concerns, it is worth investigating the structure of the position: if Hiura’s concerns produce a below average defensive profile, will that stick as an everyday 2B? Second base is a strange position, as the progression of positional average performances during the Wild Card Era (1995-2017 for full seasons) suggests that teams are generally favoring glove-first players at second base. While True Average (TAv) is modestly improving over time for regular second basemen, Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) is significantly improving across the league (see Figure One, above). Yet, isolating the very best bats among second basemen shows that contemporary MLB teams are very tolerant of below average FRAA seasons when the bat is excellent. Recent seasons by Scooter Gennett (2017), Ben Zobrist (2016), Jose Altuve (2016, 2014), and Joe Panik (2015) show that imperfect second base defensive profiles can continue to play so long as they hit. In fact, for each five year period (or so) during the Wild Card Era, there are roughly four bat-first, poor glove 2B in the MLB at any given time. Thus, there should certainly be a future for Keston Hiura at second base if his injury does not diminish his ability to play the field, should his bat deliver at an excellent clip.
None of these structural aspects of the game impact assessments of Hiura’s mechanical and plate approach profile, which is another endeavor that can establish the right-handed batter’s risk, floor, and potential ceiling. But, these structural aspects can be used to place Hiura’s profile within the broader context of the game. Hiura is not simply a slam dunk prospect. Based on his size, if Hiura debuts in 2018 at second base, he will be a rather rare prospect and one without much historical understanding for paths to big league success. Here, a Steve Sax career is the goal, the legacy to beat in terms of maximal production. In terms of draft pedigree, Hiura was not picked in a realm that generally produces game-changing superstars, instead presenting very solid regulars and All-Stars for the game. In this regard, a Geoff Jenkins profile is the goal, the legacy to beat in terms of maximal production. While assessing potential shortcomings in Hiura’s profile, especially at second base, it is worth emphasizing that a great-bat-bad-glove second baseman will work in the contemporary MLB. Here, the role ranges clearly from Scooter Gennett to Jose Altuve, rounding out a wide range of useful MLB potential futures.
None of these structural aspects of the game provide predictive insights for Hiura’s future. Rather, they can be used in order to help inform background expectations and probabilistic insights into the value of Hiura’s production should the youngster reach the MLB. Instead of attempting to view Hiura as an MLB slam dunk, it is worth meandering through these fields of potential roles in order to understand the wide range of success that could await Hiura. For MLB success is not simply stardom-or-bust, even for a prospect like Hiura.
Baseball Prospectus. Individual Stats – Season Totals [CSV]. Parameters: 2B, MLB, All-Time.
Baseball Prospectus. Top 10 Prospects Landing Page.
Baseball Reference. MLB Draft. Ninth Overall Pick, and 2017 First Round.
Baseball Reference. Play Index. Separate Age-21 and Age-22 Searches, separate searches for 2B, DH, and LF, each where height = 71 inches; weight >= 182 lbs; weight <= 200 lbs.
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