GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Keston Hiura made his first start in left field since his college days when the Brewers visited the Reds on Wednesday night. He’s also been working on a new approach at the plate, minimizing that signature toe tap.
After two down years, give Hiura credit for embracing change.
“I think it’s fun,” Hiura said before delivering a run-scoring double and his second Cactus League home run in a 12-8 loss to the Reds. “As a baseball player -- as any kind of sports player -- it’s all about making adjustments, to challenge yourself to do something new. Obviously, it’s been a few years since I’ve been in the outfield, but I’m up for that challenge again.
“I’m open to all changes. I’m very open-minded and very easy come, easy go. Whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Hiura was supposed to be a big part of helping the Brewers win the past two seasons, but it didn’t turn out that way. He made a splash debut in 2019 with 19 home runs in 84 games. Only Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun hit more homers as Brewers rookies in franchise history. But Hiura fell flat in the shortened 2020 season (.297 on-base percentage, National League-worst 34.6 percent strikeout rate) and even flatter in '21, when he slashed .168/.256/.301 with a 39.1 percent strikeout rate. He endured multiple demotions to the Minor Leagues.
It was a dramatic fall for a player with a track record as a top hitter in high school and college before Milwaukee made him the ninth overall pick in the 2017 Draft. The Brewers were so convinced that Hiura’s 2020 offensive shortcomings were just a fluke of the pandemic that they moved him to first base prior to ’21, thinking he’d hit enough to be a mainstay there.
When it didn’t happen, Hiura set about to make some changes. He started with simplifying his swing.
“That’s just Keston learning from the game, I think,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “The game teaches you stuff as you play, right? I think Keston takes a very mature approach to it. I think he’s a mature kid. He’s always been that, really, from the day he got here.
“It’s taking ownership of his career and making decisions about what he has to do to be a good Major League player.”
Now, Hiura is further expanding his defensive repertoire. Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns forecast Hiura’s work in the outfield all the way back at the start of the offseason, saying opening Hiura to additional positions might help him contribute while he works to rediscover things at the plate.
Asked how much work he’s done in the outfield in camp, Hiura said, “I’ve been getting out there once or twice a week. Especially in batting practice, getting out there and taking live reads when I can. So far, it feels good. It brings me back to the college days a little bit.”
Is it nerve-wracking to start in the outfield so soon into this transition?
“No,” Hiura said. “I did it last year for a couple of innings and got that one play on the first batter.”
That was May 31 against the Tigers at American Family Field, when Hiura was inserted into left field as part of a double switch with two outs in the seventh inning of a tie game. It was the first time Hiura found himself in the outfield since 2016 at UC Irvine.
Naturally, Detroit shortstop Harold Castro immediately hit a tricky, slicing line drive Hiura’s way, and Hiura made a nice running catch to end the inning. The Brewers won the game in 10 innings.
“If I can make that catch,” Hiura said, “then hopefully Spring Training won’t be too bad.”
At the plate, Hiura has enjoyed some loud early results. He hit an opposite-field home run against the Padres in Sunday’s spring home opener, and with two more hits and two RBIs on Wednesday he has five hits and six RBIs in his first 10 Cactus League at-bats.
Hiura knows there is a long way to go to turn things around, but things are looking up. His mother, Janice, was on his mind often last season as she underwent cancer treatment. Now she is doing well. And Keston Hiura is healthy after undergoing a minor surgery following last season to clean up his right elbow. Counsell believes that will help Hiura at the plate even more than it will help his throwing.
“Look, yes, his confidence was shaken last year,” Counsell said. “I don't think there's any question about that. We're never going to be able to measure when your confidence is back and what results do for that, but we all need it.”