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Hiura credits youth coach for big league mindset

Brewers' top prospect likely to start season with Class A Advanced Carolina
MLB.com @AdamMcCalvy

PHOENIX -- Keston Hiura could have gone anywhere on the final night before his first Spring Training. He chose the Starting 9 batting cages in Santa Clarita, Calif., for one final session with the coach he's known since he was 9 years old.

They hit, naturally. Hiura always loved to hit, and the coach, Sean Thompson, was happy to put a few more batting practice fastballs on his right arm.

PHOENIX -- Keston Hiura could have gone anywhere on the final night before his first Spring Training. He chose the Starting 9 batting cages in Santa Clarita, Calif., for one final session with the coach he's known since he was 9 years old.

They hit, naturally. Hiura always loved to hit, and the coach, Sean Thompson, was happy to put a few more batting practice fastballs on his right arm.

Mostly, they talked.

"You're sitting there watching a kid that you've worked with forever. You're hoping you touched their life," Thompson said. "And here he's leaving for his first Spring Training."

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Thompson, 50, played pro ball himself, as an infielder for parts of two Minor League seasons in the Giants system. He went into instruction after that and had crossed paths with Ryan Braun and countless other Southern California kids before Kirk Hiura brought his son Keston for lessons.

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Keston Hiura's interests at the time were split between the baseball field and the basketball court, where he was shorter than some of the other kids but made up for it with effort.

"They once asked me to write a letter about him for the Gatorade Games, and I said this little pudgy kid -- I knew he was going to get mad at me for saying that -- would roll in and hit, and it would be about basketball," Thompson said. "He was really into basketball. I was like, 'Hey man, you're pretty good. You might think about this baseball thing.'"

As time passed, Thompson watched the player's hand-eye coordination improve and his thought process sharpen. Hiura took quickly to the short, inside-out swing he employs so naturally today, and Thompson found himself repeatedly surprised by Hiura's acumen for pitch recognition.

By the time Hiura was 11, Thompson said, he had trouble throwing a pitch past the kid.

"I tried to teach him to play chess instead of checkers, to give him a way of thought at the plate," Thompson said. "Every pitch is a performance. He's got such a terrific mind, and he's so mature. He does things a little bit different."

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This is a different way of thinking about hitting in an era of launch angle. Starting 9 does have the HitTrax system to gather data, but Thompson and Hiura focused much more on the mental task at hand. They've never watched video, Hiura said.

It's an old school approach.

"He was always a coach who taught you more about the mental side of the game," said Hiura, who is the Brewers' No. 1 prospect and No. 56 overall according to MLB Pipeline. "I think a lot of parents, when they hear a coach talking about those kinds of things to a young kid, they don't always buy into it. They think, 'He's just a kid. Just let him play.'

"But my parents let us do our thing. I think I was able to understand the game a little differently than most kids my age."

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That helped Hiura advance from travel ball to Valencia High School to the University of California-Irvine, where he won college baseball's batting title with a .442 average in 2017. The Brewers' Wynn Pelzer was among the scouts all over Hiura in the run-up to last year's Draft, when Milwaukee took him ninth overall despite a right elbow injury with the potential to lead to Tommy John surgery.

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Hiura began his professional career as a designated hitter while his elbow healed, and he slashed .371/.422/.611 between Rookie ball and Class A Wisconsin. By the fall instructional league, he was back at second base.

With his first big league Spring Training winding down, Hiura appears ticketed for advanced Class A Carolina to start the season. He could be among the prospects dispatched to Minor League camp when it opens this weekend.

"This is an advanced hitter," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "A year ago, he was just starting his college season."

Thompson saw less of Hiura this offseason, which is natural for a player now in the pro ranks. Hiura did some hitting at UC-Irvine with Albert Pujols and Nolan Arenado, but on a handful of occasions, including on that final night of the offseason, teacher and pupil met in the cage at Starting 9.

"You could sense a little bit of nervous in him," Thompson said. "You try to listen, you try to answer as many questions for them as you can and then you have to let them go experience things for themselves. That's what we do."

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook.

Milwaukee Brewers, Keston Hiura