Hiura learning all he can at first base

March 12th, 2021

MESA, Ariz. -- Some morning on a back diamond, a coach calls out an imaginary game scenario and prepares to drop a baseball into the machine. At first base, a position he never manned in his life before last month but will be his responsibility come Opening Day against the Twins, goes through a mental checklist.

Eventually, Hiura and the Brewers believe this will all become second nature as he transitions from second base. The Brewers haven’t had the same Opening Day first baseman in consecutive years since Prince Fielder, but they think Hiura has the defensive tools to do it, even though the position is foreign, and he only has Fielder by an inch or so of height. They certainly think Hiura can hit enough to look the part.

For now, however, he has a lot to think about.

“I’ve always had huge respect for first basemen because I always knew it was more than just catching the ball or running over and going to first,” Hiura said. “There was a lot more to it.”

Hiura is learning more about that every day. Where is he supposed to be on a base hit? What about a double? Is he the cutoff man? Is he supposed to shift for the next batter?

“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Hiura said. “A lot more than I thought, but I knew that everything would be brand new, so I’m trying to soak in as much information as I can.”

The results have been mixed for Hiura so far, which is a good thing in a way, because it means that he has been tested in a number of different manners at first base. On the second batter of defense Wednesday at Oakland, Hiura missed the scoop on third baseman Travis Shaw’s one-hop throw and Shaw was saddled with an error. When the runner broke from first base and Brewers pitcher Brett Anderson threw over, Hiura’s throw down to second base was wide. Another error, this time his own. The miscues led to an Oakland run.

There have also been many good moments. In the same March 6 game against the Cubs in which Hiura misplayed a ball to his right for a fielding error, he adjusted and made a slick play on a short hop of a similar bouncer. The Brewers think Hiura’s range will be better than the average first baseman, and perhaps his hands will be better, too. At second base, Hiura’s defensive issues were almost entirely related to throwing.

“He’s a baseball player. He’s an athlete. It’s new for him so there will be mistakes,” Brewers bench coach Pat Murphy said. “I think he’s going to be great. He’s really inquisitive, and, at the same time, he’s feeling his way through it and realizing some things on his own. He’s easy to coach.”

Brewers manager Craig Counsell is confident that Hiura can handle another challenge being thrown at him: Learn a new defensive position without sacrificing offense. Hiura was among the many MLB hitters who struggled during the pandemic-shortened '20 season, going from a promising .938 OPS and 19 home runs in '19 -- the most homers by a Brewers rookie not named Fielder or Ryan Braun -- to a .707 OPS in ’20 with the worst strikeout rate in the National League, at 34.6 percent.

Hiura homered in his first at-bat in the Cactus League this year, but was hitless in 16 at-bats until his RBI double on Friday against the Cubs

“Results-wise, he hasn’t gotten off to a great start this camp,” Counsell said. “We have a bunch of guys who have; he’s a guy who hasn’t a little bit. But we’re going to keep getting at-bats, keep getting him ready, and I don’t think the switch to first base is related to that at this point at all.”

Hiura said, “I feel like I’m still in a good position to produce offensively. A lot of my time has to be spent defensively, but, at the same time, I’ve known what it’s taken in the past to get myself prepared for the season. We’re about halfway through Spring Training now, so we’re seeing more back-to-back games, more consistent at-bats and seeing a lot more frontline pitchers. The more at-bats the better.”

The work ethic was never in question. Last year in big league camp, Hiura worked endlessly with Brewers infield coordinator Bob Miscik at second base. At first, coaching has come from everyone from Counsell to Murphy to third base coach Jason Lane to Minor League manager Matt Erickson. Teammates Travis Shaw, Daniel Vogelbach and Jace Peterson have all offered advice. Hiura said he has been asking endless questions.

Nothing, though, beats standing out there alone in a game.

“Sometimes you need to fail in order to get the best out of it,” Hiura said. “I think everything from double plays, I’m starting to see more pickoffs, runners stealing, hard-hit balls on the ground to the left of me. It’s all important, especially during games, to get that experience, because you can practice as close to game speed as you can, but, ultimately, in games is when you really learn the best.”