MARYVALE, Ariz. — Keston Hiura can really hit. That was clear during his senior season at Valencia (Calif.) HS. Then again during his first two seasons at UC Irvine, which earned him a spot on the prestigious Collegiate National Team. And in his junior year with the Anteaters, with scouts bearing down on him, he raised his stock even higher.
Hiura hit .442/.567/.693 with eight home runs and 42 RBIs that spring, further cementing his reputation as one the elite hitters in the college class. But all his offensive excellence still didn’t quiet questions about how he’d fare in the field.
A sprained ulnar collateral ligament had kept him from playing defense since April 2016, which obviously limited scouts’ ability to judge him as a defender. He’d played the outfield before the injury, and had taken grounders at second base in pregame drills, but the balky elbow was still worrisome.
The Brewers were convicted enough in his ability to hit, however, that they were willing to take the risk. They selected Hiura ninth overall in this year’s draft, gave him $4 million to sign, and then turned him loose on the Arizona and Midwest Leagues. He laid waste to the competition on both circuits at the plate, and on Aug. 15 with low Class A Wisconsin finally got a chance to play the field.
On Monday in the instructional league, Hiura showed off on both sides of the ball. He clobbered a long home run to center field at the Brewers’ minor league complex and made several plays in the field. Most notably, he hung in on a double-play turn and made a strong throw to complete the play.
Afterward, he emphasized how good it felt to be back playing defense every day again.
“It feels great, especially after getting just a taste of the infield while I was out in Wisconsin,” Hiura said. “Being able to pretty much every single inning here, that’s huge for me, because it’s all about repetition and getting confidence back on the infield. This is what it’s all about. I’m glad that I’ve been able to stay on the field healthy so far and be successful out there.”
Getting there wasn’t easy. Hiura says surgery wasn’t ever on the table, which is always a relief, but the platelet-rich plasma therapy he did go through wasn’t much fun, either. Hiura described the result of the process—which involves the spinning of a patient’s blood among a high concentration of platelets before it is reinjected into the patient—as feeling like wearing an invisible cast.
“I was a little skeptical at first, but I always felt that it couldn’t hurt (to try),” he said. “The first few weeks after were pretty painful. Arm gets stiff and swollen, so after that pain kind of went away I was able to swing pain-free. With not throwing the whole collegiate season and on into June, it gave my arm time to heal and get some rest and heal some of that scar tissue up, so I think it was a really good decision that I got that PRP shot.”
Throughout the ordeal with his elbow, Hiura says, his swing was never affected. That’s great news for Brewers fans, because Hiura’s swing checks all the boxes. It’s short, quick and produces above-average power, as shown by Monday’s home run. The blast, just to the right of the batter’s eye in Maryvale, was just a taste of his power. One Brewers coach noted that it was the second opposite-field blast he’d hit against the A’s during this instructional league.
Hiura is compactly built at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, a frame that belies the sock he can produce from his strong lower half and explosive hips and quick hands.
“Growing up, I always had a bit of power—sneaky power—but I don’t classify myself as a power hitter,” Hiura said. “It’s more of: just hit the ball hard and if it happens to get in the air and go over then so be it, but I’m not trying to hit home runs or anything like that. That’s just how I go about it, just hit the ball hard and see what happens.”
The Brewers will play their last instructional league game on Friday, and then Hiura will head home for his first offseason as a professional. He reached major milestones in the first few months of his career, and will return in 2018 with the hopes of continuing to make his mark on a system bursting with high-upside prospects.
Lefthander Nathan Kirby started for the Brewers on Tuesday and sat between 87-89 with his fastball while touching 90 mph once. He got swings and misses with his low-80s changeup in his scoreless inning.
Righthander Logan Shore started for the A’s and induced plenty of grounders with a low-90s fastball that featured late, two-seam action in on the hands of righthanders. He complemented the pitch with a sweeper slider in the low-80s and a high-70s changeup.
Oakland righthander Wandisson Charles showed off a big arm that produced 95-97 mph fastballs and a high-80s changeup with sharp, trap-door drop. His breaking ball and command, however, were both below-average.
The Dodgers and Royals moved their game up to 10 a.m., which happens often in the instructional league when one of the teams has its big league club in the playoffs, and got star performances from a pair of Vanderbilt products.
Jeren Kendall, the Dodgers’ first-round pick this past June, socked an opposite-field home run in his second at-bat. That home run came in support of teammate Walker Buehler, who pitched the third and fourth innings before yielding to Trevor Oaks.
Buehler, the Dodgers’ first-round pick in 2015 who missed his first year of pro ball after having Tommy John surgery and made his major league debut this season, showed off an electric fastball that sat between 96-98 mph. He coupled the pitch with a low-90s cutter as well as a low-80s slider and a 12-to-6 curveball in the mid-to-high-70s.
Royals catcher Chase Vallot, known for his premium power, ripped a 97 mph Buehler fastball out on a line to left-center field. With high Class A Wilmington this year, Vallot, 21, hit .231/.380/.438 with 12 homers.
The Royals also brought a pair of interesting arms in the early innings. Righthander Zach Lovvorn, a 2012 sixth-rounder out of Oxford (Miss.) HS, utilized a naturally heavy fastball in the low-90s as well as a low-80s slider on which he varied the tightness and break when he needed to throw it for a strike or bury it for a chase.
Lovvorn was followed by righthander Janser Lara, who slung 89-94 mph fastballs with natural cut life as well as slurvy curveballs in the low-80s. He touched 100 mph this year in the Pioneer League, where he ranked No. 14 in this year’s Top 20 prospects.