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Keston Hiura’s Injury, Bat Present Unique Situation

IRVINE, Calif.—In 2014 Valencia (Calif.) High had two prospects who would go on to be drafted out of high school—Keston Hiura wasn’t one of them. He was 5-foot-11, batted righthanded and had hit only one home run as a junior. Hiura finally earned attention in his senior year, when he batted .500 and swatted 12 home runs. Enough attention to get his name in the papers, but not enough for him to be seen as a legitimate draft prospect. Three years later, he has a reputation as one of the most dangerous hitters in college baseball.

“It wasn’t until my senior year where I started to kind of make a name for myself,” Hiura said. “Coming into freshman year at UC Irvine, I viewed myself just like everyone else. I wasn’t expecting to have a spot given to me based on what I did in high school or an automatic job given to me. I just wanted to stay focused and earn that spot and the respect of the coaches and my teammates.”

Hiura earned immediate playing time as a freshman, playing center and left field while batting .330 and slugging .520 in more than 200 at-bats. He didn’t slow down as a sophomore, raising his average to .358 and playing quality defense in the outfield.

Hiura was playing center field on April 19, 2016, in a game at San Diego State. In the bottom of the fourth inning with a runner in scoring position, a ball was hit up the middle to Hiura, who made a max-effort throw home, trying to catch the runner at the plate.

“After I threw it I kind of felt a weird feeling. It didn’t necessarily hurt but it was a weird feeling,” Hiura said.

After feeling it in his arm in his next at-bat, Hiura trotted back out to center for the fifth inning. He started playing catch with the left fielder, but his elbow was throbbing with pain and he could barely play toss the ball around. Hiura had sprained his UCL. He hasn’t played defense in an official game since then.

Hiura served as the DH for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team as a rising junior. He hit three home runs and ranked as the No. 9 prospect on the team, despite being unable to showcase any defensive ability. He rested his arm throughout the summer and began a throwing program last October.

Having experienced no setbacks, Hiura was cleared to play the field towards the end of the fall. Just as the fall season came to an end, Hiura re-injured himself as he turned a double play from second base. He shut things down and ultimately opted for a platelet rich plasma shot in January with the goal of speeding up his recovery.

“The PRP shot definitely helped a lot. I could tell a huge difference with the shot,” Hiura said.

“At this point I still haven’t started throwing yet,” he said in late April. “It’s more of a personal call. As much as I want to get back on the field, I want to be 100 percent and don’t want to force anything that gets me to re-injure myself. I might actually start throwing again some time soon.”

Hiura’s injury has limited him to DH duty this season, clouding the picture of his draft stock. He still takes ground balls during batting practice, but scouts bearing down on him won’t get a real sense of what kind of defender he projects to be at the next level.

Decision-makers have to pick between the top players in the first round and taking a player with an uncertain defensive future is a risky move, but Hiura makes up for his defensive risk with one of the best offensive skillsets in the country.

Gifted with arguably the loosest swing of any college hitter in this year’s draft class, Hiura has a chance to become a plus major league hitter, and his power has taken an impressive jump this spring.

Hiura was batting .416/.558/.701 through May 7, leading the nation in batting and OBP while ranking 16th in slugging. His 43 walks ranked fifth nationally, and his eight home runs already surpassed his previous career high of seven from each of his first two seasons.

In thinking of a comparison for Hiura, UC Irvine associate head coach Ben Orloff couldn’t come up with a perfect fit.

“He’s a tough comp because who is 5-foot-11 and can hit 60 extra base hits? He’s a tough comp, but the bat’s real,” Orloff said. “The ones we hear—it’s not (Pirates minor leaguer) Connor Joe. It’s not (Yankees utilityman) Rob Refsnyder. I think that gets thrown around a lot for whatever reason. No disrespect to those guys, but he’s better than those guys. Keston might be the best hitter in America, and that wasn’t said about those two guys.”

Hiura has an inside-out swing. He works the gaps and his power plays from left center to the right-field foul pole. Orloff describes Hiura as an advanced hitter who understands how to play off his strengths.

“He knows what his strengths are, he knows what his weaknesses are and he’s very advanced and mature to stay with his strengths and not trying to chase his weaknesses,” Orloff said. “Mike Trout’s not going up there looking for the ball up. He’s waiting for you to throw a ball down—he gets a mistake, he crushes it. That’s what Keston’s able to do. He knows what he does well. He knows what his weaknesses are.”

While Orloff may be the highest on Hiura of any evaluator, scouts are also in love with Hiura.

“He has so much bat speed and sneaky power,” one scouting director said. “Yeah, you wish he was throwing. But he might end up sliding in the draft because of that. There comes a point when his bat is just too much to pass on.”

Orloff sees that potent offense playing well at second base, which has become an offensive-oriented position. Assuming Hiura’s arm recovers to where it was prior to his injury, he has the potential to develop into an adequate big league defender, be it at second or in the outfield. He’s an average runner and has learned to play multiple positions during his time at UC Irvine.

“I believe my main position is second base. I’ve played the infield my whole life and I feel really comfortable there,” Hiura said. “But I also learned to play the outfield my freshman year here and I feel very comfortable out there too now. I picked it up pretty quickly and was able to get good reads and was able to move over to center as well. Being able to learn how to play multiple positions definitely opens a lot of doors at the next level. I’m happy with what I’ve been taught here and hopefully I can continue to improve as I continue on in my career.”

Regardless of what happens with his arm or his defense, though, Hiura will always be known for his pure bat.

“He’s gotten better, which is scary,” Orloff said. “He hit like .600 this fall—like a legitimate .600. And he just keeps getting better.”

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