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  • Hiura and the Brewers: Production Versus Projections

    Tim Muma

    Baseball's statistical use and analysis have evolved, with projections becoming more critical than ever. But at some point, when does current production outweigh the concerns or expectations of a player? For the Milwaukee Brewers, that could determine how much playing time Keston Hiura gets while his positive results flow.

    Image courtesy of © Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

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    Since being recalled on August 3 from triple-A, Keston Hiura boasts a 1.112 OPS in 25 plate appearances. That includes his enormous Sunday performance in Wrigley, going 2-for-4 with a pair of clutch home runs - first to tie the game, then to put it out of reach.

    Despite the production in few opportunities since his return, Hiura had made just seven starts in the Brewers' 17 contests since August 3. For a club that struggles to find offensive consistency - and wins as of late - Hiura's lack of playing time has been a hot topic.

    The main reason the Brewers have been reluctant to use Hiura regularly is his propensity to strike out. Entering Sunday, he had an incredibly high 43% strikeout rate, which is the worst in MLB among hitters with 160+ plate appearances.

    The concern is that no player has ever shown the ability to have continued success while failing to put the ball in play at such a high clip. It makes sense to think the more he plays, the more his strikeout problem is exploited. On the other hand, Hiura has adjusted his stance again to help alleviate the issue. He is clearly getting better results statistically while making better contact, but the strikeout problem is only slightly better. Even during his "hot streak," Hiura still has a 38.1 K%.

    Regardless, the question remains, does the damage he does when making contact create more value than an alarming strikeout rate? Milwaukee doesn't worry too much about the whiffs anyway, with the eighth-highest K% in baseball. In the words of many who don't believe strikeouts are a big problem, "an out is an out." So a bump in their K% should barely register on their radar if the hitter has the second-best wOBA (.365) on the team in August as Hiura does. 



    Why not ride the hot hand for a while? Some don't think the idea of a hot hitter exists, at least in any quantifiable way. I believe it. Players talk about feeling invincible, seeing a "beach ball" coming in when they hit, and mentally expecting great things every time they step in the box.

    Sure, the streak of success will end, and you may not know precisely when, but cross that bridge when you get there. Hitters experience multiple peaks and valleys in a season, so take advantage of those high points. You can also look at it as a player "earning the at-bats," exactly what manager Craig Counsell said about Rowdy Tellez facing left-handed pitchers late in games. Hiura has earned more at-bats.

    The next question becomes, where and when does he play? There are a variety of options depending on many factors. The simplest and most conventional strategy would be using Hiura as a DH against righties and putting Andrew McCutchen on the bench. Though the veteran free agent pickup has had some quality stretches against right-handers, he was brought in to destroy left-handed pitching. McCutchen had a .683 OPS and .650 OPS versus righties the last two seasons. This year, after boosting his number early on, he owns a .702 OPS with a minuscule .378 SLG - making him a curious choice for the cleanup spot.

    Meanwhile, Hiura has always fared better against right-handed pitching, slugging .528 with an .867 OPS in his career. His 2022 campaign has produced an even better slash line:  .308/.407/.680/1.086. Curiously, Counsell has often started Hiura against lefty starters like a platoon partner for Tellez. The platoon advantage for Hiura hasn't worked as he has a .597 career OPS versus southpaws (.591 OPS). However, Hiura's numbers when a left-hander starts do bump up, so there is some value in continuing that plan for more Hiura at-bats. One intriguing aspect of Hiura's Sunday performance was that he homered off a lefty and righty in the game.

    Another option to keep Hiura's stick in the lineup could strengthen another team weakness: center field. Hiura could find himself as the DH more often if McCutchen starts games in center, where the Brewers' offensive output has been among the worst in MLB. Milwaukee's combined center field production, led mainly by Tyrone Taylor and Jonathan Davis, ranks fifth-worst in OPS (.584). McCutchen's bat would be a clear step up, but the Brewers would sacrifice defense. You can see below how Davis and Taylor have been four outs above average defensively, while McCutchen has been below-average in far fewer innings and in the easier outfield spots in the corners.

    Brewers defense.JPG

    The club's run prevention has been up-and-down all season, and they already have a defensive concern playing left field in Christian Yelich. Does the value of a bat outweigh the worse range and glove in center field?

    When Counsell was asked Sunday if "Cutch" in center field was an option to get Hiura playing time, he said, "I will tell you that we'll explore ways to get Keston in there." That could also mean a few starts in left field in place of Yelich, which Counsell has done a few times that past couple of seasons. As for McCutchen, even if starting him in center field isn't a regular thing, the Brewers can pick their spots to use him when balls to the outfield may be less likely, such as with a ground ball pitcher like Adrian Houser or with a high-strikeout guy like Corbin Burnes.

    Based on Counsell's comments, it appears the Brewers believe they can no longer afford to keep Hiura out of the lineup. The calendar and the team's offensive frustrations are working together to create enough urgency for a change in strategy. If he keeps slugging like the top-hitting prospect he was touted to be, Hiura will enjoy plenty of starts down the stretch. The key could be if and when Milwaukee goes back to a cautious use of Hiura if they believe he isn't "hot" anymore. That is always the concern when playing a streak: a hitter is hot until he isn't, and you never know when his time is up. For the Brewers' sake, they hope Hiura's clock strikes midnight sometime in November. 

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