The first time I interviewed Keston Hiura was over the phone. This was a few months after he’d been taken ninth overall by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2017 draft. Hiura was playing for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, and he called at the assigned time from a Midwest League ballpark after batting practice. I don’t recall which ballpark.
I was in Lowell, Massachusetts at a New York-Penn League game that had already started. It was loud at LeLacheur Park, so I talked to Hiura from the relative quiet of a stairwell down the left-field line. The interview went well. I found the former UC Irvine Anteater to be both forthcoming and articulate.
The second time I interviewed Hiura was at the Brewers spring training complex, four weeks ago. Standing face-to-face — closer than the six-foot distance now deemed necessary — I accused him of being boring.
Truth be told, the pertinent ground had already been covered. In our earlier long-distance conversation we’d gone over the toe tap into a high leg kick, the inside-out swing with a high finish, the way he kept both hands on the bat. For good measure, we’d touched on his patience-paired-with-aggression approach.
Everything that was true then is true now.
“Nothing’s really changed since I was drafted,” Hiura told me. “Actually, nothing has really changed since high school. I haven’t made adjustments to a crazy launch angle, or anything like that. It’s the same swing, the same approach. I just go out there and try to hit the ball as hard as I can.”
Hiura logged a .928 OPS as a farmhand, and last season he slashed .303/.369/.570 in his first 348 big-league plate appearances. He stroked 25 doubles and went yard 19 times.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“Things have gone well, so there’s been no need to change anything,” Hiura explained. “No one has come over and tried to mess with anything, which I’m happy about. I’ve had success, so they’ve kind of just let me do my thing.”
That’s good news for Hiura and the Brewers. For someone looking to do a followup interview that focuses on developmental strides… not so much. At the risk of putting my foot in my mouth, I told Hiura that for an accomplished hitter who is well-spoken, he was proving to be… well, boring.
“Exactly,” Hiura responded, a slight smile on his face. “If someone asked me to write a book about my swing, I probably couldn’t do it. It’s more of me just knowing who I am as a hitter, and what my swing is. Not that hitting can’t a fun topic, but for the most part I like to keep it simple. And again, nothing has really changed.”
Pierce Johnson is back stateside after spending a season in Japan. Statistically speaking, it was a superb season in Japan. In 58 relief appearances for the Hanshin Tigers, the 28-year-old right-hander crafted a 1.38 ERA while surrendering just 34 hits and 13 walks in 58-and-two-thirds innings. He fanned 91.
Johnson came up through the Chicago Cubs system, earned a one-game cameo in 2017, then went to San Francisco and made 37 appearances for the Giants in 2018.
I asked Johnson — now a member of the San Diego Padres — what led him to Japan?
“It was the best option,” he explained. “If somebody is going to offer you a full year of guaranteed money, big-league money, versus staying in the states on a minor-league deal with a chance to make the team out of spring training, which is always a stretch, which one would you take?”
My response was to say it’s well known that minor leaguers, relatively speaking, are paid a pittance.
“Yes,” Johnson affirmed. “And it’s hard when you’re riding that train between Triple-A and the big leagues, because no matter what you do, you’re probably not going to stick because of the roster situation. I have a family, so we decided to jump, both feet in. We decided to go over there to play some baseball, and travel that part of the world while we were at it.”
Johnson and his family went to Okinawa for spring training, then were “all over the country of Japan” throughout the NPB season. He received valuable advice before going over. Randy Messenger has spent each of the last 10 seasons with the Tigers, and he gave Johnson a rundown of what to bring, what not to bring, what to do, and what not to do.
Returning from Japan to sign with San Diego proved to be both an easy decision and a hard decision. His new baseball home was mostly a no-brainer.
“I get to to play in the states,” the Colorado native said when asked why he came back. “I mean, I loved it over there — I had a great time and loved all my teammates — but we have a son and we’re very family-oriented. We had an offer to stay, and were really close to taking it, but this came about and we jumped at the opportunity. A few other teams kicked the tires, but really, the Padres rose to the top pretty quickly. The amount of talent here is incredible. I’m beyond excited to be a part of this team.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Quentin Holmes grew up in an athletic family. His mother ran track. His father favored basketball, but played some rec-league baseball as well. It was the latter of those paternal pastimes that captivated the New York couple’s progeny.
“Starting from a young age, baseball just kept calling to me and calling to me,” explained Holmes, a 20-year-old outfielder in the Cleveland Indians organization. “I played in a Little League by my house and fell in love with the game, and with all of the relationships that come with it.”
Those relationships were forged in the East Elmhurst section of Queens, where Holmes, who is African-American, differed racially from most of his hardball peers.
“From ages 8 to 12 there were more, but in high school there were just two of us on the whole team,” Holmes told me last summer. “The league I played in had a number of Hispanics, but probably only 10 percent of the league was African American.”
Prior to the Indians taking him in the second round of the 2017 draft, Holmes played travel ball for the Long Island-based New York Steelheads. One of his mentors served not only as a coach, but also as an influence.
“One of my hitting trainers is Youman Wilder,” said Holmes. “He’s [in Harlem], and I’d say that 95% of the players he works with are either African American or Hispanic. He does a great job with that.”
To a lesser extent, so does Holmes.
“I don’t look at [promoting baseball to African-American kids] as an obligation, but it’s something you do almost automatically,” said Holmes. “I want to be involved, because I came through that. I know how hard it is to be one of the few who are playing the game today. I’d love to see more black kids on the field.”
Chicago White Sox broadcaster Ed Farmer died on Wednesday at age 70. Prior to moving into the radio booth in 1991, he pitched for eight teams, appearing in 370 games, from 1971-1983. Farmer had 30 saves for the ChiSox in 1980, and pitched in that summer’s All-Star Game.
The Cleveland Indians promoted Dan Budreika to Assistant Director, Pro Scouting earlier this offseason. The former FanGraphs contributor spent last year as Cleveland’s Professional Scouting Coordinator.
The Stay Home With SABR initiative launched earlier this week, and will run through the end of May. Rob Neyer’s SABRcast will Livestream and include an interactive Q&A. The first live show, which will feature Boog Sciambi, is scheduled to air on Monday. Information can be found on the above link.
An imaginative variety of imaginary teams have cropped up on social media of late. All-time great lineups to win one game. Squads populated by favorite players. Things of that ilk.
Here is one I constructed a few days ago. An all-time “Y” team.
In 1981, when Paul O’Neill was 18 years old and playing rookie ball in Billings, Montana, he crossed paths with a hockey prospect of the same age. For a brief time the two lived with the same host family, Bruce Holloway having reported to the Western Hockey League’s Billings Bighorns. They made a wager.
Which of them would make it to the top of their profession first? They shook hands, fifty dollars on the line.
O’Neill was called up by the Cincinnati Reds in September 1985 and went on to play 17 big-league seasons. He lost the bet. Holloway, who told me the story, was called up by the Vancouver Canucks in January of that same year… and proceeded to play in just a handful of NHL games. He hung up the skates shortly thereafter, and went on to start a successful business.
They haven’t seen each other since leaving Billings. Nearly four decades later, the debt remains unpaid.
O’Neill told me last summer that while he does remember Holloway, he doesn’t recall making the bet. No big deal. As I informed the former outfielder, the erstwhile NHLer — Cam Neely was one of Holloway’s teammates — doesn’t need the money. Nevertheless, O’Neill said that the check is in the mail.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Over at AP News, Jay Cohen wrote about how the tech boom and MLB programs are helping women like Rachel Folden find jobs in baseball.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
In 1988, Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Rafael Belliard had 61 hits — 57 singles and four triples — in 321 plate appearances. He had no doubles or home runs.
Ron Blomberg became the first designated hitter in big-league history when he batted in the first inning of an April 6, 1973 game at Fenway Park. Two innings later, he recorded the first-ever hit by a DH. Blomberg’s Yankees lost to the Red Sox 15-5.
Jack Morris made his 14th-consecutive opening day start on April 6, 1993. Morris took the loss as the Mariners bested the Blue Jays 8-1. Ken Griffey Jr. hit a three-run jack off of Morris in the first inning.
Doug Ault recorded the first hit in Toronto Blue Jays history on April 7, 1977. Ault homered in the bottom of the first inning, and Toronto went on to defeat the Chicago White Sox 9-5. The temperature at game time was 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
On April 7, 1994, Charles Johnson homered in the 14th inning to give the Portland Sea Dogs — then a Florida Marlins affiliate — a win in the franchise’s inaugural game. The Sea Dogs have been Boston’s Double-A affiliate since 2013. Johnson went on to catch for 12 big-league seasons, seven of them in Miami.
The 1917 World Series champion Chicago White Sox were managed by Pants Rowland. The Platteville, Wisconsin native reportedly earned the moniker by wearing oversized trousers during his brief time as a minor league catcher.
Bunny Brief began his big-league career with the St. Louis Browns in 1912. Prior to joining the bottom-feeding A.L. club in September, Brief batted .353 for the Traverse City Resorters in the Class D Michigan League.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.