The Brewers announced Wednesday that they’ve placed first baseman Daniel Vogelbach on the 10-day injured list due to a left hamstring strain and recalled infielder Keston Hiura from Triple-A Nashville.
It’s not yet clear how long Vogelbach will be expected to miss, although manager Craig Counsell foreshadowed an absence of some note last night when calling it a “significant” strain and noting that Vogelbach would require an MRI (video link via Bally Sports Wisconsin). GM Matt Arnold tells reporters that the team is evaluating not only Vogelbach’s hamstring but also his left knee (Twitter link via Adam McCalvy of MLB.com).
Vogelbach sustained the injury on one of the more bizarre plays you’ll see this season. The slugger came up lame as he rounded third base but somehow managed to limp home to score anyway when the D-backs inexplicably failed to throw to the plate on a play where Vogelbach should’ve been out by some 30 to 40 feet.
While Vogelbach’s overall .216/.323/.386 slash isn’t particularly impressive, he’s been much better of late, swatting four homers and four doubles with an .816 OPS since the calendar flipped to June. Beyond that, Milwaukee first baseman have persistently struggled in 2021, so getting any production from the position in recent weeks has been a nice change of pace.
Hiura, who returns for a third stint with the Brewers this season, has played no small part in the team’s collective struggles at first base. The former first-round pick and top prospect slid over to first when Milwuakee inked Kolten Wong to a two-year deal this winter, but the offensive form that made him such a sensation as a rookie in 2019 has been nowhere to be seen. Hiura always seemed primed for some degree of regression, as his 2019 breakout was buoyed by a .402 average on balls in play, but few could’ve predicted struggles of this magnitude.
So far in 122 plate appearances, the 24-year-old has mustered only a .130/.217/.222 slash. His luck on balls in play has swung completely in the opposite direction of 2019, as he’s been plagued by a .220 BABIP in that small sample. However, Hiura’s anemic stat line is far from a matter of a poor fortune. He punched out at a 30.7 percent clip during his rookie campaign but has seen that number skyrocket to 39.3 percent so far in 2021, and his rate of hard-hit balls has dropped by nine percent as well. It’s perhaps encouraging that Hiura has maintained a 23.3 percent line-drive rate, but he’s hitting far more lazy flies than he did at his best — and the huge uptick in strikeouts is obviously glaring.
Hiura absolutely destroyed Triple-A pitching when he was first sent down to the minors this year, hitting at a .438/.526/.906 clip with three home runs and six doubles in 38 plate appearances. But he also punched out 13 times, and when he returned to the Majors on the heels of that strong Nashville showing, he looked more lost than ever. From May 24 through June 6, Hiura went 2-for-29 and struck out in 16 of 33 plate appearances. The Brewers demoted him back to Nashville.
Hiura has punished Triple-A pitchers in similar fashion since being sent back to Nashville a second time this year, albeit with one key difference. His .375/.490/.575 slash in his latest 11-game stint is nearly as impressive as his first Triple-A run, but this time around he’s showing considerably more discipline. Hiura has drawn nine walks in 51 plate appearances and struck out as many times in 51 plate appearances as he did in 38 plate appearances during his first minor league run this year (13).
It’s obviously a tiny sample from which to glean much, but the dip from a 34 percent strikeout rate to a 25 percent clip is encouraging, as is the increase from a 10.5 percent walk rate to a 17.6 percent mark. At the very least, it would seem to indicate that Hiura has made conscious strides to work on his plate discipline.
He’ll now have a chance to carry that potential change in approach over to the big league level. With Vogelbach on the shelf, Hiura ought to receive the bulk of the playing time at first base, securing one final audition before the Brewers make tougher calls with the trade deadline on the horizon. Ideally, a version of Hiura at least approximating his 2019 output would take the reins at first base and run with the job. But with Milwaukee first baseman combining for just a .197/.295/.343 batting line so far in 2021, it stands to reason that the Brew Crew will look outside the organization if Hiura can’t pick up the slack in his third go-around of the season with the MLB club.