San Diego, Calif. - Seventy-six-year-old Mike Gillespie has been a college baseball coach since 1971, and he's seen his fair share of outstanding hitters in his day. He's coached six players who went on to become major league All-Stars, including Aaron Boone, Bret Boone, Geoff Jenkins and Morgan Ensberg during his tenure at Southern California.
So when Gillespie says that UC Irvine junior outfielder Keston Hiura stacks up with the best of the players he has coached, it carries some serious weight.
"He's special. He just is really special," said Gillespie, who is in his ninth season at UC Irvine after spending 20 years as the head coach at USC. "As you know, I've done this a long, long, long, long time, and he's on the shortest list of really special."
Hiura has shown just how special his bat is ever since he set foot at UCI - which plays in a cavernous pitcher-friendly park in the pitcher-friendly Big West. He hit .330 with seven homers as a freshman All-American in 2015. He hit .358 with seven more long balls as a sophomore in 2016. He hit .289 with a team-best three home runs last summer with Team USA's Collegiate National Team. And he's off to a torrid start in 2017, hitting .444/.515/1.074 with five doubles 15 RBIs in seven games.
After just two weeks, he's well on his way to exceeding last year's home run total - he has four round trippers in 27 at-bats, including a massive bomb off the center field backdrop at San Diego State on Thursday night against Notre Dame. He hit another homer Saturday against Tennessee at San Diego's Fowler Park, taking an 83 mph Will Neely slider to the opposite field for a towering three-run shot in the first inning. Later in the game he showed off his ability to turn on the ball with authority, hitting a laser single to left field.
Gillespie shies away from comparing the 5-foot-11 Hiura to other players he's coached. Hiura is unique.
"I think it's his own kind of deal, because he has this uncommon bat speed," Gillespie said. "He doesn't look like a big guy, but he's not tiny, either. He's 190, might be a little above 190. So there's strength in there; he's not frail by any means. And the bat speed is special. Like anybody else, somebody can make good pitches to him and get him, but he's not a wreck on offspeed like some college guys are. He can hit all kinds of pitching."
One West Coast area scout recalls seeing Hiura back in high school and being impressed with his hit tool - but it's hard to sell a scouting director on a 5-foot-11 righthanded-hitting high school player.
"All he's done is hit," the scout said. "I saw him in high school; I was like, 'Well, he's short, but he continues to hit.' He can lift the baseball to the pull side, does show the ability to make adjustments. It's kind of a flexible body, even though he's compact in build. He does some things at the plate that jump out at you."
Hiura has jumped out to a lot of scouts as his career has unfolded, and he's a slam dunk to be drafted in the top three or four rounds based solely on his bat, with a chance to be drafted as early as the first round. But his current medical situation clouds his stock a little.
Hiura has been dealing with an injury to the UCL in his elbow since last summer, and he's limited to DH duties for the time being. He's been seeing the well regarded Dodgers team doctor, who has decided "we certainly don't need to do surgery now, and I'm not so sure it's ever going to need surgery," as Gillespie put it. He has gone through platelet-rich plasma treatments for now and has yet to resume a throwing program, but the doctor said he has a chance to return to the outfield by midseason.
Hiura was a corner outfielder as a freshman has has played the last two years in center field, where he's an excellent defender despite fringy speed.
"He's had to play center field, and everybody thinks that's out of position, and I don't know if that's where he'll go back and play because I think he's gonna go out as a pro at second base," Gillespie said. "He played there a lot in the fall, but we've had to play him in center field because of (UCI's roster makeup). I don't think there's been a ball in the two years he's played out there that should've been caught that wasn't caught. He runs well, he's not a burner, that's why you'd say as a pro he's not a center fielder. He's a 45-plus runner. I mean, he's a good runner, but not a major league average runner. I personally think as a pro he could play center field. I don't think that's what they will do with him. But if he plays left field, he's a Gold Glove left fielder. I think his first shot in pro ball will be at second base."
Hiura played shortstop in high school, and Gillespie said he looked very good at second in the fall. His frame and tools profile better at second base than in the outfield, so if he can show scouts that he can handle that spot, it will only help his stock more.
One thing's for certain: his bat is going to play.
"He's a big leaguer. We all know the longshots, you throw these things around kind of cheaply, but I'm a firm believer that he's a big leaguer," Gillespie said. "He's a really, really, really good baseball player. I mean, his instincts are exceptional, he's a great baserunner, he's great on the ball in the dirt. He really knows the game, and he makes comments in the dugout like a guy that knows the game. There's no downside to him, I don't think."
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