After taking the Los Angeles Dodgers to a full seven games in the 2018 National League Championship Series, the Milwaukee Brewers entered the 2019 Major League Baseball Season with high hopes. Those hopes hinge on a talented roster that includes Nikkei players Christian Yelich and Keston Hiura.
Yelich, 27 — who derives his Japanese heritage through his maternal grandfather, Mineo Dan Oda — established himself as one of baseball’s elite in 2018 when he became only the fourth Brewers player in franchise history to win a league most valuable player award, following Rollie Fingers (1981), Robin Yount (1982, 1989) and teammate Ryan Braun (2011).
Hiura — a second baseman of Japanese heritage through his father and Chinese descent through his mother — has begun to make his mark, too, with National League Player of the Week honors announced on July 21, followed by the NL Rookie of the Month nod for July.
Both players have helped the Brewers stay competitive again in the tightly-contested NL Central Division.
Yelich — who bats left-handed and throws right-handed — enjoyed an outstanding first year with Milwaukee last season after an offseason trade from Miami.
His 36 home runs, 110 RBI and 118 runs along with league-leading finishes in batting (.326), slugging (.598), total bases (343) and on-base-plus-slugging (1.000) made Yelich an easy choice as NL MVP.
For Milwaukee fans, Yelich arguably put together the most convincing MVP campaign by a Brewers player since Robin Yount earned American League MVP honors in 1982 (the Brewers transferred to the NL in 1998). As Yount did then, Yelich finished just one first-place vote short of a unanimous selection.
Another MVP-Caliber Season
For Yelich, 2018 so far has shaped up as a warm-up act for 2019. He already has surpassed last season’s home run total with a league-leading 39 through Aug. 14 and is on pace to surpass last season’s RBI total. He has 85 so far.
In spite of what is shaping up as his best year of his career, Yelich will be no shoo-in for another MVP, with Cody Bellinger having hit 39 home runs with 90 RBI through Aug. 13 for the Dodgers.
Regardless of how the season turns out, Yelich firmly has established himself as one of baseball’s top players. Hiura — who turned 23 on Aug. 2 — now looks to do the same.
A right-handed batter who has shown an ability to hit both for average and with power, Hiura played his first major league game on May 14. Despite showing promise, the Brewers sent him back to their AAA affiliate, the San Antonio Missions of the Pacific Coast League, on June 3 to clear a roster spot for Travis Shaw.
Hiura didn’t stay in San Antonio long. Called back to the Brewers on June 28, he has impressed since.
Historically, the United States long has regarded baseball as its national pastime. But the game might be even more popular in Japan, not only at the top professional level but especially among the high schools, whose top competitions are huge draws and receive television coverage.
Japanese diaspora through the years spread that love for the game to many other parts of the world. Here on the West Coast, especially, Nisei baseball thrived for years, especially at a time when players of Asian descent were largely excluded from organized professional baseball. In the wake of forced removal during World War II per Executive Order 9066, many Japanese Americans brought baseball with them into concentration camps, which the 2007 film, “American Pastime,” brings to light.
Breakout Rookie Season
For Hiura, a fourth-generation Japanese American whose full name is Keston Wee Hing Natsuo Hiura, the sporting influence was much broader.
“My dad likes sports, mainly basketball,” said Hiura, who has relatives living in the Bay Area, at least some of whom turned out in Oakland for a July 30 interleague game with the A’s.
“My grandpa played maybe all sports,” Hiura told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “(There’s) not much baseball history in my family… (we liked) all sports.”
Whatever baseball influence Hiura gained appears to have rubbed off nicely.
A native of the Valencia district of Santa Clarita, Calif., Hiura batted .500 with 14 home runs and 30 runs batted in as a senior at Valencia High School.
From there, Hiura moved on to University of California, Irvine, where he played through his junior year. Hiura’s batting average improved in each of his seasons with the Anteaters. He played for the U.S. collegiate national team after his sophomore year (2016) and earned Big West Conference Player of the Year honors as a junior (2017).
Drafted by the Brewers as a first-round pick in 2017, MLB.com tabbed Hiura as the Brewers’ top prospect heading into the 2018 season. After earning 2018 Arizona Fall League MVP honors, Hiura began the current season in San Antonio.
Since his June 28 recall, Hiura has proven MLB.com’s prognosis accurate.
As July’s NL Rookie of the Month, Hiura paced all major league newcomers in hits (33), doubles (10), extra-base hits (18), total bases (65), batting (.355; 33-for-93), slugging (.699), on-base percentage (.429), on-base-plus-slugging (1.127) and runs (17). His six stolen bases tied Washington’s Victor Robles for the lead among rookies.
Additionally, in the 25 games he played in July, Hiura hit six home runs, legged out two triples and had 18 RBIs.
Given his showing thus far, Hiura would look like a Rookie of the Year candidate. That would be true most other seasons. This year, though, Mets first baseman Pete Alonso looks to have the inside track on the award. In the majors with the Mets all season, Alonso appeared in the All-Star Game (Alonso won its Home Run Derby) and already had blasted 38 home runs with 85 RBIs through Aug. 13.
Yelich, for his part, comes from an even more varied background. In addition to his one-quarter Japanese heritage, the Brewers right fielder is of Serbian descent through his father. He reportedly also has Croatian, Bulgarian, Scottish, English, Danish, German and Dutch ancestors.
As with Hiura, Yelich’s family baseball influences are somewhat uncertain. Any contact with his maternal grandfather was in the distant past.
“I was super-young, 4 years old, 5 years old,” Yelich told the Nichi Bei Weekly, referring to the last time he saw Oda. “Not too many memories.”
Yelich also knew of no baseball connections of any other of his elders.
“I’m the first person in my family to play baseball,” said Yelich, whose younger brother, Collin, plays in the Braves organization.
Nonetheless, Yelich boasts a most impressive sporting background — particularly in football.
A maternal great-grandfather, Fred Gehrke, played halfback and defensive back at the University of Utah and then the NFL. An innovator, Gehrke is credited with painting the first helmet design (which he did for the Rams, specifically) and developing the first helmet with a full facemask.
In addition to Gehrke, Yelich’s uncle, Chris Yelich, played football at UCLA.
Whatever influences he might have had, Christian Yelich showed an affinity for baseball. A native of Thousand Oaks, Calif., Yelich played baseball in each of his four years at Westlake High School-Westlake Village. As a senior, MaxPreps named him a second-team All-American.
Upon graduation in 2010, Yelich passed up a chance to play at the University of Miami to sign with the Miami Marlins, who had selected him in that year’s draft. Called up to the Marlins midway through the 2013 season, Yelich won a Gold Glove for defensive prowess the following year and remained with the team through 2017 before getting traded to Milwaukee in the offseason.
Yelich has experienced recurring back problems this year.
Another MVP nod remains a possibility, but as always, the race for individual awards will make for a nice subtext as the pennant races heat up over the coming weeks.
Milwaukee’s fortunes in the coming weeks will depend on many factors, two of which are the continued health of, and production from, Yelich and Hiura.