Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Beckham Back on Track?

After four straight subpar years, has Beckham finally figured it out?
I don't want to speak too soon here, but is it possible that Gordon Beckham is finally enjoying the breakout season that's long been expected of him?

Now 27, the White Sox second baseman burst on the scene in 2009 by hitting .270/.347/.460 as a 22 year-old rookie. He basically had the season that Wil Myers had last year, when Myers was a 22 year-old rookie.

Beckham '09-378 AB 58 R 102 H 28 2B 14 HR 63 RBI 174 TB 7 SB .270/.347/.460  2.1 bWAR
Myers 2013--335 AB 50 R  98 H 23 2B 13 HR 53 RBI 160 TB 5 SB .293/.354/.478  1.9 bWAR

Naturally, people expected big things from Beckham. He looked like a future All-Star, a middle infielder with good patience, 40 doubles/20 homer upside and a dash of speed (sounds like Ben Zobrist or Dustin Pedroia, doesn't it? He was going to be a franchise centerpiece for years to come.

It didn't happen. Over the next four years Beckham became an annual disappointment, batting a combined .244/.306/.364 while averaging just 10 home runs and 44 RBI per season. During the time when he was supposed to make strides as a ballplayer, he took major steps back instead. His batting average tumbled, never even matching the .270 mark from his rookie year. His OBP fell with it, plummeting below .300 in 2010 and 2011. His slugging has been below .380 every year since. His walk rate nosedived, his whiff rate went up, and his power was seldom seen. Beckham never came close to matching his wonderful rookie season, much less surpassing it. He was barely above replacement replacement, and with each passing year the glow of his rookie season receded further into the past.

Until this year. Left for dead after playing only 103 games last year--his fewest total since his rookie year (also 103)--and sitting out the first three weeks, Beckham's been better this year. Still not as good as he was in 2009, but significantly better than he's been during the interim. His .283 average and 108 OPS+ would both be career highs if he can sustain them, and he's already compiled 1.3 bWAR, more than any season save his rookie year. He's shown some pop as well by already matching last season's home run total of five in half as many games.

Beckham's resurgence, along with Jose Abreu's dominance, Alexei Ramirez's huge start, and Chris Sale's near--perfection on the mound, is one of the many reasons why Chicago stands only four and a half games out of first place in the AL Central. As Beckham's improved this year, so have the White Sox.

When digging deeper to see if Beckham's breakthrough is legit, I couldn't come to a definitive conclusion. His BABiP is up to .325: not just the highest it's ever been, but 40 points above his career average. He's hitting a lot more ground balls and a good number of line drives, so it stands to reason that his BABiP would improve. However, he's also walking less than ever before and striking out more frequently than he did the last two years. Normally that would be cause for concern, but his plate discipline numbers show that he's exhibited more restraint in laying off pitches outside the strike zone. As for the power, his HR/FB rate is the highest it's been since his rookie year, but he does play half his games in a homer-friendly park, so good fortune in that department is to be expected.

I can't make heads nor tails of Beckham this year. But then again, how does one explain his career? Perhaps Beckham was thrust into a starting role too soon. Maybe moving from third to second base after his rookie year made him uncomfortable. Or it could very well be that his rookie season was nothing more than a fluke, and the four horrible years that followed represented his true talent level.

Whatever the reason, it's clear that Beckham's playing better this year and has probably saved his career in the process (at least for now). At this point it's doubtful that he'll ever develop into the All-Star caliber player he seemed poised to become after finishing fifth in the 2009 AL Rookie of the Year voting. But if he can just play somewhere near that level again, I'm sure the White Sox would take it in a heartbeat.

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