April 17, 2017
The First 162: Tim Beckham
That’s just how Tampa Bay envisioned things unfolding when they made Beckham the no. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft ... except that game raised his career line to .234/.283/.421 and he’s logged fewer than 500 innings at shortstop through age 27. Beckham seems destined to rank as one of the least successful no. 1 picks in baseball history and his lack of success is magnified even further by the fact that the Rays famously passed on a well-known local prospect, Florida State University star and Golden Spikes Award winner Buster Posey, to select him.
I’m not here to relitigate that decision. Clearly it was the wrong move and plenty of people questioned it at the time. In a mock draft 24 hours before the pick was made, BP’s own Kevin Goldstein called Posey “the safer pick” and projected him as a future All-Star with a quick path to the majors. He also guessed that the Rays would take Posey. They didn’t, although in fairness neither did the Pirates, Royals, or Orioles. While not quite “21 teams passed on Mike Trout” territory, Posey going fifth to the Giants will forever haunt those other four teams. But probably not Posey. He’s done pretty well for himself on the other coast.
Beckham was certainly viewed as a legitimate top-of-the-draft talent. MLB.com’s pre-draft scouting report called the skinny high school shortstop from Georgia “a bona fide five-tool player at a premium position.” Baseball America rated Beckham as the third-best prospect in the draft—behind Pedro Alvarez and Brian Matusz, with Posey fourth—and named him “the nation’s top high school position player.” It’s worth noting that nearly every prominent write-up of Beckham did make mention of the risk involved in his profile, albeit while touting his all-around upside.
Beckham signed quickly for $6.15 million and began his career in rookie-ball, where he hit .243/.297/.345 in 46 games while struggling to control the strike zone. It was a sign of things to come, as Beckham never really got on track offensively. He spent full seasons at low Single-A and high Single-A, and then split his third full year between Double-A and Triple-A despite not cracking a .750 OPS anywhere. Beckham wasn’t totally without promise—he hit for a decent average at Low-A, drew walks at High-A, and showed some power at Double-A/Triple-A—but the overall results were mediocre at best.
Assigned back to Triple-A in 2012, he was suspended 50 games in May for a second positive marijuana test and finished the season hitting just .256/.325/.361 in 72 games. He repeated Triple-A again in 2013 as a 23-year-old and fared better, hitting .276/.342/.387 in 122 games before making his big-league debut in September. He came off the bench as a pinch-hitter on September 19 against the Rangers and singled in his first at-bat. Two months later, during an offseason workout, Beckham tore the ACL in his right knee and missed most of the 2014 season, playing a total of 24 games, all in the minors.
Beckham recovered well enough to make the Opening Day roster in 2015 and has stuck around the Rays in a part-time role since, logging 223 plate appearances in 2015 and 215 plate appearances last season before a September demotion to Triple-A for what the team called mental lapses. So far this year he’s been filling in for an injured Matt Duffy as the starting shortstop, but has hit just .196/.216/.306 with a 15/1 K/BB ratio in 11 games. In other words, more of the same. Beckham has some pop, homering 15 times in 444 at-bats, but his 151/28 K/BB ratio in 484 trips to the plate gives him almost no chance to succeed.
Among the 341 players with at least 400 plate appearances since 2015, he has the 10th-highest strikeout rate, 12th-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio, and 15th-worst on-base percentage. Those numbers may suggest that Beckham is a hacker, but that’s actually not the case. He has swung at a near-average rate of pitches outside the strike zone and inside the strike zone. The problem is that he’s swung through all of them too, with a lower contact rate than everyone but Chris Carter and Miguel Sano. Beckham has been particularly bad at making contact on pitches in the strike zone, failing to connect one-fourth of the time.
As you might expect, off-speed pitches are Beckham’s biggest weakness. He’s whiffed on literally half of his career swings against curveballs, sliders, and changeups. He’s also failed to make contact on nearly a quarter of his hacks versus fastballs and sinkers. All of which is a very effective recipe if you’re looking to cook up 151 strikeouts and 28 walks in 162 big-league games. (In his first 162 pro games, at rookie-ball and low Single-A back in 2008 and 2009, he had 150 strikeouts and 47 walks. Considering at least some of those walks came courtesy of pitchers with no idea where the ball was going, little has changed.)
And while he may hit like a utility infielder, he doesn’t field like one. Beckham has split his time between shortstop and second base as a major leaguer, even starting 10 games at designated hitter and another five times at first base for reasons only the Rays could possibly know. Fielding Runs Above Average pegs him as 3.5 runs below average for his career, which amounts to just under 1,000 innings in the field. Once known for his speed and athleticism, Beckham has done very little running since the knee injury and has swiped just five bases in the majors while rating as a below-average baserunner overall.
Being the no. 1 pick comes with incredibly lofty expectations. It’s part of the deal attached to $6.15 million. And there’s no getting around the fact that Beckham has been a huge disappointment. He hasn’t hit, fielded, or run like the Rays hoped. He’s struggled with his performance, with injuries, with drug use, and with mental lapses. And yet if he were just another player—or even a late first-round pick instead the first-round pick—nothing would seem out of place. Beckham is in his third full year as a big leaguer, with at least a couple more seeming likely, and he’s produced at roughly a role-player level with 0.4 WARP.
He’s not alone in being less good at 27 than people perceived his promise to be at 17—my mom probably wanted me to be a lawyer, but instead I write articles about Tim Beckham—nor is he alone in learning how difficult it is to travel the path from top-rated shortstop prospect to actual major-league shortstop. Beckham is just a guy—somewhat useful to an MLB team in a limited capacity, but stretched way too thin in an expanded role—and the same flaws he showed from the moment he debuted as a pro have stuck with him through his first 162 games.