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August 21, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Bring Me the Head of Gordon Beckham

by Jason Parks

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The Backstory:
Gordon Beckham was selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2008 draft, viewed by many as the top infield prospect available in the country. Beckham became a national name after a remarkable junior campaign at the University of Georgia, where his bat exploded to the tune of .411/.519/.804 and he tied all of Division 1 baseball with 28 home runs. After signing for a cool $2.6M, Beckham quickly became the top prospect in the White Sox system and was penciled in as a future major league piece, a player that many were already comparing to Michael Young because of his overall approach to the game. (When I was researching this article, the Michael Young comp was mentioned several times, with words like “instincts,” “hustle,” and “solid but not special” labels attached. I usually scoff at casual comps, the kind that pair average white guys to average white guys or every five-tool athlete to Matt Kemp, but this one made sense on a scouting level.)

Assigned to the full-season Sally League after inking his deal, Beckham didn’t waste anytime proving his mettle, stepping into professional ball with the approach of a seasoned veteran. After the small 14 game sample that saw Beckham show the offensive promise his collegiate campaign suggested was possible, the 21-year-old shortstop proceeded to the prospect-heavy Arizona Fall League, where his bat continued to turn heads; in 66 at-bats, Beckham hit close to .400 while showing patience and power. He was clearly on the fast track, and national prognosticators held him in high regard. He wasn’t considered an elite talent or a game changer, but his skill set and mature approach made him a safe major leaguer, one that could provide solid-average production (at least) for a very long time.

After pushing for a roster spot out of camp in 2009, Beckham started the year in the Southern League, where he was very good, but not so good that people were lighting torches and demanding his promotion after only 38 games. He hit for average and power, and he looked okay defensively, but the approach and the ability to adjust were the attributes that were turning heads in the industry, and after a brief seven game promotion to Triple-A, Beckham became the starting third baseman in the majors. He was 22 years old, playing a new position, taking his hacks under the brightest lights on the biggest stages, and he was more than holding his own. Beckham played in 103 games at the major league level in 2009, hitting a respectable .270/.347/.460, making a persuasive argument that this was just the start of a very fruitful career. After watching Beckham in camp early in 2009, and catching numerous games throughout the season, I was believer in the bat, and I thought he had a chance to be a ~.280 hitter with 25+ doubles a year for the next 10 years.  He looked like a lock.

The story turned sour after his fantasy tale in 2009, and Beckham has fallen flat in each subsequent season. His bat is a wounded animal, slowly dying in plain view. His ability to make solid contact has all but disappeared from his game, and the noisy pop that once separated him from his middle-infield contemporaries is now an inaudible whimper. Everything in his game has taken a step back, and now the player once considered a lock to be a solid major leaguer is now considered a lock to be a solid major league bust.

The Expectations:
Being a top-ten pick in the draft always comes with the heavy luggage of expectation. Beckham was viewed as a bright talent, but more of a high floor player than a high ceiling All-Star type. In college and in the early minors, Beckman played a premium defensive position, but it was a common refrain within the industry that his skill set would be better suited for either second base or perhaps third, with the former offering the best overall value. His arm, actions, and instincts are of major league quality for the position, but the range is fringy and plays better down the spectrum. The hit tool was never seen as a monster tool, but one with solid utility and enough consistency to allow solid-average-to-plus power to flow through it. He wasn’t a premium athlete and he didn’t own any loud tools, but he was a gamer with baseball skills, and after his initial introduction to professional baseball, he looked the part he was cast to play. Gordon Beckham was supposed to be a major league regular at worst, and anything more would be gravy and anything less would be a head-scratcher.

The Quotes:

“Beckham has the rare potential to become a middle-of-the-order run producer who also plays in the middle of the infield. He has a pro's understanding of the strike zone, a quick bat, and at least average power coming out of his smallish frame, with one scout calling him a right-handed Chase Utley. Beyond the tools, he's a max-effort gamer with great defensive instincts and a knack for coming through in key situations.” Kevin Goldstein (February 2009)

“Beckham has enough bat to stay anywhere. Until the White Sox got Alexis Rios, I thought they should think seriously about putting Alexei Ramirez in center and Beckham at short. Ramirez is more athletic than Beckham, so Beckham will probably play third base. I do think he could play a solid shortstop if needed.” –Jim Callis (Baseball America chat)

“I like his chances to improve his rate stats over their 2009 levels, and I think he'll be a plus defender at second ... but I wish they'd give him a crack at the shortstop job, as he's one of the best instinctive fielders there I've seen.”Keith Law (March 2010)

What Happened?
Very rarely can failure be reduced to one villain, and in Beckham’s case, his progression from future to flop was a multi-pronged attack. First of all, let’s look at the scouting side of things, the deficient characteristics of the skill set that have limited Beckham against quality competition. At the plate, Beckham doesn’t inspire many scouts to champion his smooth, fluid stroke or to salivate over his balanced set-up. His mechanics have always been a little clumsy, ranging from hands that don’t have an efficient path back into the load to hips that fire too early. In the early days of his professional life, he made it work because of his coordination and barrel-to-ball instincts, but the longer the exposure, the easier it became to exploit these weaknesses, and without proper adjustment, the book of exploitation was written. Because of the [often] inefficient load and trigger, the swing became hitchy and good velocity became hard to catch up with—especially on the inner half—as did quality off-speed offerings, that often found Beckham out of his front foot and putting dead swings on the ball.

There is another component here that I think might get missed, and it’s a vital part of any discussion about failure. Beckham reached the majors after only 59 games in the minors, and one could argue that his mature physical skill set designed that timetable, and the trajectory and speed were justified as a result. I can see that case, especially after witnessing his rookie campaign where he looked the part. But development isn’t just tied to tool-based maturity, and the minor leagues are the perfect classroom to learn the nuances of failure, setback, adjustment, and response. Being allowed to fail in order to learn how to handle failure is just as important as learning how to hit a curveball or how to throw a changeup. Every player is different and therefore every player needs to be evaluated and developed off their own script, but based on his inability to make adjustments, and the hole in his chest where his confidence used to be, it’s not a stretch to see how the accelerated ascent to the majors might have played a role in Beckham’s overall development as a player. Simply put, Beckham’s first exposure to professional failure came at the major league level, and with hot lights of pressure on his back, his inexperience with the impediment was evident and costly.

Beckham was unlikely to develop into a star, and his move off shortstop all but guaranteed that his bat was going to be tasked with the heavy value lifting. His less-than-ideal swing mechanics eventually caught up with him, and even though he’s attempted to make adjustments with the setup and the swing, the results have been consistently poor. As this point, it seems unlikely that he will regain his freshman form and become the solid-average regular that was said to be his floor. While it’s easy to blame the team when player development goes wrong, I think a legit case can be made that Beckham’s path to the majors retarded certain aspects of his development that are necessary for sustainable success at the major league level. It’s also easy to assume that his once feathered ‘Bama bangs are to blame for his failures against major league pitching, but I couldn’t confirm if this unfortunate collegiate aesthetic played any role in his demise. I don’t know what the future holds for Beckham, but I still think he has the physical tools to play at the major league level. Unfortunately, there is more to major league success than just physical tools, and Beckham might have to take another step back before he can take a step forward. 

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  Prospects,  Scouting

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