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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

31 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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lmarighi

Really interesting to read your take on this. I've been on board the Beckham bandwagon since he was drafted, caught a foul ball off his bat in '09 (in my hat!), and have been mystified to see him completely crater.

Given your discussion of missed development time perhaps retarding his ability to deal with failure, do you have an opinion on whether sending him back to the minors to "get some work in" or whatever euphemism they might use would actually help? Or would that just confirm (to him, anyway) that he didn't have what it takes, and hasten his washing out of pro ball?

Aug 21, 2012 03:44 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Honestly, I'm not sure there is a right answer, and I'm not sure if its possible to re-capture [certain] lost developmental steps after the fact, especially on the mental/emotional side of things.

Aug 21, 2012 09:32 AM
 
lmarighi

Thanks for your thoughts, it's probably something really individual.

Aug 27, 2012 14:36 PM
rating: 0
 
Tim Carvin

"His bat is a wounded animal, slowly dying in plain view."


I think Jason should write those little talking points the announcers talk about before a players comes up to bat for the first time.

Aug 21, 2012 04:33 AM
rating: 8
 
perhaps

- His bad is a wounded animal, slowly dying in plain view.
- Likes the fastball middle-in.
- Has the Good Face.

Aug 21, 2012 12:09 PM
rating: 4
 
tmangell

Great writing and analysis, as always, Jason.

Quick question: what, if any, responsibility would Ozzie Guillen have in Beckham's non-fulfillment of his potential? I don't recall Ozzie being overly critical of any aspect of Beckham's game. I agree with you that Beckham is a gamer, and Ozzie prizes #want above all else, but would there have been another type of manager would have been able to bring Beckham's skills to the level experts predicted?

Aug 21, 2012 04:47 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

I'm not sure. I try not to put this type of responsibility on the manager. Yes, they are nurturing/parental figures, but they are tasked with winning above all else and therefore have a slightly different approach to longterm development. I put the heavy burden of development on the player and the process in place.

Aug 21, 2012 09:37 AM
 
leites

Thanks, Jason - this is a great series, hope you do more!

Aug 21, 2012 06:41 AM
rating: 1
 
SGreenwell

Jason, any chance that Beckham could move back to shortstop if he was in a different organization? Obviously, the White Sox are kind of set at the position, but the bat would play better at shortstop if he could still handle that position for another organization.

Aug 21, 2012 07:02 AM
rating: 4
 
maxjusttyped

I'd be the first to admit I'm not a scout, but as someone who's seen Beckham play 2B on a daily basis for years, I doubt he has the range to play SS.

Aug 21, 2012 07:33 AM
rating: 1
 
Lastblues

I was hoping for a "Bring me the head of Cody's Mom" in which you examine how a gentle city flower filled with hope and promise is driven to drink and gambling. Maybe that should be a guest written article by Tom Waits.

Aug 21, 2012 08:11 AM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

Knowing when to call up a guy and whether to send him back down during a stretch of failure is a tricky business. Not only does it depend on who is around at the Major League level, it seems to be one of those things that is always second guessed. And, I'm sure there is no formula that applies to all young players. Everyone has a different make-up. Still, I'd like to see a good study on this issue.

Aug 21, 2012 08:23 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Well said.

Aug 21, 2012 09:47 AM
 
TaylorSanders

Also it seems to be harder to send down 'blue chip' prospects. The Mets sent down Lucas Duda when his average fell to about .240 but Ike Davis struggled below .200 for 2 months and did not get sent down.

Aug 22, 2012 09:38 AM
rating: 0
 
jonjacoby

Here's hoping the next entry in the series is the other Beckham of the 2008 Draft.

Aug 21, 2012 08:39 AM
rating: 1
 
jloncari

I definitely blame the Bama Bangs. I cannot think of a single successful person with that haircut. He would have been better off growing a mullet and becoming the Billy Ray Cyrus of baseball.

Aug 21, 2012 08:47 AM
rating: 1
 
timsouders09

I'd be very interested to read "Bring Me the Head of Brian Matusz."

Aug 21, 2012 09:14 AM
rating: 4
 
pilamkl

Great as usual Jason. It seems like, Dustin Ackley might be on a very similar career path to Beckham.

Aug 21, 2012 09:46 AM
rating: 2
 
jhardman

I concur. I'm looking for Ackley's head already.

Aug 21, 2012 10:43 AM
rating: 0
 
rgbauer

Interesting piece. I was inclined to blame the Sox coaches - Kenny Williams had commented that his swing had gotten longer since his rookie year, and if that was the case, the coaches should have caught that and nipped it in the bud. It could be, though, that the change in his swing was the result of a need to adjust that he couldn't quite pull off. I would note that he actually did confront failure early at the major league level - he was oh-for-God knows what when he first came up - but clearly handled it well at the time. Still, more time in AAA might have helped.

Aug 21, 2012 10:15 AM
rating: 0
 
Asinwreck

I wonder if the position change from 3B to 2B had a negative effect on his bat? The switch was completely understandable, and Beckham had seemingly adjusted from SS to 3B in his callup. That said, he has not hit since moving to second.

Beckham's case makes me think of, well, Kenny Williams, who came up as an inconsistent but offensively productive outfielder. Then the White Sox made him a third baseman and he was terrible both at the plate and in the field. Even after another position switch, he never recovered.

Aug 21, 2012 15:57 PM
rating: 0
 
earpbartman

I also couldn't help thinking of Ackley while reading this, but would a primary difference be that Ackley has always been seen to have a plus hit tool? Whether he's consistently shown it so far is a different story. The scouting report on Beckham seems to be more of a gamer without ever having had transcendant tools to rely on

Aug 21, 2012 10:26 AM
rating: 0
 
Cromulent

Thanks, Jason. These pieces are great. I kind of wonder, though, whether it wouldn't be even more informative to match each one of these with a breakdown of a guy that exceeded expectations. For me it's all about trying to improve my understanding of how prospects develop, and it would be good to focus on all types of outcomes.

Aug 21, 2012 10:38 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

This is a very good idea. It's just as important to study success as it is to study failure. I prefer to focus on the prospects that fail to develop, but it would be very interesting to take a look at some of the players that developed beyond their tool-based projections. This is something to think about. Many thanks.

Aug 21, 2012 10:53 AM
 
Cromulent

Thanks for the response, don't take this as a request to suspend the analysis of failure. I am curious whether you think this series (or a possible success corollary) would yield a set of traits or tendencies that offer predictive value? Is that what you're after? Or, in your estimation, will success and failure continue to be singular events, difficult if not impossible to project?

Aug 21, 2012 11:19 AM
rating: 0
 
zwoodill

Robinson Cano, please?

Aug 23, 2012 04:24 AM
rating: 0
 
HonusCobb

The "slayer" was well on his way to becoming my favorite player in his first season. But that spot remains with Jim Thome. He passed up the favorite player of my youth in Brian Jordan while I was in high school.

I'm sorry Jim. I'll never let some rookie steal your spot ever again.

Aug 21, 2012 13:24 PM
rating: 0
 
bpars3

Jason -
A lot has been made of Beckham using Konerko as a mentor. Paulie spent the first few years of his career battling himself when he went into slumps. He would tend to over think everything and fall into months long slumps. Could we be seeing some of the same things with Beckham? Or is it just that Beckham isn't Konerko when all is said & done? At least his glove hasn't been effected by his struggles.

Aug 21, 2012 19:50 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

"Or is it just that Beckham isn't Konerko when all is said & done?"

More this than anything else.

Aug 22, 2012 07:51 AM
 
jparke23

This doesn't ever get mentioned much but Beckham has some good genes - his father was a good quarterback prospect at South Carolina until he hurt his back. His highlight was a 16 of 17 passing day in an upset of #3 UNC

Aug 22, 2012 15:56 PM
rating: 0
 
Dodger300

I think blaming an early call up for a player's disappointing failure is just a hypothesis in search of a subject. In other words, there isn't a shred of empirical evidence to support it.

Some blue chippers take quite a while to develop, think Alex Gordon. Others never do, as in Clint Hurdle.

The timeline has certainly shortened, but Beckham is still young enough that he could work his problems out.

That said, I'll add my own unsupported hypothesis: a change of scenery for Beckham might not hurt.

Aug 24, 2012 21:01 PM
rating: 0
 
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