Gordon Beckham Is Broken

When the Chicago White Sox selected Gordon Beckham with the eighth-overall pick in the 2008 draft, the club thought it had nabbed a premium prospect whose polished game was nearly ready for the big leagues. The Georgia product tied for the Division I lead in home runs during his junior season, setting a new school record for career round-trippers while leading the Bulldogs to a runner-up finish in the ’08 College World Series. Beckham then blistered minor-league pitching to the tune of a .322/.375/.519 line, rising from Low-A ball to the South Side by June of 2009 after a little more than 250 plate appearances in the minors.

Beckham gave every indication that he was ready for prime time. He hit the ground running with the White Sox in ’09, putting up a .351 Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) in 430 PA while earning the Sporting News’ AL Rookie of the Year Award. Just 22 years old at the time, Beckham looked like a franchise cornerstone and a needed first-round success story for an organization that had recently been criticized for taking low-upside players like Lance Broadway and Kyle McCulloch.

Since then, however, Beckham has been sliding backwards. His wOBA dipped to .305 in 2010, and he’s the owner of a sordid .262 wOBA so far this season for a Chicago team whose park-and-league adjusted offense is 12 percent below average. In late April, White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker told the Chicago Sun-Times, “[Beckham]‘s swinging at a lot of pitches out of the zone. He’s frustrated. He’s getting himself out a lot.”

Walker’s comments are spot-on. Beckham, described in Baseball America’s 2009 Prospect Handbook as possessing “unusual pitch recognition for a young hitter,” has devolved into one of the easiest outs in the majors. Take a look at Beckham’s outside swing percentages from 2009 to 2011, compared to the MLB averages during those years:

2009: 24.7 O-Swing%, 25.1% MLB Average
2010: 32.1 O-Swing%, 29.3% MLB Average
2011: 37.3 O-Swing%, 28.7% MLB Average

As a rookie, Beckham’s O-Swing was about 98 percent of the big-league average (Beckham’s 24.7 divided by 25.1). Last year, it was 110 percent of the MLB average. To this point in 2011, it’s 130 percent of the MLB average. On a related note, Beckham’s walk rate has nosedived from 9.5% during his rookie year to 7.4% in 2010 and just 4.4% in 2011.

According to Pitch F/x data from Joe Lefkowitz’s site, Beckham is lunging at four-seamers, sinkers, sliders and changeups. Here are his chase percentages on those pitch types, with MLB averages from The Hardball Times’ Harry Pavlidis in parentheses:

Four-Seamers: 30.8 Chase% (24.1% MLB Average)
Sinkers: 30.8 Chase% (24.1% MLB Average)
Sliders: 37.2 Chase% (32.1% MLB Average)
Changeups: 36.4 Chase% (33.7% MLB Average)

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen recently expressed concern over Beckham’s lack of contact. There are troubling trends this season both in terms of the quality and quantity of Beckham’s contact. He’s putting the bat on the ball slightly more often on junk pitches thrown out of the zone, relative to the major league average. More concerning, though, is that Beckham is increasingly coming up empty on in-zone pitches that are more likely to produce a favorable outcome for the hitter:

After striking out 17.2% of the time in ’09 and 20.7% last year, Beckham has fanned 25.2% in 2011. When he does make contact, he’s popping the ball up often. Beckham’s infield-fly ball rate has soared: 11.9% in 2009, 12.3% in 2010 and 21.2% this season.

Gordon Beckham‘s eroding plate discipline is a peculiar case. As a rookie, he possessed the batting approach of a grizzled veteran. He became more of a hacker last year. And this season, he’s showing the restraint of a blindfolded, candy-crazed birthday boy given the chance to crack open a piñata. Beckham is just 24, and he’s not that far removed from major-league success. But he’s a broken ball player right now, and his strike-zone judgment needs a major overhaul if he’s going to start raking again.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

30 Responses to “Gordon Beckham Is Broken”

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  1. srriley84 says:

    I always thought his problems were in his head. When he’s on, I think he has one of the sweetest swings in the majors. But when he’s off, oh boy, he looks awful.

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    • Danny says:

      “When he’s on, I think he has one of the sweetest swings in the majors. But when he’s off, oh boy, he looks awful”

      You can say that about most players in baseball. As a Jays fan, I can tell you that definitely applies to Adam Lind and Aaron Hill.

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  2. m123 says:

    josh fields, josh fields, josh fields, have we forgotten about josh fields?

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  3. Mike H says:

    Having watched nearly every at-bat, it really looks like he’s “guessing wrong” on almost every pitch. It almost seems like he’s sitting on breaking balls and failing at reacting to fastballs.

    I want him to be good so badly, I really hope he learns to work the count.

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    • Mike says:

      I wish they would close his front side and move his hands up….he doesn’t ever look ready to hit, and neither does Alex Rios….how in the world did they ever hit like that?

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      • Mike H says:

        I agree. High fastballs are super hard to hit because it’s harder to bring your hands up than it is to bring them down. Having your hands below your belt is like intentionally making every fastball into a high fastball.

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  4. brian says:

    maybe he needs an eye exam

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    • Snarf says:

      that’s what I was thinking…they should send him back to AAA

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    • Samuel says:

      This is exactly what I was thinking…

      I wonder how often MLB teams get their players eyes exams. It seems like it should be a periodic requirement for most teams, based off how many players have had eye issues in recent history and how often surgery has clearly improved performance in such cases.

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  5. brendan says:

    “And this season, he’s showing the restraint of a blindfolded, candy-crazed birthday boy given the chance to crack open a piñata.”

    This made me laugh. Thank you for that.

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    • fred says:

      That was awesome but it need just a bit of followup:

      “And he’s doing as much damage as the kid in the commercial who’s swinging at the Volkswagon Tiguan pinata”

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  6. Sox27 says:

    I personally feel like there are too many components to his swing. The lift of his front foot and the timing that goes with it, just seems off. To me it appears there are just too many moving parts to his swing. He could get away with that in college using the aluminum bat and in ’09 before the book was really out on him. That timing mechanism with his front foot is killing him on inside fastballs, he just doesn’t have the quick enough timing to get around on them. I almost feel like he may be better suited to become a “no-stride” hitter.

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  7. Boriente says:

    “he’s showing the restraint of a blindfolded, candy-crazed birthday boy given the chance to crack open a piñata.”

    That’s poetry. Great line. And so much truth

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  8. Oprah says:

    He’s broken? Some of the worst hyperbole I have ever seen.

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  9. Dustin says:

    I hate Beckham’s stance. He needs to get his hands up like Konerko or Ryan Braun so he’s ready to attack the ball instead of all the extra movement with the hands.

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  10. Matt says:

    Anyone think its possible he gets packaged with a bad contract at the deadline? Like maybe an Adam Dunn or so?

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    • Sox2727 says:

      Right so they’re going to trade Adam Dunn, who was their top free agent target this offseason after 40 games…

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  11. TurkeesEleven says:

    Beckham was called through the minors very quickly and spent long stretches of each early season getting his head right before appearing – for whatever stretch of time was left – like the next Chase Utley. I think that instead of a “do or die” hanging over him he needs to go back to the minors with a guarantee that the door is open to come back when he shows down there – which he will – that he can keep his eyes on the ball in the present moment.

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  12. Beckham's Grape Nut head says:

    I think it’s his smooshed grape nut head/face

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  13. baty says:

    Gordon came out of nowhere his junior year with Georgia after having mild success his first two seasons, and he hasn’t really had a chance to play and prove with sustained success at any particular level. He was rushed, but I’m not sure he’s as strong a long term solution as originally projected anyway.

    (his draft prospectus was helium filled, and I was pretty ticked when the White Sox passed on Justin Smoak)

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  14. NS7 says:

    For what it’s worth he has looked much better this series versus LA

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  15. CircleChange11 says:

    As soon as FG writes a “What’s Wrong With …” article about a player, fantasy owners should move them into the starting linuep. *grin*

    After a player’s good rookie season, it is often projected that they will just keep getting better and better each year until they become (insert name of Future Hall of Famer).

    Advanced scouting usually does a number on these guys for a bit until they show that they can make the necessary adjustments. Some do and some don’t, but the ML is an absolute nightmare environment to be struggling. No mercy, to say the least.

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  16. Edwincnelson says:

    It is a little surprising that the Sox haven’t used Lillibridge’s good start as an excuse to send Beckham down. When Lillibridge inevitably slumps they could bring him back up without getting much heat from the media.

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  17. D says:

    Baty, you do realize he was a freshman All-American in 2006 and helped lead UGA to the CWS that year, right? That’s not exactly out of nowhere

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