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.