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Do You Dare Trust Gordon Beckham?

It’s often said that almost anything in baseball can happen in a single month. We witnessed Yuniesky Betancourt compile a .848 OPS with six home runs and 21 RBI during the month of April, while Barry Zito began the season with 14-consecutive scoreless innings and had a 3.29 ERA in the first month.

Both players have since crashed back to reality, but their unexpected performance helps highlight the point outlined above. One month in baseball is a minuscule sample size. Literally, almost anything can happen in a single month, and when it happens to begin the season, it can fill fantasy owners with false hope and result in bandwagon-jumping at the expense of more proven commodities.

Gordon Beckham missed 47 games in April and May with a broken hamate bone in his left wrist. Since returning on June 3, he’s begun to turn heads with a .338/.361/.460 slash line and a pair of home runs. He’s quietly been the sixth-best fantasy second baseman over the last 30 days, and his .361 wOBA over the same stretch ranks eighth amongst all second baseman in the league. The fact he’s running a bit and has five stolen bases since returning from the disabled list certainly helps his fantasy rankings.

But what do we make of Beckham’s fast start? After all, we’re talking about the same guy who ranked 27th amongst second basemen last year — behind guys like Dustin Ackley, Mike Aviles and Chris Nelson. He’s also posted a measly .238/.303/.362 combined slash line over the last three seasons. Thus, for fantasy owners to discount the previous three seasons and begin to put some trust in the 26-year-old infielder, his numbers must illustrate something has changed. Something substantive in his approach or his peripheral numbers must have changed to make owners forget previous performance and place a modicum of trust in his bat.

His abnormally-high .383 BABIP obviously catches the eye, which should raise red flags, but the high BABIP actually points to improvement in his batted-ball data. He’s hitting a lot of line drives this year. More importantly, though, his lofty infield-fly percentage has come way down through his first 158 plate appearances. He owns a career 14.2% IFFB%. His infield-fly percentage this season is only 4.0%. So, if you’re an optimist, concern over his high BABIP can perhaps be tempered by the knowledge that he appears to be avoiding weaker contact. Not that a 23.7% line-drive rate and a 4.0% infield-fly percentage suddenly make a .383 BABIP sustainable, but it does suggest tangible improvement.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends for owners looking at Gordon Beckham on the waiver wire. His plate discipline numbers haven’t shown any improvement this season. In fact, he’s gotten worse in some ways.

Year O-Swing% Swing% Contact% SwStr% BB%
2012 33.5% 48.8% 82.5% 8.3% 6.9%
2013 35.2% 53.4% 84.3% 8.1% 3.6%

Beckham is swinging at more pitches outside the zone — well, swinging at more pitches in general — and hasn’t significantly changed anything in his contact or swinging-strike percentage. In fact, the only thing his heightened swing rate has done is cut his walk rate roughly in half. That decreased selectivity will likely be exploited as the season progresses, and the lower walk rate is a huge strike against Beckham in OBP leagues.

Last October, our own Howard Bender noted Beckham showed more power at the plate last year than he had in previous campaigns. He wondered if it was a harbinger for things to come in 2013. That has not been the case. Perhaps it’s due to the hamate injury he suffered in April, but his ISO numbers are back down to his 2011 level, and he’s barely avoided compiling a career-low to this point in the season. Even Darwin Barney has a higher ISO than Beckham’s .108 ISO.

So, his plate discipline doesn’t appear to have improved and his recent injury may be limiting his overall power. Those are not good signs for sustainable improvement. Beckham has always been a strange hitter, though. He has a career reverse-platoon split, which means he actually fares better against same-handed pitching than he does opposite-handed pitching. His career .298 wOBA against lefties stands in contrast to his .315 wOBA against righties. It’s not a significant split, but it’s present. And this year, it’s gotten considerably worse.

vs. LHP 0.0% 30.0% .154 .150 .179 .214
vs. RHP 4.7% 10.9% .395 .422 .529 .429

The overall batting average is obviously BABIP-related. The thing that jumps out with his platoon splits this season, however, is the huge discrepancy in his walks and strikeouts against lefties. He’s only had 40 plate appearances against lefties — so it’s a very small sample — but Beckham is getting terrorized by southpaws. He’s almost struck out as many times against lefties (12) as he has righties (14) in one-third the plate appearances. The fact that he’s traditionally struggled against lefties makes his pronounced platoon split more interesting than merely a small-sample coincidence.

It’s safe to say I’m not a believer in Gordon Beckham’s hot start to his 2013 season. It’s more than simply glancing at the BABIP and predicting regression, though. His plate discipline hasn’t gotten better — if anything, it’s gotten worse — and I’m concerned his hamate injury will limit his power over the last couple months. He has been running more and has even played shortstop for a few innings, which is interesting, but overall, owners would be wise to look elsewhere for help at second base. For example, Brian Dozier is owned in only 23.5% of ESPN leagues, and I’d prefer Dozier to Beckham through the remainder of the season. Beckham has too much track record for me and is plagued with more question marks than upside.