Not a Rookie: Gordon Beckham
One of the better rookies in 2009 was Gordon Beckham of the White Sox. He's been horrible as a sophomore, however, hitting just .208/.283/.264 so far through 59 games. What's going on here? Let's review his history and prognosticate his future.
Gordon Beckham was a starter from his earliest days at the University of Georgia, hitting .280/.348/.490 with 12 homers as a freshman in 2006. He had been undrafted as a high school senior, but it became quickly apparent in college that he had a future on the diamond, after splitting his attentions with football as a prep. He improved slightly during his sophomore year, hitting .307/.399/.570 with 13 homers.
2008 was his big breakout: he hit .411/.519/.804 for the Bulldogs, with 28 homers, 17 steals, 54 walks, and just 30 strikeouts in 275 at-bats, establishing himself as the top college shortstop in the draft. There was some concern that his range would fit better at second or third base, but the bat looked elite and the White Sox scooped him up with the eighth-overall pick in the draft. He hit .310/.365/.500 in 14 games for Kannapolis after signing, giving hope that he could advance quickly in '09.
That advancement came even sooner than expected: he hit .299/.366/.497 in 38 games for Double-A Birmingham last spring, then went 13-for-28 (.464) in seven games for Triple-A Charlotte. He was promoted to the major leagues in June 3rd, and inserted into the lineup at third base. He played 103 games for Chicago, hitting .270/.347/.460, 107 OPS+, with solid defense at the hot corner. Overall, it was a successful rookie campaign, especially considering that he jumped to the majors with very little minor league experience.
2010 has been completely different. He's switched positions over to second base, where his glovework has been slightly above average, granted the perils of sample size and defensive metrics. But his bat has been a world of stink: his OPS+ is down to a dismal 47. He's been awful at home (.554 OPS) and even worse on the road (.539 OPS). He's hitting .132 with a .132 SLG (not a typo) against left-handed pitchers. May was a bitter month with just a .417 OPS in 24 games, but April (.636) and June (.616) haven't been much better.
He's hitting the ball on the ground a lot more often this year: 50.9% GB ratio, compared to 40.4% last year. Fangraphs rates him as below average against all varieties of pitches, with a particularly sharp decline in effectiveness against fastballs compared to last year. He's swinging at a greater percentage of pitches outside the strike zone as well, 30.3% compared to 24.7% last year. Basically, he's been awful in just about every regard.
Is there a physical cause for this level of suckage? Beckham suffered a strained oblique late in spring training, but has played in 59 of Chicago's 65 games: if he's hurt, he's not talking about it. Given what we know about his makeup, it seems entirely possible to me that he's trying to play through an injury of some kind, either continued oblique pain or something else. That's completely speculative, of course. I would be interested in the observations of White Sox fans who get to see him on a daily basis, if there think there could be anything to the hidden injury theory.
Given the entirety of his background, I think he'll eventually pull out of this and regain his productivity. But it may take awhile, and '10 may end up being a lost season. I also note that Beckham had just 59 games of minor league experience, only seven of them in Triple-A. I've always felt that even advanced college players benefit from at least one full season in the upper minors, and that rushing them too quickly is usually a disservice to the player. I don't know if more minor league time would have prevented Beckham's current problems, but it certainly couldn't have hurt.