For about a year and a half, Tim Beckham played for the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles, as you know, are terrible. So terrible that, when the season started, FanGraphs had their playoff odds at 0.0%. After nearly a month into the season, their playoff odds haven’t budged from 0.0%. Unsurprisingly, they’re projected for the fewest wins in the league.
For a team as bad as the Orioles, it says a lot that they didn’t tender Beckham to a $4.3 million contract. Beckham has the ability to play second base, third base, and shortstop every day. Right now, the Orioles are playing Jonathan Villar, Rio Ruiz, and Richie Martin Jr. in those respective spots and the trio is projected to produce measly WARs of 1.4, 0.8, and 0.4. While they have combined for 0.5 WAR thus far, Beckham has already produced 0.6.
Beckham, meanwhile, has garnered a lot of attention in the early going for dingers like this:
Ryan Dull missed his spot, left it up over the plate, and Beckham put it way, way into the seats. As the cherry on top, he punctuated it with one of the best bat flips I’ve ever seen, just for good measure.
Now, it isn’t all that surprising that Beckham is doing this. To a point it is, I suppose, but Beckham was the first overall pick in 2008 and let’s not forget he has run the gamut of grueling injuries. Beckham missed nearly the entire 2014 season with a torn ACL, but he also had core muscle surgery — colloquially known as sports hernia surgery — to repair his groin. When they went to repair his left groin injury, they found he had been playing with a slight tear in his right groin for four years.
So if we are to trust Beckham’s claim that he’s been playing with a nagging injury for four years — which, I don’t know why we wouldn’t — then we can conclude that, other than a five-game cup of coffee in 2013, this is Beckham’s first season in which he’s been in full health.
Being free of injury has been one thing, but something is happening with Beckham upstairs as well.
Beckham’s swing percentage has dropped off a cliff this year. Across the board, Beckham has seen his swing percentages fall — both inside and outside of the zone — and so his swing percentage has fallen from his career 49.1% mark to 42.5%. As a result of taking more pitches, his first-strike percentage has risen from his career 62.7% to a 67.1%, which is an interesting (but probably benign) side effect of swinging at fewer pitches.
Intriguingly, Beckham’s contact numbers are relatively unchanged from last year, but what’s important is he’s making more contact in comparison to his career numbers, and he’s significantly cut down his swinging strike percentage from his career 14.5% to 10.9%.
Across the board, Beckham has enjoyed vast improvements, but like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Beckham has been fortunate, son. He has massively outproduced his wOBA, per his xwOBA — but don’t fear! The underlying skills here are sustainable enough.
If Beckham were to end this season today with the xwOBA he has now as his wOBA, he would have tied Gregory Polanco and J.T. Realmuto for 43rd in the MLB in wOBA in 2018. There’s still a lot of baseball left to be played, but he’s been impressive to date.
Surely, this could just be a blip, but it seems like something has gotten through to him this year.
Earlier I mentioned Beckham’s swing percentage has been cut down, but I find the changes to his swing percentage inside the zone to be most compelling.
We know that Beckham, in general, is swinging less than ever before. But the brunt of his changes haven’t been coming from balls off the plate: Beckham has become increasingly more picky on what pitches he wants to offer at inside the zone.
Seattle Mariners hitting coach Tim Laker has also been credited as someone behind several of the Mariners’ early successes and Beckham is no exception.
This year, the Mariners have made it a point to focus on the pitcher’s approach on the mound, but also to not compromise their own approach.
For me, when you’re a right-hander facing a guy that’s a cross-fire guy, like a Bumgarner or a Sale, you’re going to have to generate power to the pull side. In the past, [Beckham] has kind of tried to hit that kind of guy the other way. But if you go the other way, you lose the barrel a bit and they get that little rise up and away and you miss under. So before that game we talked about attacking the ball at a bit of a different angle to get a bit more pull on it and take it out to left.”
There’s nothing Laker has said that’s revolutionary per se, but right now we can presume that his guidance has paid dividends: Seattle ranks first in the MLB in wRC+, and second in wOBA.
Chris Sale, of course, hasn’t exactly been his regular self for a while now — and he looked pretty mortal against Seattle — but Beckham took him deep twice in the span of two innings.
In the second inning:
Nothing cheap about this one. Beckham wallops this pitch and sends it 430 feet into the bullpen in left.
He does it again in the next inning:
Beckham doesn’t pull this one to left, but he displays his all-fields power here and thwacks a pitch from Sale on the outer half of the plate to dead center.
Again, Sale didn’t have his best stuff, and he missed his spots, but these were 92 and 93 mph fastballs. That’s the point of all of this, anyhow: Beckham doesn’t necessarily need to be better than you. The new and improved Beckham is content waiting for you to make a mistake or give him a pitch he’s expecting; the hope here is that this approach results in him punishing a pitch or trotting slowly to first base.
We’re playing with small samples here — so small, that it feels disingenuous to speculate — but we can start to see what a more modest Beckham could look like. In March, Beckham was incredible for seven games. In April, Beckham has just one multi-hit game.
First, plate discipline!
He’s started to swing a touch more, but the changes are mainly coming from the pitchers, not Beckham. Again, our sample is minute, so this could be sample size, inherent differences between pitchers, or it could be a legitimate adjustment the league is making against him.
My most educated guess is that it’s a bit of all three, but I’d be willing to bet that the league has taken notice of Beckham’s red-hot start to the season and made adjustments accordingly. You can see they’re pitching in the zone far less and first pitches are going for strikes far less often. First-strike pitches are often fastballs, so we can surmise that pitch outcomes on fastballs are going to look vastly different. Turns out, that’s the case.
On four-seam fastballs:
Of course, this doesn’t include other types of fastballs, but you can see four-seam fastballs aren’t going for strikes as often as before. They’re increasingly turning into balls or balls in play. That’s one change.
Right-handed pitchers have also changed how they’ve pitched Beckham situationally. To make it a little easier to compare and dissect, I’ve put his March numbers on the left, separated by his April numbers on the right.
|All Counts||43% / 56%||38% / 39%||19% / 5%|
|First Pitch||38% / 65%||46% / 35%||15% / 0%|
|Batter Ahead||40% / 81%||47% / 16%||13% / 3%|
|Even||46% / 55%||31% / 41%||23% / 5%|
|Pitcher Ahead||41% / 36%||41% / 57%||18% / 7%|
|Two Strikes||55% / 46%||27% / 49%||18% / 5%|
I know it’s a lot to digest, but I’ll do my best to hit the key points so you don’t have to stare at this beast of a table.
The most perplexing thing is, when he is ahead, pitchers have increasingly been giving in and pumping in fastballs, whereas they weren’t before. Previously, Beckham was being fed a 40/50/10 split when ahead in the count, but in April he’s seen 81% fastballs in hitter’s counts. You would expect the opposite to happen, especially since Beckham has historically not been a strong breaking ball hitter. In a different way, though, pitchers aren’t giving in. When pitchers are ahead in the count, they are going to their breaking pitches more often — especially when they have two strikes.
Since pitchers are moving away from breaking stuff when Beckham is ahead, we would expect he’s improving against breaking pitches.
- Hard: 35th percentile
- Breaking: 25th percentile
- Hard: 43rd percentile
- Breaking: 27th percentile
You will notice that Beckham has improved slightly against hard pitches — and even that point could be argued — but he remains largely unchanged when it comes to breaking pitches. How, then, has he raised his xwOBA by so much?
- Offspeed: 22nd percentile
- Offspeed: 82nd percentile
Color me unimpressed. These gains likely don’t have much of anything to do with Beckham’s newfound ability to hit changeups and the like. No, his sample size of eight plate appearances against offspeed pitches in 2019 is, partially, behind his overall gains in xwOBA. As he collects more plate appearances, he is sure to revert back towards the 22nd percentile against offspeed pitches.
As I button up this piece, Beckham just took a four-pitch walk against Shane Bieber. That’s a feat in of itself, as Bieber’s 4.8% walk percentage is tied for 12th lowest in the MLB since 2018. Beckham has transformed himself from a hitter with below-average walk numbers to a hitter with above-average walk numbers. For a player like himself, that matters! He still struggles to make contact and, by extension, his strikeout rate is still pretty high, but he’s starting to push all of his rates more towards average.
For the fantasy baseball owner, that’s not a sexy thing to hear. But for the Seattle Mariners, they were just happy to have a stopgap in Beckham until J.P. Crawford proves his worth in Triple-A Tacoma. All of a sudden, they found themselves with a worthwhile player to buy Crawford some more time: one that is competent at multiple positions and with the bat. I am, unfortunately, not here to sell you on Tim Beckham, but I will say with confidence that he’s turned himself back into a productive player, as he was in 2017. The breakout isn’t all real, but there are legitimate changes taking place. Beckham made adjustments and the league adjusted back. Now it’s on Beckham to readjust.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm on Twitter)