It has been a long and hard road for Gordon Beckham in the major leagues. He was once a promising young prospect, drafted by the Chicago White Sox eighth overall in 2008 and rushed to the majors the next year. His first year in the big leagues was unquestionably a success; he managed a 109 wRC+ and was worth over 2 WAR. Given his pedigree and a productive rookie season, evaluators seemed sure of his future as a major league regular.
Unfortunately, those 103 games a decade ago have served as less of a launching pad than expected for Beckham. Backsliding at the plate in 2010 and again in 2011, he never managed a return to his original form, and has consistently been completely unimpressive since.
Since leaving the White Sox in free agency in 2016, Beckham has spent time with four organizations, compiling a 64 wRC+ and hitting .210/.279/.340. This is pretty much in line with what he did for the Tigers in 2019 as an every-other-day contributor.
What went right?
When the team signed Beckham back in January, it seemed unlikely that he would see much time in a Tigers uniform. It was only a minor league deal, and while it came attached to a non-roster invitation to spring training, he was really abysmal in 2018. “Don’t expect him to be a full-time infielder, nor to be a shoe-in for a utility role with the club,” we wrote at the time. The sense was that he’d be more of an insurance policy in case things went wrong.
Spoiler: things went wrong.
Thanks to injuries to multiple infielders, including presumed starters Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, Beckham saw his role expanded well beyond initial expectations. Instead of sitting in Detroit’s back pocket and playing every day in Triple-A Toledo, he was stalwart on the Tigers’ bench for the entire season. He ended up appearing in 83 games in an utterly forgettable run wearing the Olde English D, hitting .215/.271/.372.
But enough about Gordon Beckham, utility man. Let me introduce you to Gordon Beckham, slugger.
You may be surprised to learn that Beckham had the team’s fourth-highest hard hit rate among players with at least 100 plate appearances. At 41.9 percent, he was only surpassed by Miguel Cabrera, JaCoby Jones, and Nicholas Castellanos. Granted, there wasn’t much power to go around when it came to Tigers batters, but Beckham stacked up surprisingly well against national competition also. Out of 451 players who accumulated at least 100 at-bats in the majors during the 2019 season, Beckham ranked 114th. This means that, according to exit velocity data, nearly three-quarters of those players had a lower power output than Beckham.
Although that was never realized in actual production value — Beckham hit six home runs in 240 plate appearances — it’s an interesting note. Deciding whether it means that he could have value to a team next season is a job for someone better at this than I am.
What went wrong?
Examining the good parts of Beckham’s season is probably a moot point — he’s a free agent and Detroit probably won’t need his services again in 2020. His 240 plate appearances felt mostly irrelevant, even in the midst of a season that would once again see the Tigers at the very bottom of the heap. As FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski pointed out on a recent episode of the Bless You Boys podcast, a rebuilding team really should spend their at-bats in a way that teaches them something. Deciding to give at-bats to Gordon Beckham taught the Tigers that he is the same player we have seen from afar for the past decade. All they had to do to gain that data was take a look at his recent performance for other clubs.
Beckham’s playing time also came with the opportunity cost of learning something about any other player who may have taken those at-bats instead. By signing a younger player with more potential and less track record, they could have gained data that was a bit more informative. Even if this hypothetical player also played replacement level baseball (Beckham was worth -0.6 rWAR this year), it’s not about the results. It’s about the process. Once again, the Tigers’ process offered little in the way of forward thinking or an attempt at giving themselves an edge in their rebuild.
Using his performance as a lens to view a systemic issue within the franchise is probably unfair to Beckham. But his season wasn’t all that rosy either. He hit .215/.271/.372 and his 67 wRC+ was 33 percent below league average. That kind of play would be completely unacceptable on almost every team in the majors, but the bar is substantially lower on a team destined to lose 114 games.
Beckham will almost surely be playing for a different team in 2020. He was only signed to a one-year deal, and didn’t turn in an especially eye-catching season. There’s little sense in giving him more playing time with younger, homegrown players also poised to be in the mix. The Tigers will likely need to reinforce the infield with a free agent or two, but the odds of there being a more interesting pick-up to be found seem high.