Three explanations for Tim Beckham's red-hot performance since being traded
No, the former No. 1 overall pick is not really this good, but he's already improved from his Rays days
For obvious reasons, the 2017 trade deadline headlines were dominated by Yu Darvish and Sonny Gray rumors, contenders like the Nationals and Cubs looking for depth, and rebuilding clubs like the White Sox and Mets unloading veterans. There were plenty of high-profile trades, including Darvish and Gray, plus many smaller moves as well. That's always the case.
One trade that flew a bit under the radar was the Orioles getting former No. 1 pick Tim Beckham from the Rays for a low-level pitching prospect. Beckham was indeed the top selection in the 2008 draft, though he fell well short of expectations with Tampa, hitting .247/.299/.421 (97 OPS+) with 2.5 WAR in 238 total games before being traded at the deadline. Beckham wasn't a complete bust, though he was hardly the kind of impact player teams hope to land with the No. 1 pick.
Although he'd been a disappointment, you can understand why the Orioles pursued Beckham. He is only 27, he plays a premium position at shortstop, and he has natural talent and athleticism. Classic change of scenery guy. The Orioles needed a shortstop this year given J.J. Hardy's ongoing wrist and rib cage injuries, and they need a shortstop going forward given Hardy's impending free agency. Taking a shot on Beckham as a change-of-scenery player makes perfect sense.
So far, a little more than two weeks since the deadline, the trade could not be working out any better for the Orioles. Beckham came into Wednesday hitting .484/.500/.855 (257 OPS+) with seven doubles and four home runs in 15 games with the O's, and that was before he sent the second pitch of Wednesday afternoon's loss to the Mariners (SEA 7, BAL 6) over the wall for a leadoff home run:
Of course Beckham is not truly this good, though given his background as a former No. 1 pick and top prospect, how can you not be at least a little intrigued? The prospect of one team snagging a talented but under-performing player from a division rival and helping him reach his potential sure is tantalizing, as long as you're not the team that gave up on the player.
We know Beckham is performing extremely well since the trade, but here's the real question: What's different? Why is he performing so much better with the O's than he did with the Rays? There are a few possible explanations.
More contact, more fly balls
Baseball is collectively in the middle of a fly-ball revolution right now. There is much more emphasis on getting the ball airborne, which has led to a massive increase in home runs around MLB. Intuitively, hitting the ball in the air is a good thing. Ground balls don't go for extra-base hits all that often.
Here is Beckham's 2017 batted ball data:
|Strikeout Rate||Walk Rate||Ground Ball Rate||Pull Rate||Oppo Rate|
Quite a difference! There are a few things to take away from those numbers. One, his strikeout rate is way down, and that's obviously a plus. Two, his walk rate is down as well, which means he's putting that many more balls in play. Three, he's hitting fewer ground balls. Hooray for that. And four, he isn't pulling the ball as much. Did you watch the video of Wednesday's homer? It was to the opposite field.
Beckham is making more contact, getting the ball in the air, and using the entire field. All good news.
He finally has a mentor
The Rays, mostly for payroll reasons, are a young team. They do still have Evan Longoria, plus some veteran stopgaps like Logan Morrison and Wilson Ramos, but that's really it. With the Orioles, Beckham has a few more veterans to lean on for guidance, including Hardy.
And Hardy is happy to help. Here's what he told Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun:
"I've done it before," Hardy said of mentoring an up-and-coming shortstop. "It's a business. ... For this situation, if something I've done helps him to become a better player, or helps our team get better, and at the end of the season he's the future shortstop for the next however many years and I'm somewhere else, so be it.
"That's the way it is and the way the business is. I'm not going to be the guy who treats a guy bad or makes him feel uncomfortable and not try to help him because I want to be selfish because I want to be around. No. That's just not the person I am. It will probably happen again, the same thing that happened with Alcides (Escobar with the Brewers) and that's just the way the game goes."
You can't really quantify veteran leadership and how much it helps a player, if at all. This is just something to consider. For the first time in his relatively young career, Beckham has a veteran shortstop to look up to and learn from. Of course that could help improve his performance.
It's plain ol' luck
Can't rule this out. Sometimes a guy just gets hot and the hits fall in. Usually that involves bloopers and seeing-eye singles, however. Beckham has a ton of extra-base hits since the trade to the O's.
That said, during his time with the Orioles, Beckham is hitting an outrageous .553 on balls in play. It was .357 with the Rays and even that's a little high, though Beckham's career rate is .354 in over 800 plate appearances, so perhaps he's just one of those high BABIP players.
There is a better way to measure the so-called luck factor, however. Statcast recently introduced a metric called expected weighted on-base average. That's a mouthful. Regular old weighted on-base average, or wOBA, is essentially OPS on steroids. For example, a double is not really equivalent to two singles, and wOBA takes that into consideration. Expected wOBA, or xwOBA, tells what the player would be expected to hit based on his exit velocity and launch angle, and other factors.
Via Baseball Savant, here are the players with the biggest difference between wOBA and xwOBA since August 1 (min. 40 at-bats):
|Tim Beckham, Orioles|
No player in baseball is outperforming their xwOBA since August 1 more than Beckham. It's not even close. I hate the term "luck" because it's become such a crutch in baseball, though Beckham has been performing better than you'd expect given the type of contact he's making.
Now, that all said, Beckham's .378 xwOBA is really, really good. It ranks 34th among the 181 hitters with at least 40 at-bats since August 1, and it's on par with guys like Freddie Freeman (.395 xwOBA), Michael Conforto (.387 xwOBA), and Anthony Rizzo (.387 xwOBA). That's the kind of company Beckham is keeping, based on his contact quality.
At some point Beckham will cool down, because no player hits like this forever. There are some reasons to believe he is a different player with the Orioles than he was with the Rays, however. He's making more contact, he's getting the ball airborne more often, and he's using the entire field. I know xwOBA is a yucky acronym, but it is useful, and it tells us the type of contact Beckham has been making since the trade is conducive to doing a lot of damage.
The Beckham trade flew under the radar at the deadline, though it sure seems as though the Orioles may have found themselves a nice little player. Possibly an All-Star caliber player. They were willing to bet on Beckham's age and talent, and so far, they have been rewarded handsomely.
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