The White Sox are fighting keep pace with the division leading Detroit Tigers, but there have been a few holes in their lineup that have held them back all season long. Adam Dunn is the most glaring bust. His contract and track record are a deadly combination when discussing his fall-off-the-face-of-the-earth 2011 season. However, there has been another major bust in the Sox lineup, one that has been given three years to produce, but has only really produced for one season and a couple of months at the plate. His name is Gordon Beckham and he might be playing his way out of Chicago.
Back in 2008, the White Sox made University of Georgia shortstop, Gordon Beckham, the eighth overall pick in the June draft. Beckham signed on August 13th for a $2.6M signing bonus and got 63 plate appearances under his belt at single-A Kannapolis, where he impressed with a .310/.365/.500 line and three home runs. The following year, Baseball America ranked Beckham as the 20th best prospect in baseball, noting that the 28 home runs he hit his senior year at Georgia tied him for the NCAA Division I lead. That power -- though a little subdued without the ping of aluminum bats -- was on display once again in 2009 as Beckham hit .299/.366/.497 with a .197 ISO at double-A in 166 plate appearances. The White Sox promptly promoted him to triple-A, where he'd only last seven games and 30 plate appearances before getting the call to the show.
Beckham had a very successful rookie campaign -- .270/.347/.460 with 14 home runs, 28 doubles and seven stolen bases -- but his numbers have regressed wildly over the past two seasons. The most glaring issue has been his lack of plate discipline. Both his walk rate and strikeout rate have been trending in the wrong direction since 2009.
Part of the issue in the case of both stats has been Beckham's tendency to swing at pitches outside the strike-zone much too often. He is also becoming less patient and has been swinging and missing with more frequency overall this season.
Key: Sw% = swing%, O-Sw% = % of swings on pitches outside the strike-zone, CT% = contact%
This could be a product of his mental game diminishing, him pressing too hard or opposing pitchers may have simply learned to exploit his free swinging ways. No matter what, it seems as though Beckham has lost the confidence that made him a 2.6 fWAR rookie in 2009.
There is clearly a problem here, but the question is how do the White Sox fix it? They've stuck with Beckham for the past two seasons and he has failed to provide them with much, if any, value posting 0.8 fWAR (-0.2 rWAR) last season and only 0.9 WAR this season. Is it time to send him to the bench for good? He's hitting .182/.239/.242 in August while Brent Lillibridge, who has 54 career games played at second base, is hitting .323/.389/.710 this month with four home runs. Lillibridge has been a tremendous surprise for the White Sox this season, but he doesn't exactly represent an improvement just based on plate discipline and contact skills. Still, at some point, you have to acknowledge his overall production, though he has hit left-handed pitching much better than right-handed pitching this season. The idea of sending Beckham back to the minor leagues might have worked given a different circumstance, but the minor league seasons will be coming to an end soon. Maybe a week-long ride on the pine would give him some time to get away from the daily grind and allow him to recharge himself physically and mentally.
Sometimes, top prospects turn into busts. A lot of people are calling Beckham just that, a bust, but he's still young (24) and did put up very good numbers in his rookie season. While it might be hopeful to look back upon that 2009 season, the fact is that he's regressing in some of the most crucial areas of a player's offensive game. Beckham doesn't have the Vladimir Guerrero-esque hand-eye coordination to succeed while chasing pitches outside the strike-zone 35 to 40 percent of the time. Most players don't. Unless he can improve this area of his game, chances are, he'll never live up to his first round (eighth overall) expectations.
Where do the White Sox go from here? They have Beckham as a cost effective option for the next couple of years -- they already have about $89M on the books for 2012 with two third-year arbitration eligible players on the roster (Carlos Quenton and John Danks) -- but is that reason enough to stick with him through what could potentially be another season of futility? How long do they hang onto the hope generated from his 2009 season and his two-month hot streak from June and July of 2010?
I like Gordon Beckham. I like his swing, I like how he seems to play the game hard. I hope he turns his career around. The problem is, he has shown only small glimpses over the past two seasons that such a turn around is possible. I'm willing to bet that the underlying problem is more mental than anything else, which gives me as much hope that he will improve as it does resignation that he probably wont.