The Orioles were a catastrophic failure in 2018. With their apparent plan of, “Assume everything that was bad about the 2017 team will improve and everything good will be as good or better,” it is no wonder they failed. That was never going to work. Lumped in among the many disappointments on the roster was Tim Beckham, who was not able to sustain the success he had after being traded to Baltimore last year.
It was never realistic to believe that Beckham might be able to equal his batting line from his 50 Orioles games last season: .306/.348/.523. Players don’t just suddenly become that good. Still, there was a lot of room between that and what Beckham actually batted across 96 games for this year’s Orioles: .230/.287/.374, just dismal numbers any way you want to slice them.
Combine the year-long slump at the plate with poor defense that was representative of the team-wide failure in that area and it’s not a ton of surprise that the early euphoria about Beckham has given way to the reality, according to MASN’s Roch Kubatko, that Beckham could find himself non-tendered this winter, depending on how the new Orioles brain trust feels about his projected $4.3 million salary in 2019.
Understanding that errors are neither the only nor best way to judge a player’s defense, Beckham’s futility in this area this season still stands out. In 40 starts at third base, he committed seven errors, and in 46 starts at shortstop, he made a dozen errors. Errors don’t tell you everything, but when you commit 19 of them in less than 100 starts in the field, that does tell you at least something.
Beckham’s 2018 was not without its challenges. He was displaced from his natural position of shortstop to begin the season in order to place Manny Machado, expected to be a superior defender, there instead. Although there are counter-examples, it’s probably not too helpful overall to put a player somewhere that he has no instincts and where his physical abilities may not let him succeed there.
Along with being out of position in April, there was also a groin strain that put Beckham on the disabled list for more than two months. At the time Beckham went on the DL, he was reported to have been suffering from the issue since back in spring training. It is one possible explanation, along with moving over to shortstop, for why Beckham was batting just .179/.247/.262 when he hit the DL.
When an injury is involved, the temptation to play the arbitrary endpoints game is stronger. For instance, if you discount March and April, Beckham instead batted .246/.299/.407 this season - still not great, but better. Move the date again to post-Machado trade and Beckham batted .250/.313/.441 with ten home runs over the season’s final 53 games.
This is not going to win anyone an MVP award but it is a good enough batting line that it will tend to not have a player continually living in the middle of a, “Geez, he sucks!” narrative. The question that the next Orioles head of baseball operations will have to answer is which of these is closer to the real Beckham.
Those who are particularly pessimistic about the level of competence of the previous Orioles regime - an understandable feeling, given that the team just completed a 47-115 season - might even question the extent to which any player can be judged for his performance on the 2018 team.
A preponderance of evidence exists to support a belief that the Orioles were being helmed by some guys who were just out of touch with how to have players able to get the most out of their natural talent in today’s game.
Stories of the front office dysfunction abound, including recent barb-slinging by Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter disputing whether the field staff was being given good information or whether the field staff was ignoring important analytic findings that could have helped the team. Machado’s defense was at the center of that Ken Rosenthal article, which offered the possible answer that maybe the Orioles were just run by a bunch of idiots who were telling Machado to stand in the wrong place.
Although Beckham was the #1 overall pick in 2008, he has never shown anything like Machado’s talent at the MLB level, so some of the difference is just in that Machado is a better player. But maybe the same idiots who were telling Machado to stand in the wrong place were telling Beckham to stand in the wrong place.
Maybe similarly clueless people were trying to help Beckham with pitch recognition and plate discipline. This team’s failure was so complete and total that we cannot assume they were doing anything correctly or well. It is up to the players to play the games, but it is up to the team to give them the best chance to play their best. The Orioles, it is reasonable to believe, failed in this responsibility.
Consider also that it may have just been some bad luck. Beckham batted .285 on balls in play (BABIP), an abnormally low number compared to his career mark of .325. There are a lot of lost hits between a .325 BABIP and a .285 BABIP. On the other hand, Beckham’s hard contact rate, as judged by Fangraphs, dropped from 39.1% of batted balls last year to just 30.5% this year. Bad luck? Bad advice? A bad April dragging his numbers down? Maybe it was some of all of the above.
Add to this mix the fact that the only shortstop prospect the Orioles have in their system is just-drafted Cadyn Grenier, who played for Low-A Delmarva, and there is no real reason not to give Beckham another chance to show what he’s got next season. He’s probably better than what he showed in 2018 and there’s nobody in the system to replace him right now.
Next year’s Orioles will be bad, too, but they still need to field a team. Beckham could be the short-term patch. It’s not like they spent that $4 million on Victor Victor Mesa or Sandy Gaston. If they’re lucky, he will play himself back into being a trade chip.