Did the Orioles Steal Tim Beckham?

Tim Beckham has been baseball’s best player in August. (Photo: Keith Allison)

In one of the least noticed trades before the July 31st deadline, the Rays and Orioles made a seemingly minor swap, with Tampa sending shortstop Tim Beckham to Baltimore for minor leaguer Tobias Myers. After acquiring Lucas Duda to take over at DH, the Rays had filled their infield and didn’t have regular at-bats for Beckham anymore, so they shipped him off to Baltimore for an 18-year-old in short-season ball.

Only since that seemingly inconsequential swap, Beckham has been the single best player in baseball, and we have to ask if the Orioles somehow stole a quality shortstop from their division rival.

August Leaderboards
Tim Beckham 60 0.500 0.517 0.897 0.584 278 1.6
Giancarlo Stanton 55 0.367 0.436 1.041 0.579 264 1.3
Joey Votto 63 0.435 0.587 0.783 0.551 243 1.2
Mike Trout 59 0.386 0.542 0.727 0.521 242 1.2
Josh Donaldson 54 0.341 0.481 0.854 0.524 237 1.1
Andrew Benintendi 47 0.425 0.489 0.875 0.540 244 1.1
Nelson Cruz 52 0.396 0.423 0.979 0.558 266 1.0
Charlie Blackmon 59 0.396 0.508 0.729 0.503 197 0.9
Joey Gallo 48 0.275 0.396 0.900 0.509 224 0.9
Kris Bryant 60 0.412 0.483 0.647 0.472 193 0.9

Know how Giancarlo Stanton has been hitting homers every game? Beckham has been better.

Notice how Joey Votto is closing in on the record for consecutive games on base multiple times? Beckham has been better.

Enjoying how Mike Trout is establishing a new level of greatness, even by his own standards? Beckham has been better.

Now, of course, this isn’t real. It’s 60 plate appearances. It’s 60 really good plate appearances, but still just 60 plate appearances. And if we look at the underlying Statcast data, there appears to be a lot of luck involved in the results. The 214-point difference between Beckham’s .596 wOBA and his .383 xwOBA in August is the largest gap of any hitter by a huge amount. While guys like Stanton, Votto, and Trout are legitimately crushing the ball right now, Beckham’s xwOBA puts him in the company of guys like Yadier Molina and Derek Dietrich.

But it’s not news to say that a guy with a .584 wOBA over two weeks has gotten some good bounces. It’s almost impossible to achieve this level for any stretch of time without things going your way. The fact that Beckham’s first two weeks in Baltimore have been a mixture of good hitting and good luck doesn’t invalidate the question of whether the Orioles somehow took a quality young infielder from a division rival for not much in return.

Even if we pull back from his August insanity, Beckham’s career numbers profile him as a useful big-league player. His career 108 wRC+ in 851 plate appearances is reasonably valuable from anyone who can handle a middle-infield spot, and while Beckham isn’t a great defender at short, he’s at least passable there, ranking just a few runs below average by both UZR and DRS; the Fans Scouting Report lines up with that assessment as well.

So to this point in his big-league career, Beckham’s been a better-than-average hitter while playing acceptable defense at shortstop. In total, that adds up to +4 WAR in 851 plate appearances, which works out to +2.8 WAR per 600 PAs. That level of production, if sustained, would make Beckham an above-average big leaguer.

Of course, you can’t just take a part-time player’s performance in selected games and extrapolate to a full-year sample. The Rays played Beckham against left-handed pitching more than the would have been able to if he were an everyday player, and he got protected from having to face tough right-handed starters who would have made his numbers worse. But then, there’s this fact: Beckham has a career .265/.310/.460 line against right-handers and a .267/.322/.449 line against left-handers. There’s no observed platoon split here that suggests his numbers have been greatly inflated by facing a disproportionate share of southpaws.

And if we look at the underlying skills, there’s no reason to think that Beckham can’t continue to hit somewhere near the league average. Yes, he’s a free-swinger with contact problems who will likely always be bit of an OBP sinkhole, but the power looks legitimate, and you don’t need to be good at everything to be a decent big-league hitter. His average exit velocity on balls in the air is 95 mph, ranking up there with guys like Mark Trumbo and Edwin Encarnacion.

Sure, he’s probably not a legitimate .355 BABIP hitter forever, but he doesn’t hit infield flies and he can run, so expecting a higher-than-average BABIP going forward isn’t unreasonable. And even if there’s some BABIP regression ahead, it’s important to note that he doesn’t need to keep running a 108 wRC+ to be a good player. If he settles in even as a 95-ish wRC+ guy with acceptable defense at shortstop, that’s a league-average player.

In many ways, Beckham kind of reminds me of a poor man’s Ian Desmond. You deal with the plate-discipline issues and some defensive miscues because the physical skills make a solid overall player. Beckham might be a bit more raw than peak-era Desmond, but peak-era Desmond was also a +4 WAR player; there’s a lot of room to be a slightly worse approximation and still be very useful.

Now, maybe if Beckham were going to be a free agent at year’s end, we could lump him in with all the other solid players traded for nothing in the last month. But that’s the thing: Beckham is a 27-year-old who will be arbitration eligible for the first time this winter. The Orioles get to keep him for three more years, and because he hasn’t racked up any big counting stats yet, he’s not going to be particularly expensive.

Controllable cheap years of useful big-league players are what every team in baseball covets right now, but somehow, the Orioles got the Rays to basically give them a solid young major leaguer for no obvious reason. After all, the Rays just traded for Adeiny Hechavarria to displace Beckham, and Hecheverria is a demonstrably worse player than Beckham; since Tampa acquired him, he has a 28 wRC+. Yes, 28.

So, yeah. Beckham isn’t as good as he’s been in August. Hecheverria isn’t as bad as he’s been in Tampa Bay. But in looking at the Rays’ series of decisions at shortstop over the last six weeks, it’s hard not to think that the Rays picked the wrong guy. Beckham has too many rough edges to be a star yet, but he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft for a reason, and he’s developed into a perfectly useful big leaguer at this point.

That the Orioles got his arbitration years for a guy whom they took in the sixth round last summer seems like nothing short of a heist. That they got him from a division rival who seemingly could have really used Beckham going forward only enhances this deal for Baltimore. Quietly, Dan Duquette might have made the best trade of July.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

And Fangraphs didn’t even give it a trade deadline write-up!