After a strong 2017 campaign for Tampa and Baltimore led some observers to declare, perhaps prematurely, that the former No. 1 pick had finally figured out how to sustainably deliver on his sky-high potential, Tim Beckham’s 2018 performance was sufficiently awful (a 79 wRC+ over 402 plate appearances) that the Baltimore front office declined to tender him a contract and left him to sign a $1.75 million deal with the Mariners in early January. Well, for a guy who was probably only intended to hold the middle of the field warm until J.P. Crawford gets the call up to Seattle at some point later this summer, Beckham has had a remarkably good first week in the Queen City:
Usually, I wouldn’t note a first week like this except in passing — Preston Tucker was hitting .435 through his first seven games of 2018, after all — except for two things. First, Beckham was hurt — with a core muscle injury that required surgery — throughout much of 2018, which suggests that perhaps his poor performance over the full season was less a reflection of a regression from 2017’s breakout and more what you’d expect from a player toughing it out through a debilitating injury. Second, Beckham has actually had a pretty good five weeks, dating back to September 1st of 2018. Since that date, his wRC+ of 186 is eighth-best in the game.
Beckham has always had good power to all fields, but until 2017, that power was too often undercut by a tendency to end at-bats early by swinging at the first pitch he saw offered close to the zone. In 2017, he solved the mental hurdle that had pushed him to try to do too much and instead started taking a few pitches early in at-bats until he found the one he wanted. “These days,” he told me back then, “I want to see the ball in the zone where I can drive it, and if it’s not” — here, a pause — “I want to trust that it’s going to be a ball.” The core injury hindered his ability to execute on that mindset in 2018, yes, but since September of last year, he’s been able to put it into practice again. The results have been impressive.
“I’m seeing him swing at good pitches and hit the ball really hard,” said fellow Seattle newcomer Jay Bruce. “The quality of the at-bats he’s had lately have been really great — he’s putting himself into good counts, and not missing pitches that he gets.”
Over his first 31 plate appearances of 2019, in fact, Beckham has swung at just 22% of pitches he’s seen outside the zone — his career mark is 33% — and made contact 74% of the time (also near a career best). I say this not to suggest that Beckham can necessarily keep this level of performance up over a full season, but merely to confirm that what’s being seen with the eyes is also being recorded in the data: Tim Beckham has learned how to wait for his pitch. And he’s finding support from his hitting coach, Tim Laker.
“This year,” said Laker, “we’ve really tried to emphasize to all our hitters that we’re going to specifically target each night’s starting pitcher, and say ‘How are we going to beat this guy,’ not just go up there and say, hey, look, there’s a pitch, let me try and hit it.” So when Beckham came to the plate against Chris Sale early in last Thursday’s home opener against the Red Sox, he knew he was looking for a pitch up in the zone, somewhere in the middle of the plate appearance, and he knew what he would be trying to do with it.
“For me,” said Laker, “when you’re a right-hander facing a guy that’s a cross-fire guy, like a Bumgarner or a Sale, you’re going to have to generate power to the pull side. In the past, [Beckham] has kind of tried to hit that kind of guy the other way. But if you go the other way, you lose the barrel a bit and they get that little rise up and away and you miss under. So before that game we talked about attacking the ball at a bit of a different angle to get a bit more pull on it and take it out to left.” On a 1-2 pitch in the second inning, Beckham got a pitch he could pull, and did this:
Tim Beckham probably isn’t going to end 2019 with a 186 wRC+, and in fact I suspect that both he and the Mariners would be quite pleased if all he did was replicate 2017’s 109 mark. But he’s had a terrific first week of the season, and it’s come hot on the heels of a September that showed that, when healthy, Beckham can do serious damage to baseballs to all fields.
“I think,” said Bruce, “that before 2017 he had a tendency to try too hard sometimes, and I think staying within himself now has allowed him to ‘finish’ the at-bats and not miss the pitches that he gets. All he has to do now is stay within himself.”
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness.