Gordon Beckham ran pretty hot in the summer of 2009. He debuted with the Chicago White Sox in June that year, less than 10 months after signing his first pro contract as the Sox’s first-round pick in 2008. He played shortstop in college and shortstop in the minor leagues, but since the White Sox had a shortstop on hand, Beckham slid to third base.

He clubbed 14 home runs, added 28 doubles, walked in 10 percent of his plate appearances and ran up a .270/.347/.460 triple-slash. His ceiling was a defined thing, not the empty sky, but it certainly seemed far above his head, and what a coup for Chicago to have turned a draftee into an impact big-leaguer so blazingly fast.

Only, it didn’t stick. The next season, Beckham slid to second base, and while his defense suffered from the transition, that was not the primary problem. The primary problem was that Gordon Beckham stopped being a first-division hitter, even for an infielder, and in fact, for anyone.

For three years since 2009, Beckham has gotten increased playing time every season. Yet, he’s yet to match the 43 extra-base hits he accumulated in 430 plate appearances in 2009. He’s yet to match the 41 walks he drew then, even in 2012, when he got 582 plate appearances, an increase of 35 percent over that rookie pan-flash. He hasn’t made himself a good second baseman; hasn’t developed average power, accounting for his home park; and hasn’t run the bases well. He’s been a failure of talent, a failure of skills and a failure of development.

All of which is strange, because Beckham isn’t terribly impatient at the plate; isn’t punch less; and doesn’t strike out all that often. He turns the double play quite well and doesn’t make errors in the field. He seems, on paper as to the spectator’s eye, like he should be better than he is. He’s not a bad fundamental player, nor a bad athlete, but he can’t put things together at all.

Consider his batting average on balls in play. That one magic summer, Beckham managed a nearly league-average BABIP of .290. The next season, it was .297. These are very reasonable numbers. There was no reason to suspect – there may STILL be no reason to suspect – that those figures did not pretty well capture Beckham’s BABIP skill. In 2011, though, Beckham saw that number drop to .276, and from there, it plummeted in 2012 to .254.

Taking those two seasons combined, and looking at batters who saw substantial playing time both years, Beckham had the eighth-worst BABIP out there. Most of the other guys near the bottom of that list are of a very different type:

Worst Batting Average on Balls in Play, 2011-12

1. Adam Dunn, .244
2. Mark Teixeira, .244
3. Justin Smoak, .257
4. Ian Kinsler, .257
5. Brian McCann, .261
6. J.J. Hardy, .262
7. Colby Rasmus, .263
8. Gordon Beckham, .264
9. Carlos Pena, .266
10. Dan Uggla, .267

That’s a lot of power hitters surrounding a gap-shooting second baseman. Smoak’s 34 homers in the two-season sample are the closest number to Beckham’s 26, but Smoak called SafeCo Field home, cutting home runs perhaps 25 percent relative to what Beckham’s did for him, and Smoak got 115 fewer plate appearances over the course of the two years, too. Only Hardy really fits Beckham’s strikeout/walk/batted-ball profile, but Hardy also knocked twice as many pitches out of the park as Beckham did during the two years.

Beckham doesn’t fit a profile. No easy sort by any stat puts him neatly in line with other players that are truly like him. He’s strong, and with a bit of tinkering, could probably become Hardy Lite, but it’s a long path from here to there for a White Sox team that controls Beckham only three more seasons. He makes above-average contact, and maybe work with the Sox hitting coaches would allow him to continue doing so while taking more pitches, so as to improve his back-to-back OBP postings of .296.

Still, there’s a fundamental problem here. Beckham doesn’t do anything well; he can only shoot for average. He set a career high with 16 home runs in 2012, but ranked fifth in shortest average home-run distance in the process.

In 2012, the average big leaguer swung at 30.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, and connected roughly  two-thirds of the time when they did so. Beckham, though, swung at over 33 percent of such pitches, and made contact on nearly 74 percent. That generated a lot of weak hits for him. Beckham popped up on the infield far too often, and indeed, hits too many flies in general for a player without much power. He’s creating at least some part of this problem for himself, and may not be able to correct it easily.

None of this is meant to damn Beckham irredeemably. He has the smooth actions to stick at second base, and he arm to play third if needed. Again, it’s possible Beckham is Hardy waiting to bloom, and more possible than that that his .290-plus BABIP is a truer signal of his true ability than that .264 of the last two years. This is the tantalizing, frustrating, great and terrible truth about Gordon Beckham: He remains a mystery. He still has real upside. He won’t turn 27 until September. Right now, though, he is a significant liability for a team hoping to run a tight enough ship to beat a more talented Tigers team in the AL Central.

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