Is Gordon Beckham bad at defense? I don’t think so…


It’s better to just come out and state my influences, rather than just be exposed for cribbing ideas later.

Jim Margalus’ piece on South Side Sox about notes from the Bill James handbook, and the subsequent site discussion on how Gordon Beckham consistently rates out worse in defensive metrics than his regular observers would anticipate got me thinking about the still-young 2nd basemen.

And this rather humorously steadfast article by Evan Crum at Rant Sports that tries to defend Paul Konerko from James designating him the worst 1st basemen in baseball–by touting the fielding percentage of a player who lacks range–got me think about what the basis of our belief in Beckham’s defense is.

Discussions of advanced defense analysis began with moving beyond fielding percentage, but simple avoidance of obvious gaffes does a lot to shade our eye-test assessment of players. If asked off-the-cuff, I would also probably estimate Konerko to be a better defender than Prince Fielder, simply because examples of the pratfalls of the latter come more easily to mind.

Beckham has that quality as well. He’s nothing if not immaculately error-avoidant–possessing a .990 fielding percentage over the last two seasons. He has an athletic build that lends a credibility to his actions on the field that someone like say…Jhonny Peralta is not blessed with. Also, Beckham came up as a shortstop, and it stands to reason (and the defensive spectrum) that he should be capable of handling the requirements of playing second base.

Because of all this, to find flaws in Beckham’s defense takes a rather critical eyes, and we–the White Sox fanbase–are hesitant to do that, since his defense is all that keeps him viable as a major leaguer. And assessing range–where defensive metrics tend to be less than thrilled with Gordon–takes some effort. It’s highly subjective, and there needs to be a clear consensus from metrics and scouts for there to be much confidence one way or another.

Beckham doesn’t have that. More intensive breakdowns of the range components of FanGraph’s UZR and Baseball Reference’s Total Zone Rating…

…show Range Factor rating Beckham as consistently above-average, while UZR is hot-and-cold about his coverage, which is representative of how defensive metrics have treated Beckham in general.

Since a single year of defensive data is still mostly noise, to have the results leap back-and-forth like this leaves us at square one. Sure, Alex Rios is a poster child for defensive slumps being real, but that was demonstrative, whereas Beckham has looked steady the past two seasons while his metric scores reeled around wildly.

It’s worth considering that Beckham’s range is not as good as the sunny reviews regularly bestowed upon it by hometown sources, but there’s no clear place to start the new assessment. In most cases it would be fine to shrug off the statistical noise and trust the eye test, but Gordon’s bat is far too poor for his glove to enjoy that much trust.

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan