Tampa Bay Rays prospect Tim Beckham made some fundamental changes to his game in 2011 and reaped the rewards almost instantly.
The shortstop, who turns 22 later this month, improved his defense and implemented a more aggressive approach at the plate. The results? He set career highs in hits (142), homers (12) and RBIs (70) while committing 22 errors, the fewest of his four-year professional career.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 Draft scored 94 runs and swiped 17 bases in 22 attempts in 131 games across two levels. The 120 strikeouts didn't bother him -- he realizes that number will decrease as he refines his swing and he knows it doesn't define him as a player.
Beckham was selected to the XM All-Star Futures Game for the first time this season, and he capped off a successful year by helping the Surprise Saguaros to a 26-10 record and the highest winning percentage (.722) in the history of the Arizona Fall League.
MiLB.com talked with Beckham about his journey through the Minors, immersing himself in sports from a young age and his go-to pizza spot in Durham, N.C.
MiLB.com: You got your first look at the Southern and International Leagues in 2011 after spending all of 2010 in Charlotte. What differences did you notice this year?
Beckham: I mean, at the end of the day, it's baseball. The main difference between the Florida State League and the International League and Southern League is that there's less people in the stands. [Also,] the pitchers aren't around the zone as much. In the International League, pitchers throw more pitches for strikes.
I've had good games when nobody's been in the stands, and I've had good games when there have been lots of people in the stands. Everybody likes to play in front of a crowd. Who doesn't love to do that? It always gets the adrenalin going and I love to play in front of crowds, but I wouldn't say I always have my best games in front of the big crowds.
MiLB.com: How would you say you handled yourself at the higher levels and in the Arizona Fall League?
Beckham: I feel like I handled it pretty well and I feel like I handled my own. I did pretty well and I'm happy. I actually got a leg kick this year, so I worked on that. I just tried to take advantage of the hitter's counts as far as 0-0 or 2-0 or 3-1 and counts like that. What I changed the most was that I was a lot more aggressive on hitters' counts this year than what I was in the past.
I loved the experience of the Fall League, just to be out there and to play with other players with so much talent and skill and to be able to produce and contribute to one of the best teams there. It was a great experience and I loved it. It was fun.
MiLB.com: Is there anything you've been specifically working on this offseason to prepare for 2012?
Beckham: Right now I'm just training hard at Athletes' Performance. I'm getting my legs stronger and getting my core stronger and preparing for a big Spring Training. My first day hitting was Dec. 20. It felt good. I was a little ... not rusty ... but I had a month off from baseball, so it was just about getting back into the swing of things.
MiLB.com: Being this close to the Major Leagues, do you ever feel the pressure of being a No. 1 Draft pick?
Beckham: I really don't even think about it. I don't look into it like, "Am I living up to expectations?" At the end of the day, everybody on the field has to come out and produce. It doesn't matter how high of a pick or how low of a pick you were.
I need to get better on defense and keep making solid contact with the ball. I know good things will happen. I don't feel any pressure at all.
MiLB.com: You've been able to travel a lot over the past couple years. What's your favorite ballpark to play in? Any restaurants nearby that you enjoy visiting?
Beckham: I would say the bigger cities with the biggest crowds, like when we played in Columbus, Ohio, in the playoff games with the Clippers for a championship. I guess you can say I love playing on the biggest stages and in the championship games and the games that mean something.
For food, in Durham I would recommend [pizza joint] Mellow Mushroom -- it's right across the street from the park. In Montgomery, [Ala.,] I recommend The Deli which is in downtown Montgomery.
MiLB.com: How do you keep busy on those bus rides? Chattanooga to Jacksonville must be a long trip.
Beckham: You handle it day by day. Some days your body feels great and others it doesn't. You still have to go and produce, it doesn't matter where you are. Road trips have never been an excuse and, speaking for myself, it never will be an excuse.
I listen to music and I have an iPad that I play games on. Sometimes I play cards with the fellas. We have a good time and enjoy ourselves. We know how to stay busy when we need to.
MiLB.com: When you're trying to stay loose in the clubhouse before a game, who do you tend to hang around with to keep the mood light?
Beckham: This year in Double-A I hung out with Matt Moore, Shane Dyer, Chris Archer, Nick Barnese, Stephen Vogt and guys like that. But our whole team was great. Everybody had a great attitude and I loved playing with the guys. I wouldn't really say there are any pranksters, but we knew how to have fun.
MiLB.com: When did you know you wanted a career in pro sports?
Beckham: When I was young, I was always around football and I was always around basketball and always around baseball in the yard or in recreation games or in middle school. The city I grew up in produced a lot of athletes, and we have a lot of athletic people that come out of Griffin.
When you're competing in the neighborhood or in the local gym, you're going to get beaten, but you never want to lose. The competitive nature in the city that I'm from is unreal.
MiLB.com: What's it like going back to Griffin today?
Beckham: When you go back and see the guys you're hanging with who aren't doing too good, it's tough. To know that they're struggling is hard. You wish the best for them, and you don't want to see them like that.
It's good to see everybody -- my teachers, my coaches, my mom, my auntie. It's always great to see your family and the friends who you grew up with. They're not scared of letting me know how proud they are, but I'm not going to let that get into my head. I'm not satisfied. It's not that I'm not where I want to be, but I'm not there yet. There's much better things to accomplish.
MiLB.com: Do you find your old coaches still try to offer you advice?
Beckham: Oh yeah. And I soak it all in because there might be this one thing that clicks and makes me think, "If I go about it this way, it might work." Things like that. I welcome the information from the guys that know me from way back. It's just on the field stuff. You kind of have to be a ballplayer to understand. It's just about life and about the game.
MiLB.com: What drives you to be the best you can be? What keeps you motivated?
Beckham: It's just the love of the game, man. It's knowing that I'm not even almost satisfied and that I won't be until it's my last day on the field. That's when I'll be satisfied. I'm going to keep pushing until I get to where I want to be.
I'm just an outgoing guy that likes to be around people and likes to have fun. I'm not going to let anybody get to me. I'm going to keep my head held up high, keep a smile on my face and go about my business the way I want to.