LOS ANGELES—Seven weeks into the 2018 college season and Stanford ace Tristan Beck isn’t exactly where he wants to be.
But he’s much closer to the 2016 version of Tristan Beck—the version who posted a 6-5, 2.48 record and was one of the top freshmen in the country—than the 2017 version who missed the entire season with a stress fracture in his lower back.
The 6-foot-4, 190-pound righthander has reclaimed his role as the Cardinal’s Friday night arm, but it hasn’t been without a few bumps in the road. On March 29, for instance, Beck threw his worst game of the year against Oregon, allowing a Ducks team that ranks in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in offense to knock him out of the game after just four innings when he allowed seven hits and six runs.
One start later against UCLA in a big-time conference series that the Bruins would later take, 2-1, Beck was handed his second straight loss, though on this occasion, he allowed just three runs and gave his teammates a chance to stay in the game
“(Friday) night was a big stepping stone for me,” Beck said a day after the Bruins took down then-No. 2 Stanford, 8-4, with half of the damage coming on an eighth-inning grand slam from UCLA third baseman Ryan Kreidler. “Coming off the week prior against Oregon, (that) was probably the worst start of my career—ever.
“It was big for me, just personally, to kind of bounce back and restore the team’s faith in me a little bit, you know. And I think I took a step in the right direction there, it wasn’t obviously perfect—it wasn’t enough as we saw. But it was a good step for me and I’ve got to take some positives from it.”
This entire season has been a big step for Beck. He’s healthy and throwing regularly, and while his 3.66 ERA isn’t quite at its 2016 level, his strikeout rate is up and his walk rate is down. While Beck took his second loss of the year against UCLA and allowed a season-high eight hits, he showed flashes of the pitcher who has excited teams since his senior year of high school.
Working from the third-base side of the rubber, Beck has a fast and easy arm that he used to fire 91-93 mph fastballs throughout his outing, ratcheting up to 94 at times after the fifth inning and getting five swings and misses with the pitch.
On top of his fastball, Beck threw a 77-79 mph curve with good depth and occasional late-breaking action. He added an 82-84 mph changeup, thrown with fastball arm speed that was spotted perfectly on one occasion to the outside corner against a lefthanded hitter for a swinging strike, as the pitch fluttered down and away from the barrel. Beck was also comfortable throwing a mid-80s slider.
Just over an hour away from Jackie Robinson Stadium—where the Bruins call home—is Corona (Calif.) High, where Beck made a name for himself as a projectable, Southern California arm who could get into the mid-90s at his best, with two promising secondaries in a slider and a changeup.
Three years after his senior year at Corona—when he was ranked the No. 63 prospect in the 2015 draft class—Beck has taken the raw talent he possessed as a high schooler and transformed into a more complete pitcher. One with a legitimate four-pitch mix and a deeper understanding now of what he’s doing on the mound.
“Tristan Beck—what defines him is his ability to get you out with all of his pitches,” said first-year Stanford head coach David Esquer. “I think when he’s at the top of his game there is no difference (between pre-injury and post-injury). As a matter of fact I think he’s even more mature about it (now).”
“A lot of it has been between the ears,” Beck said of his college maturation. “It’s been a big mental development for me here. I came in as a kid who, I feel like, had decent stuff when I got here. I definitely developed a little bit more control of every pitch and the ability to kind of mix all of them in, but more of just every hitter focusing in, kind of learning in between the count, in between pitches.
“What to do on a 1-2 count or how to pitch within your pitches, shape your curveball differently, throw a couple different changeups, backfoot a slider. So just little things and kind of the idea of just getting better every day and there’s always something you can work on and there’s always something positive to take.”
Beck even took positives from his experience in 2017, when he didn’t throw in a single game. He learned about preparation. How to take care of his body and get it ready for the season. How to get in the right mindset, even on the days when you’re not feeling perfect. When everything isn’t going just as you had planned.
“As far as how I feel physically any given day—I need to check it at the door the day I’m due to start,” Beck said. “I can worry about how I feel any given day for days of the week, but on a day that I need to start I just have to go out there and give it everything I have. That’s the one thing I’ve kind of struggled with. I’ve had my two worst starts on two short weeks, but that’s something I’m really working on now.”
Last year, with pitching coach Rusty Filter (who has since taken a head coaching job with Santa Clara) Beck learned how he could handle those challenges, and he’s having to deal with them right now.
“No matter how I feel, whether it’s good, bad, indifferent—I need to get out there and just go balls to the wall . . . (Coach Filter) was where I learned a lot of that mentality, that check your sh– at the door, you know? At some point you have to hang it up and go out there.”
Beck has made it seven consecutive starts this season, now working with pitching coach Thomas Eager, who Esquer brought in after the two worked together for two years at California. Eager brings a dynamic to the Stanford pitching staff that’s much different than what Filter brought during Beck’s first two seasons. He’s less serious. He’s looser. There’s more joking around now than there was in 2017.
“They take very different approaches to the game,” Beck said. “It’s been great to work with both of them.”
No matter who’s coaching, though, Beck’s personality remains the same.
When he’s not on the mound he’s an emotional leader for Stanford. You can regularly find him at the opening of the dugout, clapping and encouraging teammates on the field, offering words of wisdom to pitchers on the mound and, at times, racing ball boys for fouls behind home plate.
And when he is on the mound? It’s a pretty simple concept.
“My goal for the season, every single start is going to be to give the team a chance to win,” Beck said. “I want to be out there, hopefully working deeper into games, you know, and just keeping the runs down. I haven’t really been able to get out there past the sixth or the seventh yet and that’s something I’d like to do.”
He’s not there yet, but he’s getting awfully close.
“When he’s at his best,” Esquer said, “it really looks like the old Tristan Beck.”