Now 24, Burns has not been touted as a top prospect, partly because his skill set is severely compromised by the fact that he slugs somewhere between Eric Sogard and my Aunt Bertha. That's actually not true, considering that my Aunt Bertha packs a mean wallop and could probably out slug Sogard, something Burns is unlikely to do. So perhaps it's more accurate to say Burns is likely to slug somewhere between Eric Sogard and Jerry Blevins.
Before I get to the part where I stop trashing him by associating him with other people I am trashing (god I love the internet), let me fully establish the scope of Burns' lack of slugginess. In 3 minor league seasons spanning 4 minor league levels, Burns has yet to slug .400. His best effort to date is .391 (A+ league) and his career slugging percentage across A and AA is .379.
In fact, Burns' minor league career slash line is highly unusual: It's .312/.421/.379. Few players slug lower than their OBP. It is also true that few players OBP higher than their slugging. And with Burns it's a landslide: His career OBP in the minor leagues so far is a whopping .042 points higher than his slugging percentage which, perhaps not coincidentally, is .042 points lower than his OBP.
So why exactly is it that I am bullish on this scrawny, weak, plate discipline-y speedster? Let's start with his possible big league slash line and then expand from there...
Critics fear that Burns will see a drop in his batting average at the big league level, where defenses can employ the equivalent of a "7-man infield". However, Burns' blazing speed will produce more than his fair share of infield hits and this will help to offset the BABIP-lowering defensive alignment in the OF. As a result, I think it's reasonable to project a league average BABIP of .300 for Burns -- lowered by a shallow OF and raised by an abundance of infield hits.
Enter another one of Burns' important qualities: He walks a ton but he rarely strikes out. Burns is another rare breed in having more career BBs (149) than Ks (144) in his career. Because he puts so many balls in play, Burns could parlay a .300 BABIP into a solid .270 batting average.
Meanwhile, what about the concern that Burns' OBP will take a plunge at the big league level as pitchers feel free to challenge him with a (pick your preferred term) bevy, flock, gaggle of strikes? OBP, and BBs, are often equated with "plate discipline," as if they were mostly the result of having the discipline not to swing too much or too early in the count. However, what BBs often relate to is pitch recognition: the ability to recognize a pitch that will break out of the strike zone, to quickly distinguish a fastball from a changeup from a slider or curve, and so on.
Daric Barton's biggest strength isn't so much his patience as it is his uncanny ability to lay off bad balls most hitters would mistake for strikes. If Burns has this ability, he will continue to draw walks even against pitchers who are pitching to contact against him. If he can bat .270, Burns can probably produce a .350 OBP. More on that later.
Like I said earlier, Burns is that rare player whose OBP eclipses his SLG. So if I am going to project an optimistic OBP of .350 for Burns, I have to give him a woeful slugging percentage to match. A lot of that .270 BA will come from infield hits and balls slashed bewteen infielders. An occasional slashing drive will find a gap or a corner allowing Burns to leg out the occasional 2B or 3B. When the dust -- literally -- clears, Burns might slug .340. (Update: I have been convinced that .340 is too optimistic given how hard it is to maintain any slugging without a few HRs sprinkled in, and I have downgraded my slugging projection to .320 based on a .270 BA, with about 15 doubles and 5 triples per 500 ABs.)
Burns, Slash Line, And Beyond
On the face of it, a player who puts up a slash line of .270/.350/.320 isn't exactly a jewel -- maybe a "somewhat useful player," but still a guy with a .670 OPS. However, Burns is someone who can turn a .350 OBP into a whole lot. With 125 career SBs, Burns has been caught all of 17 times, an 88% success rate. This is a guy who can turn an infield hit into a double and turn a walk into a triple. If he can really get on base 35% of the time, Burns can create a lot of runs -- think Rajai Davis, only with good plate discipline and strong base-stealing skills. Dingerz are great, but it's also nice to be able to score without a hit in an inning where you get a one-out walk.
Finally, there's that pesky other side of the ball. Burns plays CF, and while I haven't seen enough reports to give a thorough analysis ("a strong defensive OFer," "He can handle CF or LF without much trouble"), I would think that with his speed there is a chance that Burns could develop into a solid CFer. If he were just a tick above average as a defensive CFer, that alone is a valuable piece. A good defensive CFer with a .350 OBP? Who is an elite base stealer? Color me excited.
The trouble with slugging .340 is that you have to do everything else really well. The good news with Burns is that with an elite BB:K ratio, base-stealing skills to go with blazing speed, and good defensive acumen, Burns may be that guy who does everything else so well he can thrive. This is a player who took up switch-hitting a year ago and put up an .816 OPS from the left side -- actually .010 points better than the .806 OPS he managed from his natural right side.
On the face of it, Billy Burns is a 24 year old who has never played above AA ball, who brings to the party about exactly as much power as Juan Pierre. Now look at Juan Pierre's big league career and imagine a better SB%. Jerry Blevins for the next Juan Pierre? That could be, well...a steal.