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Two of the fastest - if not the two fastest - men in all of baseball are both named Billy. Funny how that works out. One of them is Billy Hamilton, the Cincinnati Reds' top prospect and already record-setting speedster. The other is the Oakland Athletics' (semi) newly-acquired centerfielder Billy Burns, who was scooped up in the trade this offseason that sent everybody's favorite LOOGY Jerry Blevins to the Washington Nationals. Many have already been comparing the two, although Hamilton will be the Reds' starting centerfielder in 2014 and Burns will be working in either AA or AAA. So which speedy outfielder is really better?
Let's start from the beginning of their baseball careers - their pedigrees. Billy Hamilton was drafted in the 2nd round by the Cincinnati Reds, the 57th overall pick of the 2009 draft. He was drafted as a plus arm, plus field, plus run player. It would all be up to whether he could hit.
Billy Burns, on the other hand, was drafted in the 32nd round by the Nationals in 2011, or the 967th pick overall. Woah. Huge difference, or 910 picks of a difference if you did the math. To put that into perspective, nine picks later the A's selected pitcher Andrew Granier, who pitched to a 5.23 ERA in 14 starts in AA last season. So not much was expected of Burns. Oddly enough, www.perfectgame.org had Burns' drafting report as "short quick bat, showed pop". No mention whatsoever of his speed. So, as far as pedigree goes, Hamilton wins this round.
Next, consistency. We'll ignore Hamilton's 42 games in 2009 and 69 games in 2010. In 2011, in 135 games (610 PAs) at A-ball, Hamilton batted .278 with a .340 OBP and .360 SLG. That year, he hit three home runs, and stole a phenomenal 103 bases. He followed it up in 2012 by hitting to a slash line of .311/.410/.420 between High-A and AA, in 132 games (605 PAs). He stole a whopping 155 bases that season, and hit two home runs. These are top prospect kind of numbers. Then, something odd happened. Hamilton struggled in AAA, hitting only .256 with a measly .308 OBP. He still managed to swipe 75 bags, but he struggled mightily against more advanced pitching.
How about Burns? Again, we'll ignore his 32 Low-A games in 2011. In 2012, in 113 A-ball games (485 PAs), Burns slashed .322/.432/.382 with 38 stolen bases and no homers. He followed it up nicely with a slash-line of .314/.423/.382 in 120 games between High-A and AA last season. He also stole 74 bases and, again, hit no homers. So Hamilton has the edge in power and stolen bases, but Burns gets hits and walks more. He hasn't faced AAA pitching so he could certainly drop off as well, but at the moment he beats out Hamilton for consistency.
How about their overall success at what they do best - stealing bases? In 2011 (A-ball), Hamilton stole 103 bags and was caught 20 times for a stolen base percentage of 83.7%. In 2012 (High-A/AA), he swiped 155 bags and was caught 37 times for an 80.7% success rate. In 2013 (AAA), he got on base less and "only" stole 75 bases. He was caught 15 times, for a, 83.3% success rate. Overall, pretty darn good.
However, Burns has been better. In his meaningless 32 Low-A games in 2011, he stole 13 bases and was caught once for a 92.9% stolen base percentage. Sure, small sample size. What about in 2012? Burns had 38 stolen bases, and was caught 9 times for an 80.9% success rate. More Hamilton-like. How about last season, in High-A and AA? He swiped 74 bags out of 81 attempts for a 91.4% success rate. So, although he stole less bases, Burns was successful more often than Hamilton, and that should be valued a lot.
Finally, let's look at their projections for next season. We'll use Oliver and ZiPS projections, since Steamer's projections don't project any MLB games for Burns. That's probably much more likely than Oliver's set 600 PAs that they give to everyone, but this is just to see who the most respected projecting systems think would be better.
According to Oliver's projections, Billy Hamilton is projected to hit 6 homers and steal 64 bases. Okay, that's decent. Let's just take a look as his...Great Scott! He's only gonna bat .233?! It's true, yes. Oliver has his slashline looking very ugly: .233/.278/.321. That's just awful. That isn't the leadoff batter for a contending team. That makes him comparable to Adeiny Hechavarria of the Marlins last season, who slashed .227/.267/.298. ZiPS has him being a decent amount better, but not by a ton: .264/.319/.362, with 6 homers and 68 stolen bases. This is comparable to Coco Crisp's .261/.335 AVG/OBP line from last season. Oliver has him at 2.1 WAR while ZiPS has him at 2.5. Either way, this isn't quite the top prospect Rookie-of-the-Year campaign people are expecting.
Now, let's go to Burns. Billy Burns, according to Oliver's projections, would hit .279/.359/.333 in 600 PAs with 58 stolen bases and, surprise surprise, no home runs. I'd say that would be very impressive, comparable to the 2013 season of Jon Jay (.276/.351 AVG/OBP). ZiPS isn't quite as high on Burns, putting him at .248/.334/.288 in 484 PAs with 36 stolen bases and, again, no home runs. That's still nearly identical to Hamilton's ZiPS projections, and Burns was picked over 900 spots lower in his draft. ZiPS has his WAR really low (0.3) while Oliver has it pretty high (3.3).
So what does all of this mean? Billy Hamilton was picked much, much earlier in his draft and is faster, with more power, much more hype, and a bit more experience. But Billy Burns, though slower, was more successful at stealing, and hasn't yet struggled like Hamilton did in AAA. Hamilton's ceiling for 2014...is pretty much Burns' floor for 2014 (if Burns played a full MLB season). Billy Burns knows how to take a walk (12.9 BB% in 91 games in High-A in 2013, 14.5 BB% in 30 games in AA in 2013) while Hamilton lacks discipline (6.9 BB%, 18.6 K% in 123 AAA games in 2013). Overall, I believe Billy Hamilton is overhyped and will struggle in 2014, while Billy Burns will continue to advance and improve in the A's farm system.
So, then...I guess you can call the Jerry Blevins for Billy Burns trade...a steal.