Billy Burns is one of the more unique players in the A’s system this year, and potentially the only player in the system with an 80 tool on the traditional 20-80 scouting scale. For the two days he spent with the big league club, he was potentially the second fastest person in Major League Baseball. He was potentially the single best baserunner, based on his stellar 89% success rate on stolen bases in the minors. All this is fantastic, of course.
There’s a major reason why Billy Burns hasn’t gotten much of a look at the MLB level: his power, or lack thereof. On that 20-80 scouting scale, he’s a 20. Potentially a 10, even though that would break the rules. He’s hit exactly two professional homers in his career — once in the rookie league, once in AA last year. Here’s a video of last year’s home run, because it’s weirdly impressive for a guy with literally no power.
Anyway, Burns isn’t unique in being a speedster who can’t hit home runs. There are dozens of them. Ben Revere’s been an everyday CF for years. That’s not strange. What is strange is how Burns does it: plate discipline. He had a 13% walk rate in two trips to AA, which is crazy for a guy who cannot punish a pitcher for pumping fastballs down the middle. Conventional wisdom states that batters who have no power get a steady diet of in-zone pitches, and their walk rates suffer as a result.
The advanced stats back this up. Here’s a list of the bottom ten hitters by Isolated Power last year with the percent of pitches they saw in the strike zone and their walk rate.
For reference, the only listed players outside of the top 40 in zone percentage is Casey McGehee, whose lack of power is a relatively recent development. He's also the only one with a decent walk percentage. There is an obvious correlation here: pitchers are much more willing to attack players without power in the zone, which limits their ability to walk.
This doesn’t exactly seem like a hard and fast rule, however: Craig Gentry managed to put up a 10.1 BB% in 2013, despite hitting exactly two homers. On that chart, you might've noticed Casey McGehee with a 9.7% BB rate. What’s the secret? I have a suspicion that a lot of these guys have been taught the "put-the-ball-in-play-and-run" method of hitting. Without coaching that focuses on plate discipline in their early years, discipline never really develops.
Meanwhile, it remains really, really hard to throw a strike. If you’re like Craig Gentry, and only offer at 23.6% of pitches out of the strike zone (that’s a very low percentage, by the way), you’re going to take your walks, regardless of where the pitchers pitch you.
I really do think this is a bit of a non-issue. Billy Burns’s plate discipline is going to play in the MLB, and I do think he’ll be able to draw enough walks to make himself useful.
Regardless, you’re going to have to hit. All of these players, even the ones that walk, find success via being excellent contact hitters. And while Billy Burns has shown remarkable ability to hit for contact in spring training, he’s kind of sucked at it in the upper minors, hitting .193/.254/.211 last year. Of course, a Billy Burns hitting .194 isn’t even close to a major league player. There’s some doubt here as to whether he can hit enough to stick in any sort of role.
Personally, I’m not especially high on his hit tool, but I think it’s got potential — and especially more potential than he showed in AAA. As a new switch hitter, he’s struggled a bit from the left side and his swing is still not as good as from the right side. However, he’s made massive strides in the past season.
That's not the best comparison (minor league video sucks, and not much is available), but you should be able to see the difference in batspeed there. 2014 Billy Burns has a very, very, very slow bat. 2015 Billy Burns is just subpar, which is a huge improvement to make in a skill that usually doesn't show improvement.
Despite 2014 being a bit of a lost season for him in the minors, Burns has managed to make some pretty remarkable steps in bat speed and bat control from the left side. Not that his bat speed is great, as his 20 power would suggest that he really can’t get the bat going to any significant degree. But it is better, and his excellent bat control should allow him to make contact at a rate that could make him useful.
Essentially, his swing is loose enough to be fairly fantastic at making contact in the zone, and it is very geared towards his strengths. He has almost no load (see how he barely brings his hands back before swinging?), which allows his bat to be very quick through the zone. Once he swings, his swing path is engineered to produce mostly line drives and ground balls.
A guy with his kind of power does not want to be producing fly balls. You will all remember Jemile Weeks, a great example of a guy whose swing was way too lofted for his power level. That’s a great recipe to produce pop-ups and weak fly balls, despite how much of a "superstar" he was.
But the combination of pure 80 speed, a ground ball/line drive approach, and good bat control is a powerful one. Peak Chone Figgins made it happen, Ben Revere’s made it happen, Craig Gentry’s made it happen.
Billy Burns is 25, so he’s not especially young and exciting anymore, and it’s not like he’ll add another 25 pounds in muscle or anything. But he is improving — his swing, his comfort hitting from the left side, and his defense are all rapidly getting better. He’s starting to look like he could fall into a Craig Gentry archetype: elite defense, getting on base, and stealing.
What I’ve seen of his defense is fairly impressive. It’s much better in left field than in center field, but he’s certainly got the tools to be successful there. His path to the major leagues essentially revolves around him being excellent in center field, and I think he’ll get there. He certainly does show flashes of it:
Obviously, Burns is extremely risky. Only one of his tools is fully developed, and he still hasn’t hit whatsoever in AAA. But I really do believe that he’s going to find a place in the MLB — if not as a regular, as a part-time role player. There are worse things in this world to be.