When the Oakland A's acquired Billy Burns for Jerry Blevins before the 2014 season, Athletics Nation went a little bit crazy for him. We loved Blevins, but Burns was the kind of toolsy prospect who you get to dream big things about. If only he can fix his flays and hit his absolute best-case projection, he'll be the next big thing! His speed is his one elite skill, and the question was whether he would be able to do enough other things well to allow him to utilize that speed at the Major League level. So, we got super-excited about his potential because we're fans and fans do that.
When Burns OPS'd .618 last year between Double-A and Triple-A, reality started to set in a bit. He probably wasn't going to hit enough to start in Oakland. Maybe he could still make it as a 25th man, we dreamed, as an exciting pinch-runner, a rich man's Herb Washington. A big Cactus League performance this spring was fun to see but wasn't terribly informative, considering he'd done virtually the same thing the previous spring before flailing his way through the minors in the regular season. A strong start in Nashville helped as well, but he still seemed like a long-shot.
Well, Burns has now played 20 games for the A's this year, and it's time to start wondering if there might be something there after all. The sample is still small, but I'm not even relying on specific numbers here. Here are four reasons why the guy we've seen so far could actually end up being an everyday guy after all.
1. Burns' speed on the bases is game-changing
There are fast guys, and then there are guys with elite speed. Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon are the obvious examples, and Rajai Davis is a more familiar one for A's fans (with Rickey Henderson being the all-time great in this regard). Burns is the kind of guy who can distract pitchers and defenses just by existing. He's already 7-for-9 in steals, and one of his failures involved beating the throw easily but then stumbling a bit on his slide and losing contact with the base. Oh, and that throw came from first base, because he'd been picked off ... and still beat it.
The A's lost in the playoffs last year largely because of steals, and it seemed odd to me that they moved to a more mid-power, contact-oriented offensive attack but didn't add the running game that really ties that strategy together. I pointed out Saturday morning that Burns had only run seven times in 36 "stolen base opportunities," but then he swiped a bag in each of the next two games during the exact at-bats I hoped he would run. He's fast enough that he can make it even if everyone in the stadium knows he's going, and I'm glad to see that he's starting to take full advantage of that skill.
Of course, his speed changes the game in more ways than just those stolen bases ...
2. Burns' speed might help maintain an acceptable batting average
In each of the last two games, Burns hit a normal-looking ground ball and then beat out the throw to first. I'm not talking about a sharp grounder right at an infielder, but I'm also not talking about a super-lucky grounder with eyes either. If the shortstop has to go four steps to his right and doesn't have an elite arm, Burns has a chance. If it's a high chopper, Burns has a chance. If it's a dribbler that spends any amount of time in no-man's land, Burns has a chance. There is really no such thing as a routine grounder with this guy, in the same way as prime Ichiro but obviously not quite as good as that particular all-time great speedster.
These infield hits could make a significant difference in his batting average -- he already has four of them on 27 ground balls, good for a rate of 15% of his grounders turning into infield singles. That compares well with Gordon, who leads MLB with 16 infield hits by shooting grounders all over and beating out 18% of them, and it's far better than Hamilton's rate (he's only got three such hits all season).
The best part of this is that the grounders aren't Burns' go-to strategy as they seem to be with Gordon, who puts the ball on the ground nearly 60% of the time. Burns (when he's batting left-handed) goes up there hoping to slap a line drive to the left side, but we know that if he fails to get it elevated then he might still have a chance to beat out the grounder. That's the power his speed gives him, as a fallback plan rather than a sole weapon. And hey, even an infield single can turn into a double when he steals second on the next pitch.
Of course, teams are already starting to shift their defenses against him to account for his slappy ways, so while he's still finding holes for some of those liners it's always possible that this source of hits could dry up. The good news is that he's hitting those liners on well over 30% of his batted balls, where 20% would be solid and 25% would be excellent. The more of 'em he hits, the more chances to have one fall in. And if they start playing the infield in to get to his grounders quicker, then he'll have a better chance at shooting them through into the outfield for clean singles.
But perhaps slapping the ball to the left side isn't the only thing he can do, because ...
3. Burns can swing left-handed after all
A few years ago, Burns started learning how to bat left-handed so that he could get out of the batter's box faster (think of the head start Ichiro gets out of the left-handed box). He's a natural righty, and his lefty swing looked about as ugly as you'd expect it to when he started working on it. But, uh, I think he figured it out y'all.
On Sunday, Burns homered on the first pitch of the game. He did it left-handed, and he pulled it to right field. Not into the first seat in the right-field corner above a 325-foot sign somewhere, but several rows back in straightaway right near a 370 sign. It was a legitimate dinger. I didn't know he could do that. I mean, literally, I didn't know he could physically do that, even if you tried to give him some meatball pitches in batting practice. Later in the game, he nearly did it again, getting the ball to the wall. I wasn't even expecting Burns to ever hit it over an outfielder's head, much less near or over the fence, and if it happened I figured it would come from the right side. But here we are. That homer changed the entire way I look at him.
Burns showed the whole league something today. Watch out, he said. He doesn't just slap liners into shallow left field. He can turn on a pitch too, and if he keeps doing that now and then it might help keep the defenses honest so that they can't just camp out on his short liners anymore. And again, this came from his weak side. He had two professional home runs in the minor leagues, and both came as a right-handed hitter. Apparently he can do it as a lefty too. It might not happen against this year, but it's meaningful to me that it even happened once because I didn't think it was an option.
Tie it all together, and you have to start wondering if Burns might be able to hit enough after all. He makes plenty of contact, so he's not just getting blown away like a fragile parrino in headlights. He can consistently slap balls to the left side whenever he wants, but he can also turn on a fastball and pull it over the fence. He's got a good enough eye to work a walk now and then (and keep that OBP up), and even when he hits a slump he can still salvage a few hits via his legs on any grounder that isn't hit right at a defender.
Burns is batting .315/.356/.395 right now, for a .751 OPS. How high would he have to maintain that OPS to remain effective -- would .700 do it? And for a guy whose .379 BABIP isn't that ridiculous and who can clearly make contact, is a .280 average really unrealistic, with a .340 OBP and .360 slugging? Toss in 50+ stolen bases at a high success rate, which no one seems to doubt he could do if given the chance, and that doesn't sound like a bad floor -- heck, he can always bat ninth if he's not getting on base enough to lead off every day.
And that's just the offensive side of the ball. The cherry on top of all of this is that ...
4. Burns can handle center field
He's not great at it. As Nico pointed out in his wheat-and-chaff post yesterday, Burns doesn't always take great routes to balls, but his speed helps him make up for it. So far, the big defensive metrics -- UZR and DRS -- both rate him as slightly above-average, though that's still pretty meaningless after so few innings. But he's seemed perfectly fine by my eyeball test, and at an up-the-middle position "perfectly fine" is a strength if the player is also contributing something with the bat. Even just being average in center and average on offense would make Burns a worthwhile player and a positive contributor, and that's starting to look more and more like a baseline performance level for Burns rather than his best-case ceiling.
Look, I'm not saying that Burns is definitely our center fielder of the future after just 20 good games. What I'm saying is that he's shown enough other skills that he's not just a speedster anymore -- he can handle the bat well enough to find ways to get on base, and he can play an up-the-middle position rather than being just a "really good left fielder." It was always those other areas of the game that seemed to be preventing him from becoming a starter, and now he's figuring them out. Will it last? We'll have to wait and see. But I think there's now legitimate hope with Burns, where before there was only naive optimism. He might be good enough to start every day.