On June 7 against the Rangers, Billy Burns led off the game with a walk and then promptly stole second base against rookie right-hander Chi Chi Gonzalez. He eventually scored after a couple more base hits. Honestly, he probably would have made it home even without the steal, but one way or other that bit of baserunning was part of an early rally. That run held up as a 1-0 lead until the eighth inning, though the A's ultimately tacked on some late insurance runs before finishing off the shutout.
On Saturday against the Angels, Billy Burns led off the game with a single and glued himself to first base against lefty C.J. Wilson. The next batter flied out, the next grounded out, and then a strikeout stranded the runner. Oakland went on to lose 1-0. There's no way to know if Burns could have scored in the first inning if he'd changed things by stealing second, or if he'd even have made it safely against a tough veteran southpaw, but we can rest assured that this type of stagnant, wasted inning has been a consistent feature of the Oakland A's 2015 season. They risked nothing, and they gained nothing.
Billy Burns needs to attempt more stolen bases because the A's can't afford for him not to. This lineup is not built like the ones we're used to from years past. They are middle-of-the-pack in stuff like power, batting average, and OBP. That long, 10-batter rally is not coming as often as it used to. Neither is the big, dramatic late-inning home run. Even the big double to the gap might be too much to ask. Their best skills seem to be making contact (25th in Ks), drawing walks (7th in MLB), and stealing bases -- they are 11th in MLB in swipes, but hold the best success rate (40-for-47, 85.1%). The realistic hope is for a clutch single, and the only question will be if the runner was already in scoring position of if he was chilling at first base waiting for something bigger to score him. The third hit in the inning probably isn't coming, so I sure hope they scored on that second one.
This lineup lacks punch, so it will only succeed by being aggressive and fighting for every base and forcing opponents to make plays. However, their best weapon remains holstered most of the time. It's like they took a page from the 2014 Royals when constructing this roster but are still trying to play like the 2014 A's.
I've been following a stat on Baseball-Reference called Stolen Base Opportunities. You get one for every plate appearance throughout which you are on either first or second base with nobody on the next bag. So, if you lead off with a single and stand there while your teammates strike out in order, then you've had three SBOs because you could have run during three different plate appearances. But if your teammate leads off with a single and then you follow with a walk, you will not get an SBO because you are blocked from stealing second. You also can't get an SBO on third base because stealing home is a rare feat. (It also appears that you have to be in a position to steal throughout the whole at-bat, leading to the odd loophole that if you steal third then you eliminate the stolen base opportunity ... by stealing a base. I'm not sure if that means you eliminate the SBO each time you're caught stealing as well.)
So, how often does Burns run, and how does that compare with the top basestealers in the game? This isn't a complete list of current league leaders in steals, but it represents a strong collection of stars with game-changing wheels and guys whose defining skill is speed. (Stats are entering Mon., June 15.)
|Name||2015 SBOs||Attempts (SB+CS)||% of chances||Success rate||Career % of chances||Career success rate|
|Billy Hamilton||53||35 (31-4)||66%||89%||53%||78%|
|Dee Gordon||118||31 (22-9)||26%||71%||33%||76%|
|Jose Altuve||97||23 (17-6)||24%||74%||18%||78%|
|Gregory Polanco||75||21 (17-4)||28%||81%||21%||78%|
|Rajai Davis||69||17 (14-3)||25%||82%||37%||80%|
|Jacoby Ellsbury||92||19 (14-5)||21%||74%||23%||84%|
|Delino DeShields||66||15 (13-2)||23%||87%||23%||87%|
|Billy Burns||86||14 (12-2)||16%||86%||18%||83%|
Note: This list is cherry-picked to show guys who run more than Burns. There are others, like Brett Gardner and Ben Revere, who profiled much closer to Burns in this metric. The point is not to single Burns out, but rather to show what some of the top rates are and how they compare to him.
Billy Hamilton is on his own planet when it comes to stealing bases, and that planet is full of predators trying to eat him and so he can never stop running. On Sunday, he swiped five in one game -- he stole second and third after a single, he stole third after a double, and he stole second and third after a walk. That raised his rate of attempts-per-SBOs from 57% to 66%, but even before that big day he was far above anyone else.
After Hamilton, there is a cluster of guys who run on about one-quarter of their opportunities. Dee Gordon and Raj Davis have been closer to one-third of their chances over their careers, and reaching one-half in a given year is possible but uncommon. This seems to be where top basestealers normally live these days, with a baseline around one-quarter but a soft ceiling of one-half in a single season. For historical context, Hamilton's prolific rate of attempts (50-70%) is reminiscent of Rickey Henderson in his early years, though Rickey finished his career by taking 32% of his chances to run.
But, there is Burns, going on only one-sixth of his SBOs. It's not for lack of opportunity, as only three guys on that list have had more chances to run. The problem isn't a lack of experience, given that Burns went 128-for-141 in steals in the minors over the last two years alone (91% success rate). It could be that rookies like to take some time to learn the league and identify pitchers' tendencies, but DeShields debuted this year and is already running circles around Burns. Polanco doesn't quite qualify as a rookie, but he hasn't even played 162 games in the bigs yet and he's already running wild.
I don't understand what is holding Burns back. He has impressed us all with his ability to make contact, to occasionally drive the ball, to get on base, and to play defense. Those are the reasons he is in the starting lineup. But he's in the Major Leagues, first and foremost, for his speed. That is his best skill, the one thing he has that is elite, and it feels like he is not coming close to utilizing it. He's supposed to be as fast or faster than anyone else on that list above, and it seems like he should be somewhere in between Hamilton and the rest of the field in terms of frequency of stolen-base attempts. It shouldn't even matter who the pitcher or catcher is, because he's supposed to be so good at this that the situation doesn't matter; he has a shot to beat any pickoff move or any throw from behind home plate. Even if you pick him off, he can beat the first baseman's throw to second, and has already done so at least once.
Burns has stolen 12 bases this year. Two of them came back-to-back to move him from first to third, so there are 11 incidents in which Burns moved up some amount with his legs. He eventually scored eight of those times. Not all those runs were directly attributable to the preceding steals, but some certainly were. He has scored after three-quarters of his successful steals, and that accounts for one-third of his total runs scored, but he only runs one-sixth of the time and that's half as often as guys with his skills normally do. That math doesn't add up to me.
Furthermore, both times Burns was caught stealing, it was because he beat the throw but overslid the bag, also known as "pulling a Jemile Weeks." In this video, he gets picked off, beats the throw anyway, but stumbles on his slide and rolls over the base. Focus on the part where he beats the throw, though, because that bad slide probably won't happen again.
If he's making it every time, and the only thing that can stop him is himself, then why in the world isn't he running more to find out where that limit is? What if he could be at 20 steals right now without any extra failures? What if he could be 25-for-31? That would still be worth it, even though it would mean he'd been caught a few more times. It could turn a few more singles into RBI singles, turn a few more flyouts into sac flies, and help avoid a few more GIDPs. When he just stands there he usually gets stranded anyway, so there's little to lose.
The 2015 A's aren't powerful enough to play station-to-station ball, and that's okay. There are other ways to score runs, and they are becoming increasingly popular due to the general decrease in dingers around the league. Burns isn't the only guy who should be running -- Sam Fuld, Brett Lawrie, Josh Reddick, Eric Sogard, and Marcus Semien could all run a bit more often as well. Heck, even Mark Canha has five swipes. But Burns is the one who should be leading the charge. I want to see this as a team-wide effort, but Burns should be the singular force among the swarm of lesser thieves around him in the lineup. Perhaps then every grounder wouldn't go into the teeth of a perfectly placed defensive shift, and every two-hit rally wouldn't end with a pair of runners stranded on base and none across the plate. It will lead to more outs, but perhaps it could lead to more runs too, on a team that is 4-18 in one-run games. Maybe it could lead to getting that extra run when it counts.
Besides, what is there to lose? Are we afraid we might throw away rallies and lose winnable games if Burns runs more and gets caught? That's already happening with Burns standing on first -- may as well try something different than the conservative play-calling that hasn't worked to this point. The worst-case scenario is that we all have a blast watching Burns shoot for the league lead in something in a year in which the A's might not be challenging for the division lead in wins.