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On Billy Burns, his new approach, and first pitches

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John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Lost in the quagmire of suck that was the A's offense early in 2016 is Billy Burns' slow-ish start. Judgment is relative, of course, so Burns taking a slight step back from last year is overshadowed by performances like that of Yonder Alonso or Chris Coghlan. By wRC+, Burns has been about 20% worse than last season with the bat, down from 102 to 80. His OPS is down over 100 points and any way you slice it, Burns has been worse with the bat in the early goings of 2016. His fWAR has stood up thanks to improved defensive numbers, but those are even more subject to small sample noise than offensive numbers.

Which, by the way, is still very, very much an issue here. Small sample caveat is in order.

Burns has taken a different approach at the plate in this young season, and the results thus far aren't great. What should we expect going forward?

Meet the new Burns, different than the old Burns

Billy has been different at the plate in 2016 - he's swinging 5% less frequently (57.6% vs. 52.3%) and looks much more disciplined. His swing rate on pitches out of the zone is down 6%, so his choosiness is valid. In a small sample thus far, we're not seeing many positives from his slightly more patient ways.

In spite of improved plate discipline, Burns isn't walking any more frequently. His walk rate is down from his already low 2015 numbers (4.7% to 3.4%). He is seeing a slightly higher proportion of strikes than last year, but not enough to make walking impossible. His lack of walks, rather, are an effect of his incredible contact percentage. When Burns swings, he makes contact 93% of the time, meaning shorter at bats and fewer walks.

Burns has improved his strikeout rate, although it's not necessarily something that needed fixing. He's down to just 8.1% this year thanks to that high contact rate, meaning more balls in play. More balls in play typically results in more basehits and a higher average. We haven't seen that yet. Much of that is probably dumb luck, Burns' BABIP has dropped an enormous .050 points from last year to .289. Burns is a candidate to outperform his expected BABIP, but his 2015 mark of .339 is probably a little high even for his speedy standards. There's a good chance Burns will see more hits land safely for base knocks as the season wears on, though I don't expect him to reach that 2015 level of success.

Assuming the cut in swing rate is intentional, one could conclude Burns is looking to make better, more powerful contact. So far, that hasn't been the case. The quality of his contact is just about the same this year as it was in 2015 - his hard hit percentage, the direction of his hits, exit velocity, groundball/flyball rates, etc. have remained fairly steady.

Billy Burns Avg. Exit Velocity Pull % Cent % Oppo % LD % GB % FB % Hard hit Soft hit
2015 82.6 MPH 29.2% 36.9% 33.9% 21.6% 50.3% 28.1% 13.8% 31%
2016 83.6 MPH 31% 38.8% 30.2% 20.2% 52.4% 27.4% 14.7% 31%

There are some differences, but none that indicate anything is way off from 2015.

So, in a very small sample near the edge of Mount Overreaction guarded by yellow caution tape, Billy Burns has cut his swing rate and increased his contact without gaining a higher walk rate, more hits, or better contact. It's too early to put much stock in the results, but we can be wary of his new approach and its effects on his game. There are specific areas where his new approach seems to really be hurting him, like...

First pitches

Last season, Billy Burns was at his best against first pitches. You know you've made it as a hitter when you have a period in the middle of your OPS, and Burns ended the season with a 1.193 OPS against first pitches. First pitch numbers will always be inflated, but Burns' sOPS+ (comparing Burns' numbers vs. league numbers) on first pitches was 167, meaning he was 67% better than the league average mark. That's impressive.

In spite of those glorious numbers, Burns has changed his first pitch tune. As mentioned above, he's swinging 5% less total. Against first pitches, he's swinging 18% less frequently.

First pitch percentages 2016 2015
Swings 31% 49.50%
Ball in Play 17% 20%
Swing/BIP 54% 40.8%

Again, small sample size is in play here, though swing rates tend to stabilize faster than other stats.

If your best guess is anything like mine, you might wonder if Burns is swinging less because he's being pitched differently. The league surely caught on to his first pitch crushing ways, and instead of the get-me-over fastballs Burns routinely laced for knocks last season, pitchers would be more creative with their pitch selection. Right? Not quite.

Billy Burns first pitches by year
Pitch Type 2015 2016
Fourseam 41% 45%
Sinker 22% 20%
Change 8% 6.50%
Slider 8% 9%
Curve 11% 10%
Cutter 6% 4.50%
Split 4% 4%

If anything, he's seeing a better selection of pitches to hit this year when he first steps in the box. It's not location either, pitchers aren't exactly aiming for the corners. His first pitch strike percentage is exactly the same from 2015 (67.9%) so the lack of swings seems like a conscious change on his part.

Which probably makes you wonder, why?

In an ideal world, if Burns is swinging less, he's hitting for more power. In 2015, he hit four of his five homeruns first pitch. That hasn't borne out yet, but the sample is small. Regardless, the change in approach is puzzling. He dominated first pitches last year, he's seeing largely the same pitches to the same locations this year, yet he's not going after them. It'll be interesting to see if this trend holds up, especially if Burns continues to struggle.

It's a game of adjustments

Baseball is all about changes. Billy Burns approach is different this year and so are the results. The down numbers could be a small sample blip, or they could hold validity that will require Burns to adjust yet again. We will find out in due time.