Billy Burns Is Not Just Another Fast Guy
A former 32nd-round pick of the Washington Nationals in 2011, the aptly named speedster Billy Burns has been promoted from Double-A Midland to the Major Leagues. Taking the spot of Craig Gentry, who recently broke his hand, Athletics’ manager Bob Melvin has said that he expects Burns to start in center field against left-handed pitchers for the immediate future.
Burns’ stay in the Major Leagues is dependent on the recovery of Gentry and the health of the other injured Athletics’ center fielder, Coco Crisp. Despite the potential brevity, there's reason for optimism that Burns could have a role beyond a temporary injury replacement on the 2014 team.
True 80 grade speed is at the center of Burns’ game, and he makes the most of this tool on both offense, defense, and in the field. Offensively, the rookie is a line-drive and ground-ball hitter, which helps him maintain a high average and mitigates the downside of his 20 grade power (grades via MLB.com). He's taken walks between a 9 and 15 percent clip at all five stops of his minor league career, showing the ability to get on base and let his elite speed impact the game.
His slash line is down this year to .250/.333/.330, but he's hit at least .312 with an on-base percentage of at least .422 at each of his three stops over the 2012 and 2013 seasons. A player whose game centers around elite speed will always face questions about their ability to get on base and exercise full utility of that tool, but Burns’ minor league on base numbers put those qualms to rest.
Once on base, Burns’ best tool can shine. He's stolen 55 bags this season, and he's been caught only five times - totals that are in line with his career numbers. FanGraphs has a useful statistic called wSB (weighted stolen bases), which measures the value of a player’s stolen base and caught stealing totals in runs above average. Predictably, Burns excels in this facet of the game and has posted 8.1 wSB this season. This means that, solely from his stolen base totals, Burns has produced nearly a full win more than an average runner. Not all players are average runners, meaning that the difference between Burns and a poor baserunner, accounting solely for stolen bases, will be roughly a win and a half.
Stolen bases are not the only aspect of baserunning where an elite runner can provide value, as taking an extra base is often just as beneficial. In some cases, Burns not only takes one extra base, but two on the same play. In a game against Northwest Arkansas earlier this season, Burns scored from second base on a sacrifice fly without a throw (check out the video here). Those types of plays just don’t happen on a regular basis, but Burns’ speed is so good that he has the proven ability to make these baserunning plays that few would even consider attempting.
Defensively, MLB.com rates Burns as a 55 fielder with a 30 arm. I agree with the grade on the arm, but the defensive grade seems awfully low. During both Midland games that I’ve watched this year, Burns played fearless defense and made a few spectacular catches. His routes were crisp, the closing speed was elite, and the instincts were evident in centerfield. It’s admittedly difficult to give a firm defensive grade after only a few games, but based on my looks, I would peg his glove as at least a 65.
It's possible that Burns simply had the defensive games of his life during my looks, but for a center fielder with 80 speed to have a 55 glove, the player must be losing value on routes and reads. This was far from the case with Burns. The lack of arm strength will make the total defensive profile play down, but I believe that this is a player with impact potential on defense who could serve as a late inning defensive replacement if necessary.
The short-term Steamer projections for Burns are unspectacular, although the system only forecasts 31 total plate appearances for the speedster. The slash line of .236/.302/.301 is poor, although they forecast a bit of value on the bases and in the field. A slash line like this is the low end of an expected contribution for Burns, especially considering the small projected sample of plate appearances.
His playing time over the rest of the season is a bit of an unknown, so it may be more effective to base our expectations in the rate statistics from another projection system, Oliver, that forecasts’ his performance over 600 plate appearances. In these 600 plate appearances, these projections expect a slash line of .279/.359/.333, a walk rate of 9.7 percent and a strikeout rate of 15.3 percent. When combined with his baserunning ability and defense, Oliver projects a 3.3 win player over a full season. With roughly a third of the season remaining and Burns expected to play roughly half of the time, half of a win seems like a reasonable outcome.
Burns is not the latest version of former designated runner Herb Washington, a speedster with little to no feel for the game. This is a complete baseball player whose game is centered around his elite speed, not a player with elite speed per se. Burns should be commended for understanding his skill set and developing skills, such as learning to switch hit after entering pro ball, that will allow him to maximize the utility of that tool.
He will likely be sent back down after the return of Crisp or Gentry, but there is a chance that Burns will be able to stick around as a useful bench player even after those players return. There are few players better qualified to steal a base in a high leverage situation, and I believe in the defensive profile enough to use him as a defensive replacement in an important game. This is a player that can only contribute in a few specific ways, but his strengths are so strong that Burns has a chance to provide a significant boost to the Athletics down the stretch and in the postseason.