By Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.
Billy Burns, Outfielder, Oakland Athletics
2015 season (Majors): 125 G, 520 AB, .294 BA, 5 HR, 42 RBI, 26 SB, .726 OPS
The 2015 season was one of the most disappointing in years for the Oakland Athletics as they were unable to win 70 games for the first time since 1997. Executive vice president Billy Beane made his career as a general manager by doing a lot with a little, but his attempt at a radical overhaul after the ‘14 season did not live up to expectations. Fortunately, there were some bright spots, among them the emergence of young speedster Billy Burns.
A 32nd-round pick in 2011 by the Washington Nationals, Burns was never a top prospect, but he had promising speed from the start. In his first full Minor League season at Class A, Burns swiped 38 bags in 113 games. He followed that up with an incredible 74 steals at two levels in ‘13.
Burns continued to steal bases at a high rate in the Majors, but he ran into some struggles getting on base when he reached Triple-A and, for a short time, the Majors in 2014. The concern that Burns wouldn’t be able to hit big league pitching began to strength, but he quickly expelled that notion last season. Beginning the year at Triple-A, Burns hit .308 with five steals in 22 games before getting the callup to the A’s.
Upon joining Oakland, Burns quickly showed everyone the kind of player he could be by legging out singles, stealing bases and covering a ton of ground in center field. According to Fangraphs, Burns was tied for fifth in the Majors with 30 infield hits and ranked fourth with a 13.4 infield-hit percentage and sixth with a speed score of 7.2.
Burns’ BABIP last season was .339, yet he just missed out on hitting .300. His BABIP was, more or less, along the lines of his Minor League career, but his walk rate (4.7) was down drastically. Despite this, his outside-swing percentage wasn’t too far above league average, and his swinging-strike percentage was below the average. He also didn’t strike out much, with his 14.6 K-rate actually ranking 11th-best among outfielders last season. Given all of these factors, Burns has a pretty good grasp on the strike zone. He may hit at a slightly lower average this year, but should see a tick up in his walk rate, which would balance everything out for the most part. For a guy like Burns, the only thing that matters is that he gets on base.
Fangraphs’ ZiPS projections have him walking more and stealing 35 bases in 138 games, and should he stay healthy and manage to play in 150-plus games, don’t be surprised if Burns can steal 40-plus bases on the year. In an era where stolen bases are down league-wide (just two players had 40 steals last year), Burns is a rare commodity. Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton is the fastest player in baseball and had 57 steals last year in only 114 games while hitting .226. With Burns having the speed and also the high average, look for him, barring injuries, to be the only player to come close to Hamilton’s total this year.
Rich Arleo is a freelance sports writer and editor who covers Major League Baseball and fantasy sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Rarleo.