The 2014 season was one that Billy Burns will undoubtedly never forget, but it was anything but a smooth ride for the fastest player in the Oakland A’s organization.
Burns’ 2014 journey began in December 2013 when he was acquired by the A’s in a deal that sent reliever Jerry Blevins to the Washington Nationals. Burns was the reigning Minor League Player of the Year for the Nationals at the time of the trade, having hit .315/.425/.383 with 74 stolen bases in a breakout campaign. Burns’ rise in the Nationals’ system was impressive. A 32nd-round pick in 2011, he took up switch-hitting in 2012 and combined an eagle-eye at the plate with wide-receiver speed to shoot up the Nationals’ prospect rankings.
Burns made a strong first impression with the A’s as a non-roster invitee to big league spring training. Burns was, in many ways, the star of A’s camp. He hit .306 with a .370 OBP and he stole 10 bases in 13 chances. Burns also wowed with his range in centerfield.
Despite the strong showing in big league camp, Burns was sent to Double-A to start the season. Early in the season, Burns injured his oblique but played through the injury. The injury undoubtedly impacted his swing mechanics from both sides of the plate and helped contribute to a bad slump to start the season. He hit .237 with a .362 OBP in April, swiping 12 bases in 13 chances. Burns would hit .275 in May, but his OBP that month was an uncharacteristic .316. In June, he would struggled to hit for average and to get on-base, posting a .228 average and a .306 OBP.
"[Burns] unequivocally is the fastest player I have ever coached." - A's minor league field coordinator Aaron Nieckula
Burns began to resemble the player who lit up spring training during the month of July for Midland, however. In 23 games, he hit .260 with a .351 OBP. Burns connected on his only homerun of the season and posted the best SLG of any month in 2014 (.385). At the end of July, Burns received a surprise call-up to the big leagues, replacing an injured Craig Gentry. After a few days with the A’s, Burns was sent to Triple-A when Oakland acquired Sam Fuld at the trade deadline.
All of the progress Burns made in July seemed to evaporate during his month in Triple-A. In 28 games at that level, he managed just a .193/.254/.211 line. He would finish his first minor league season in the A’s organization with a career-worst .237/.315/.305 line in 119 games. He led the A’s in stolen bases with 54, but he struck-out a career-high 84 times against 53 walks. Burns did receive a September call-up from the A’s, but would serve primarily as a pinch-runner during the final month of the season. He collected one hit in six big league at-bats and stole three bases in four chances.
Former A’s minor league hitting coordinator and current A’s assistant hitting coach Marcus Jensen says that the numbers don’t tell the entire story of Burns’ 2014 season, or what he is capable of in future years.
“As he started off in Midland, switch-hitting is still relatively new to him and he is learning who he is on both sides of the plate,” Jensen said. “As you try to match who you are on one side with the other, it doesn’t always translate that way. He has got to learn who he is as a right-handed hitter, as well as a left-handed hitter in the role that he is going to be playing as a leadoff hitter.
“He had a productive year. You don’t want to get so caught-up in numbers that it defines a player’s value. Throughout that there is a process of learning who you are and there may be some struggles with learning who you are before you can make that initial growth to play up to the potential that you are capable of.”
Burns, a natural right-handed hitter, had more success from his natural side than he did from the left-side in 2014. He hit .244/.314/.370 as a right-handed hitter and .231/.313/.275 as a left-handed hitter. These splits are consistent with Burns’ career to date. Even when he has been swinging at his best, he has still been a much better hitter from his natural side than he has been from the left side. The A’s believe that, with more time and adjustments, Burns can be an effective hitter from both sides of the plate.
Burns will never have power, but what separates him as a player is his world-class speed. Aaron Nieckula, who was Burns’ manager with Double-A Midland last season, says that Burns is unequivocally the fastest player he has ever coached. Nieckula also noted that Burns wasn’t just fast, but was also a smart base-runner with an aggressive mindset. For his career, Burns is 179-for-202 (89%) on stolen base attempts.
Defensively, Burns has the tools to be an asset with the glove in centerfield. He looked a little overwhelmed by the dimensions in big league stadiums during his call-up, but that shouldn’t be an issue as he gets more time in three-deck stadiums. He has average arm strength, at best, but Burns does a good job of getting the ball back into the infield quickly. At his ceiling, Burns could provide similar value to Coco Crisp defensively in center.
Offensively, Burns has a similar profile to current A’s outfielder Craig Gentry. Like Gentry, Burns uses his legs to jumpstart his game. Burns is an excellent bunter and is a selective hitter who can find his way on base in a number of different ways. Once on base, he is a pitcher-and-catcher’s worst nightmare because he is always looking to take another base.
Burns will turn 26 during the season. Right now, he projects to start the season in Triple-A, but given the injury history for all of the A’s projected 25-man roster outfielders, Burns could play a role for the A’s in 2015. He will need to show more at Triple-A than he did in 2014 to get that opportunity, however.