There weren’t a lot of bright spots for the Oakland A’s this season, but the emergence of rookie lead-off hitter Billy Burns was certainly one of the biggest positives of the A’s 2015 campaign. The speedy centerfielder solidified the top of the A’s order and proved to be a solid glove, as well. As the A’s search for a new identity in 2016, Burns figures to be the center of their outfield and the igniter at the top of the line-up.
Burns’ emergence was a surprise given how much he struggled during his first year in the A’s organization in 2014. Acquired from the Washington Nationals for reliever Jerry Blevins, Burns was the Nationals’ 2013 minor league player of the year. He hit .315 with a .425 OBP and 74 stolen bases that year. Burns made a strong first impression with the A’s when he hit well in major league camp, but his 2014 season was a disappointment. He hit .237/.315/.302 between Double-A and Triple-A, and then struggled defensively in two brief stints with the A’s late in the year.
Going into the 2015 season, Burns wasn’t one of the players who figured to be a factor for the A’s. Oakland opened the spring with three centerfielders on the projected 25-man roster (Coco Crisp, Sam Fuld and Craig Gentry), so it seemed likely that Burns would spend the bulk of the season in Triple-A. Burns had yet another strong big league spring training camp, but it wasn’t a surprise when he opened the year on the Nashville roster.
Billy Burns, 2015 Stats
Unlike in 2014, Burns got off to a fast start with the Sounds and his hot streak coincided with injuries at the big league level for the A’s. He earned a call-up to Oakland on May 2 and carried with him a .308/.370/.396 line from Nashville.
Even with the hot start with the Sounds, Burns wasn’t expected to take on an everyday role with the A’s. However, he immediately took advantage of the playing time he received and finished the month of May with a .327 average and an everyday spot in the A’s line-up. Burns would end the MLB season with 125 games played despite spending the first five weeks of the year in Triple-A. He hit .294/.334/.392 with 26 stolen bases and 70 runs scored. In a season without Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor, Burns likely would have been one of the most talked about rookie position players in the American League.
Burns was very consistent with the A’s, as well. He hit .284 or better in every month except for July. His impact on the A’s line-up was evident. In games the A’s won that he played in, he hit .345. In games he played in that the A’s lost, he hit just .256. Burns also did an excellent job setting the tone for the A’s, batting .327 when taking the first at-bat of the game. He was at his best when the game was on the line. In high-leverage situations, Burns hit .305. He hit .318 in medium leverage situations and only .248 in low leverage situations. His aggressiveness was well documented during the season and it worked for him, as he hit .479 while making contact on the first pitch in 118 plate appearances.
Burns also showed considerably more power than he had during his career leading up to this season. He homered a career-high five times, which more than doubled his CAREER total in the minor leagues. Burns also tripled nine times. While Burns will never be a power-hitter, his newfound ability to reach the gaps and occasionally leave the yard made it harder for opposing defenses to crowd him close to the plate. That allowed more of his line-drives to the outfield to fall-in. He also hit well both as a right-handed and a left-handed hitter, making it easier for manager Bob Melvin to pencil Burns into the everyday line-up.
Defensively, Burns went from a liability during his 2014 stint with the A’s to an asset in centerfield. His range improved as the season went on and he made several outstanding defensive plays, including a couple of memorable grabs to rob hitters of homeruns. He was fifth in the AL in fielding percentage as a centerfielder and turned two double-plays from centerfield. On the bases, Burns didn’t rack up as many stolen bases as he did in the minor leagues, but he still finished third in the AL in stolen bases with 26. He also finished seventh in caught stealing (8), something he will likely work to improve on in 2016. He finished the year worth 2.8 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com, making him the fifth-most valuable player on the A’s this season.
Unlike last year, Burns will go into next year’s spring training as a key component of the A’s projected 25-man roster. He will need to continue to show he can make adjustments at the major-league level, especially as American League pitchers start to change their approach to him early in the count. Burns walked just 26 times and his OBP was only .334. His approach seems to work best when he is aggressive early in the count, which makes it unlikely he will increase those walk and on-base numbers dramatically in the future. If he isn't able to increase those numbers, he may eventually find a home further down the A's line-up.
The A’s don’t currently have a lot of high-level minor league depth in centerfield, so Burns could be the longterm answer for the A’s at that position if he has a sophomore year similar to his rookie season. He just turned 26 in late August, and he is firmly in the prime years of his career. Burns isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2018. He will continue to be a bargain for the A’s for the next several seasons.