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Is Billy Burns for real?

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Billy Burns
Billy Burns
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

From the mailbag:

"Billy Burns, for real, or no? You didn’t rank him (in the Oakland) Top 20 this winter – understandable given his age and some of his minors track record. But 74 steals a couple of years back, more than staying alive atop the A’s order. Seems to use his speed efficiently. Adam Eaton? Brett Gardner? Brett Butler? Not in these guys’ league?"---Ed S. Houston, Texas

Good question, Ed. Let's take a look at his history first.

Here is the first comment I wrote for Burns, from the 2013 Baseball Prospect Book after he hit .322/.432/.382 with 38 steals in Low-A for the Washington Nationals in 2012:

Burns was drafted in the 32nd round in 2011 out of Mercer. He was an excellent leadoff man in college and he’s been an excellent leadoff man in pro ball, showing 70-level speed and a patient contact hitting approach. Last year was his first attempt at switch-hitting and it went well, with a .806 OPS from the right side and an .816 OPS from the left. He can handle center field or left field without much trouble, though he lacks the arm to play right regularly. Burns is undersized and his lack of power may limit him at higher levels, but he could end up being a very useful reserve. Grade C.

He continued to play well in 2013, hitting .315/.425/.383 with 74 steals between High-A and Double-A. Perhaps wanting to sell high, the Nationals traded him off to the Oakland Athletics that winter. The take heading into '14:

This guy is an awful lot of fun. Burns was drafted by the Nationals in the 32nd round in 2011. Oakland acquired him over the winter for pitcher Jeremy Blevins. I’m a little surprised Burns fell that far in the draft: he is extremely fast, 80grade speed on the 20-80 scale. He hit well in college and normally a guy with that kind of premium tool and a good track record would go higher on draft day. Mercer may be a smaller school but it is in a warm-weather area (Macon, Georgia) so scouts should have had plenty of opportunity to see Burns in action. Anyway, Burns is a World of Forms speedster and he actually knows how to get on base. His throwing arm is below-average, but he can run down anything in the outfield. The big issue here is lack of power and I suspect that the Nationals were selling high on him, unsure that he would have enough pop to succeed against advanced pitching. That is a legitimate concern, but at the same time I understand why the Athletics found him attractive. I’m normally suspicious of pure speed players who lack power but Burns’ ability to get on base (so far) gives him an edge over many similar players. I suspect he winds up being a very useful fourth outfielder. Grade C+.

2014 did not go as well: he hit just .237/.315/.302 in 473 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A, though he swiped 54 more bases. From the 2015 book:

Billy Burns is one of the fastest men in professional baseball. This was enough for him to thrive at lower levels: slap the ball, run, and hit .300. As is true in many similar cases, this did not work as well against advanced pitching and more capable defenses in the higher minors. He was overmatched in a month of Triple-A and will have to try again there in 2015. His speed and defense could earn him a bench role at some point but he’ll have to show more pop to get beyond that. Grade C.

So here we sit in 2015. He played 21 games in Triple-A, hitting .315/.378/.404. Now Burns is hitting .323/.368/.435 in 10 steals in 12 attempts over 124 at-bats in the majors, his first extended trial against major league pitching. What do we make of it?

As Jeff Sullivan noted back in April, Burns hit very well in spring training this year. In fact, the only time that Burns hasn't hit well was in his first trial at the high minors in '14. One important point in the book comments is that Burns didn't start switch-hitting full-time until 2012: he switched some in high school but in college he was strictly a right-handed hitter. Reports indicate that he showed more strength from the right side and perhaps he needed time to make it work more often from the left. This IS showing up in the platoon splits this year, .282/.364/.410 from the right side, .350/.381/.463 from the left, granted the perils of sample size.

As for the comps mentioned by Ed S., Butler is much faster than Eaton. I can see similarities with Gardner and Butler; I don't think Burns will hit 17 homers in a season like Gardner did last year, but he's even faster than Gardner is. The Butler comp would be a maximal outcome; Butler hit .338/.461/.452 in his minor league career, showing substantially more pop than Burns has.

My guess here is that Burns is a genuine .250-.270 range hitter, OBP somewhere in the .320-.340 area, who is having a hot streak right now. Even that take is quite optimistic compared to what the projection systems were showing pre-season (ZIPS .249/.315/.311, Steamer .242/.299/.315), but I'll go out on a limb and say that the pre-season algorithms were too pessimistic.

No, we should not expect him to hit .300+ all year, but he should still have a substantial career, perhaps along Gardneresque lines. Even if Burns is just a fourth/fifth outfielder, that's still a great thing to find in the 32nd round! Something to keep in mind for the draft Monday.