Outfield speedster may be fastest, most interesting player in Minors
Billy Burns swiped 74 bases in 81 attempts for Class A Advanced Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg in 2013. (Will Bentzel)
By Ashley Marshall / MiLB.com | February 26, 2014 10:00 AM ET
No power. Below-average arm.
Those two succinct scouting notes can all but destroy a prospect's career before it gets going. Can a player drafted 967th overall -- and a 24-year-old barely out of Class A at that -- even be thought of as a prospect?
Regardless of the answer, a more pressing question awaits: is it possible that a skinny outfielder with zero pop -- Billy Burns -- is the most intriguing player in the Minors?
This 32nd-round Draft pick was the Nationals' Minor League Player of the Year in 2013 and, according to Bill James' speed score (SPD), the fastest player in all of pro ball. Despite blazing raw speed, advanced plate patience and a plus work ethic, Burns' other deficiencies have kept him off every top prospect list.
The statistics paint a black-and-white picture, but Burns' value lies in that gray area in between: that sea of intangibles where work ethic and determination meet good fortune and opportunity.
Burns batted .315 and scored 96 runs last year, but he hasn't hit a homer since 2011. He committed only two errors in 238 chances (a .992 fielding percentage) but recorded just seven assists between left field and center.
The Georgia native is out to prove there's a place for someone with his skill set. He's keen to show his season of 74 stolen bases in 81 tries was not a fluke, and speed is just one reason why Burns' journey is exciting.
He was selected in the 16th round of the 2008 Draft by his hometown Braves but turned down the opportunity and instead went to Mercer University in Macon. Despite developing into one of the nation's premier leadoff hitters -- his 73 runs scored ranked 25th in the NCAA while his 30 steals placed him 34th in 2010 -- he fell almost 500 spots in the 2010 Draft before the Nationals took a chance on him.
With speed to burn and a work ethic to match, Burns has never looked back.
In 2013, more than 40 percent of his hits never left the infield. He had more infield singles (58) than flyouts (54), more walks (72) than whiffs (54) and as many bunt hits (16) as popups. He was a Carolina League All-Star just one year after learning how to switch-hit, and he embodied Billy Beane's Moneyball philosophy as an undervalued high on-base guy.
Burns' Potomac team kept its own scouting reports on every team it faced, and the speedster often contributed to a constantly updated sheet highlighting the weaknesses of each pitcher in the league. "Knowledge is half the battle," he said.
"It starts during the game when I'm watching the pitcher, watching his tendencies so I can get as much information on him, so that when I'm on base I can take that risk with all the information I've gathered."
That diligence helped the 170-pound Burns wreak havoc on the basepaths. He induced five balks and caused six throwing errors on botched pickoff attempts. He reached first base on nine fielding miscues and five throwing errors, bunted for a double down the first-base line and he nearly scored all the way from first when a routine pickoff attempt sailed into shallow right field.
Billy Burns swiped 74 bases in 81 attempts for Class A Advanced Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg in 2013. (Will Bentzel)
Burns can't remember the last time he lost a race, but he's looking forward to working with Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson to learn how to keep the ball on the ground and make even better use of his wheels.
"I always try to put the ball on the ground," said Burns, who's hit just one homer -- a grand slam -- in 276 games. "If I pop it up, that's a big mistake for me because that takes the whole element of speed out of my game.
"People have told me that they sometimes rush their throws when I'm running to first because they know they have to get rid of it quick, and that can cost them a bad throw. With the bunting, I guess it really helps because it lets me get some cheaper hits if I put it in the right spot."
Burns made 160 ground-ball outs (almost three times as many as fly-ball outs), and he had nine games with multiple infield hits. The 5-foot-9 left fielder was on first base 215 times, not counting the times he left after a debilitating hit-by-pitch, slapped a walk-off single or when a runner made an out at another base on the same play to end an inning. On 51 of those occasions, there was a runner ahead of him on second base. Of the remaining 164 times, Burns tried to steal second 62 times -- or 38 percent of the time.
Burns was 56-of-62 stealing second base, a perfect 18-for-18 swiping third and 0-for-1 stealing home. He was 60-for-66 against right-handed pitchers and 14-for-15 against lefties.
Anecdotally, it's easy to see why he's exciting.
Take the third inning of the P-Nats' game with the Wilmington Blue Rocks last May 15. He dropped down a bunt far enough from the mound that Wilmington pitcher Spencer Patton was unable to make the play at first base. Patton threw the ball away trying to pick Burns off and later uncorked a wild pitch that sent him to third. The following batter, Cutter Dykstra, grounded into a fielder's choice at third base as Burns eluded a rundown to score.
With the bases loaded against Carolina on June 21, he bunted down the third-base line for a base hit to bring home a run. On Aug. 20, Burns doubled to left field for Double-A Harrisburg and raced home on the same play when Javier Herrera uncorked an errant throw back to the infield. A week later, he legged out a double to left field leading off the bottom of the first inning, swiped third and scampered home when catcher Ali Solis' throw sailed into the outfield.
"If the ball bounces twice, he'll get a hit," said Mark Harris, Burns' hitting coach in Hagerstown and Potomac. "With a guy that doesn't have a lot of opposite-field power like Billy from the left side, they'll put the left fielder up short and the shortstop in the hole.
"But what happens with Billy, they're in trouble from the start. The third baseman is halfway between the mound and home plate and the shortstop is playing four or five steps closer because he knows if he waits back for that second hop, they're not going to throw him out. It makes defenses have to change things right from the start."
All signs point toward Burns fitting in well in the Bay Area with Beane, who is featured prominently in the Moneyball book Burns read intensely several years ago while playing summer ball. It was at that point Burns realized he had a real chance of making it, that his lack of light-tower power wouldn't necessarily block his path to the Majors.
According to James' SPD metric, Burns left other speedsters in the dust. SPD takes into account a player's stolen base success, the frequency with which he tried to steal, the percentage of balls in play that were hit for triples and how many runs he scored vs. how often he was on base.
Full-season 2013 SPD rankings
Individual plays and weighted metrics aside, Burns' baserunning is what got him noticed in 2013.
Over the past nine years, only seven Minor Leaguers (Billy Hamilton, Delino DeShields, Rico Noel, Eric Young, Micah Johnson, Anthony Gose and Ovandy Suero) have stolen more bases in a season than Burns' 74 last year.
Of those other speedsters, none could match Burns' 91.4 percent success rate. In fact, only 10 of the other 471 players who ranked among the top 50 for stolen bases from 2005-13 had a higher percentage.
Seeking a more relevant parallel, Hamilton stole 75 bases in 2013 -- albeit at a higher level -- but he was thrown out more than twice as many times (15) than Burns. Remember that when Hamilton set the single-season Minor League stolen base mark in 2012, he was caught 37 times in 192 tries. Similarly, Johnson swiped 84 bags last year but was caught 26 times.
"I've seen him hit one-hoppers off the dirt in front of home plate and, when the third baseman looks up, Billy's standing at third base," joked Harris, who said that Burns' speed is game-changing.
"It helps the guy behind him because he gets fastballs to hit. The pitcher is more worried about Billy, and he has more of a tendency to make a mistake. The second baseman will play closer to the bag and the first baseman might hold him close, so those things open up holes. Guys in the outfield know he will go first-to-third on a ground ball so they hurry their throws -- it all lends itself to a guy on the other team making a mistake. Billy's an 80 runner [on the 20-80 scouting scale], and there aren't many of those in baseball. You can see what havoc they can wreak on other teams."
The reason the light-hitting Burns had so many chances to run was a .425 on-base percentage that ranked sixth among full-season Minor Leaguers.
Burns hit safely in 85 of 121 games and reached safely in all but 15 contests. His OBP was .001 points better than that of Byron Buxton, baseball's consensus top prospect. Only nine other full-season Minor Leaguers had a better walk-to-strikeout ratio than Burns.
Even though he posted a sub-4.0-second time from home to first from the right side of the dish, the Nats saw an opportunity. Wanting to take full advantage of Burns' speed, the organization told him to start switch-hitting when he reported for the instructional league prior to his second season in pro ball.
Burns had not swung a bat left-handed since he was a toddler, but his work ethic allowed him to become efficient in a hurry. From the left side, he shaved up to three-tenths of a second off his time -- more, Harris said, if he's cheating.
Burns hit .320 as a left-hander against right-handed pitching in the Class A South Atlantic League in 2012 (.324 from the right side), then batted .307 from the left side (.339 from the right) between the Class A Advanced Carolina and Double-A Eastern Leagues -- two circuits known to be pitcher-friendly -- last year. Harris expects continued growth with the A's.
"The progress he made from season to season was remarkable, especially for somebody who had not switch-hit ever before," Harris said of Burns, who was told to bunt two to three times from the left side every game in the instructional league in 2012. "He has superior strike zone recognition. It's hard enough to learn to switch-hit even from a young age, let alone to start in pro baseball.
"Billy is a wonderful character guy. He's the kind of kid you want your daughter to marry. He's the kind of kid that you're proud of when he speaks in public and he's a great representative of your organization, no matter who he's playing for. He appreciates what he has and where he came from, and the next day is always another day to get better. I've never been a fan of anyone as much as I have for Billy. My wife actually cried when he got traded."
Harris likened Burns to 17-year Major Leaguer and All-Star Brett Butler; Burns said his game is similar to that of Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner, who signed a four-year, 2 million contract earlier this month.
"Billy will have to prove himself from level to level," Harris noted. "To get where he got with us was even more than people expected. They drafted a tool in speed and he was very raw. He could run, but he didn't have the greatest swing from the right side and he had a somewhat below-average throwing arm. That's what you get with that [32nd-round] pick.
"There were probably more teams than one that saw Billy as someone who could make the big leagues. I won't put anything past him, I won't put a ceiling on what he can do. It wouldn't be surprising to see him play in the big leagues. If he continues to make adjustments and create havoc and play his game, that will be a big selling point for him. Speed is a tool you can't teach."
Ashley Marshall is a contributor to MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AshMarshallMLB.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.