Every time I saw Oakland A's outfield prospect Billy Burns in Spring Training this year, he consistently ran from home to first in less than four seconds. Every time. Sometimes it was 3.82, others 3.9. But it was fast. Plenty fast.
And Burns didn't stay at first base very long. He stole 10 bases, while being caught only three times. A single or a walk became a double.
The man is fast -- very fast. Burns has the instincts required to steal bases. He knows what he's doing, and he'll only get better.
The A's acquired Burns from the Washington Nationals in exchange for highly effective left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins. It was the type of transaction that could become important to the futures of both clubs.
Burns is No. 9 on the A's Top 20 Prospects list. He was a right-handed leadoff hitter at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., when the Nats selected him in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. A true student-athlete, Burns was recognized on the All Tournament Team of the Atlantic Sun Conference in his sophomore season.
After turning professional, Burns returned to switch-hitting -- the way he had hit throughout high school. That provided an extra step to first base from the left-handed batter's box.
Switch-hitting has been natural for Burns, as he hit .307 as a left-handed batter and .339 batting right-handed last season, while playing for Class A Advanced Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg in the Nationals' system.
On his way to hitting a combined .314 last year, Burns stole 74 bases while being caught stealing only seven times. Adding insult to injury for opposing pitchers, he walked 71 times. Burns had an on-base percentage of .423.
Speed is Burns' best tool. However, he makes extremely good contact at the plate, striking out only 53 times last season in 535 plate appearances. Burns is a good hitter for average.
When I scouted Burns this spring, he made things happen. He showed a very good knowledge of the strike zone and excellent patience at the plate. Burns had simple, uncomplicated mechanics. I did not see any semblance of power. That's not his game. Burns' career will be based upon "getting on, getting over and getting in."
Burns is exciting to watch. He is well aware that keeping the ball on the ground gives him the best chance for success. Infielders must rush to throw Burns out, and that often forces errors. His ability to bunt for a base hit is a great asset.
Defensively, Burns has average arm strength. Regardless, I think he profiles best as a center fielder. Burns has very good ability to read the ball off the bat quickly and accurately and close on balls with his blazing speed and efficient, effective routes. He can take charge in the outfield from that position. As a left fielder, Burns' power shortage may be a detriment. But without a doubt, he's a good enough outfielder to play Major League-quality defense.
Often in Spring Training I heard Burns compared to Cincinnati Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton. There are similarities. Both have blazing speed and steal bases almost at will. Both are switch-hitters. But at this point, I think Burns may have advanced pitch recognition and selectivity. At age 24, Burns is 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. Hamilton is 6-foot, 160 pounds at 23.
Burns may still develop more strength. That might allow him to bang out more extra-base hits. Last season for example, Burns had 12 doubles and nine triples. Those numbers will likely increase in time.
Whenever Burns gets the call to join the big league club, I am confident he will pressure the defense and be a catalyst for his offense with the type of speed that is almost impossible to defend.