Asked what makes Billy Burns, the outfield prospect who has run rampant in the Cactus League in his first big-league camp, an effective base-stealer, A’s manager Bob Melvin said: “It starts with speed, but he seems to be at top speed in two steps.”
Center fielder Coco Crisp, who swiped 49 bases in 2011, said stealing is an “instinctive type of thing, and you can tell that (Burns) has the ability to be one of the premiere base-stealers in the game by his instincts.”
And Burns’ explanation?
“It just stems from the fact that I hate getting thrown out,” he said Sunday.
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Whatever the reason, Burns on the basepaths has been one of the more exciting facets of A’s camp. The 5-foot-9 speedster is tied for the major-league lead with seven stolen bases in spring training – he has been caught twice – and is batting .300 (9 for 30).
Even some outs have provided entertainment value with Burns, 24, showing a knack for turning routine ground balls into bang-bang plays at first. When he reaches base, Phoenix Municipal Stadium buzzes in anticipation of his running on a pitch, and A’s manager Bob Melvin said Burns usually has the green light.
Burns, whom the A’s acquired this winter from Washington in a trade for reliever Jerry Blevins, seems to have handled that independence well, with Melvin saying last week Burns is “fearless, but he’s not reckless.” Still, Burns said the art of stealing a base isn’t something that comes naturally.
Burns has always had speed, but he said he didn’t begin learning the technique of base-stealing until playing at Mercer University in his home state of Georgia. He found there is more to it than getting a lead and a jump. He learned, for example, to watch “the pitcher to see the whole body instead of just the front foot, because some parts might move first.”
In 2011, the Nationals drafted Burns in the 32nd round, and he played 32 games at low-A Auburn, stealing 13 bases in 14 attempts. In 2012, Burns hit .322 in a full season at Class-A Hagerstown and went 38 for 47 in steal attempts. He split last year between high-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, batting .315 with 74 stolen bases in 81 attempts, and was named the Nationals’ Minor League Player of the Year.
After being drafted, Burns said he worked closely with Nationals coach and former major-league outfielder Tony Tarasco on technique, starting with stretching his lead. Burns said he “didn’t trust my original lead when I got to pro ball – I didn’t really know I could get back just by reacting.” Tarasco also told him to relax more when leading off.
“Sometimes, I just get in the habit of being tense, like flexing, ready to go,” Burns said. “He was like, ‘Calm down, nice and smooth.’ That helped me be more efficient.”
Burns said he believes the most important part of stealing a base is the lead, “because that just puts you that much closer to second base.” A variation on that idea: Shortly after they drafted him, the Nationals asked Burns to begin switch hitting, which the natural right-hander had not done, to get him a step closer to first base when facing right-handers.
The trade, Burns admitted, took him by surprise – until he heard where he’d been traded.
“I think the way I play, they value guys like me,” Burns said of the A’s. “So even though I’m short and whatnot, I’ve got different things I can do that might help a team.”
He has found a willing mentor in Crisp, with whom he has been practicing getting back to first base standing rather than by diving. The latter, Burns said, can take a toll on your body over the course of a game or season and “either hurts your jump or makes you tired so you get lazy.”
Crisp said another reason is minimizing the movement Burns needs to get back to first, which “allows you to get more (of a lead), and then you get back by diving if you have to.” Otherwise, Crisp said Burns will benefit from studying opposing pitchers from the dugout and by the eventual help of video, which often isn’t available in the minors.
“But I think he has the abilities to be one of the top base-stealers in the game,” Crisp said. “He has the speed, the quickness, the start and everything.”
Former A’s outfielder Rickey Henderson, the all-time steals leader, is still with the organization as an instructor and is expected in camp sometime this spring.
“I’m looking forward to meeting him,” Burns said. “I’d just ask him, ‘Tell me what you do when you get on first.’ I just want to pick his brain and see if there’s some information he can give me that would help my game. Just kind of walk me through what he did.”