Burns showing off speed, soaking up knowledge
Prospect may be fastest baserunner since Henderson
PHOENIX -- The 967th pick in the 2011 Draft is perhaps the No. 1 sight to see in A's camp this year. But don't dare blink, or you'll miss him.
Billy Burns is a 5-foot-9 blur. He's all speed all the time, a Pete Rose-type hustler, some scouts say, and maybe the fastest to grace the game since Rickey Henderson.
"Without a doubt," said Mark Harris, Burns' hitting coach at Low-A and High-A ball. "Billy gets to full speed as fast as anyone I've ever seen."
"It's a jailbreak with him all the time," said A's manager Bob Melvin. "Very few guys I've seen are at top speed within two steps like that. We knew he was fast, but not like this."
There's no telling whether Burns would beat Reds speedster Billy Hamilton in a foot race, but it's something Harris and other coaches in the Nationals' system dreamed about all the time.
Harris considers himself spoiled to have been able to watch Burns for two years. Now, it's Melvin's turn.
It was back in December, during the Winter Meetings, when the A's pulled the trigger yet again with their favorite trade partners, snagging a baby-faced outfielder from the Nationals in exchange for lefty reliever and fan favorite Jerry Blevins.
Harris' wife cried.
"You sit there and you were sad, because he's just that special of a person," Harris said of Burns. "You were sad that he was leaving, but you're also saying, too, from a personal standpoint, as far as the organization is concerned, 'You know what? We took a late-sign guy and he just got traded for a big leaguer.'"
Burns was initially selected in the 16th round of the 2008 Draft by his hometown Braves but turned them down to attend Mercer University in Macon, Ga., where he intently read "Moneyball." The boy who grew up admiring Derek Jeter and Rafael Furcal quickly developed into a premier leadoff hitter with the Bears yet still fell nearly 500 spots in the 2011 Draft before the Nationals took a chance on him.
Burns was a right-handed hitting outfielder with no power and a below-average arm, but on the 20-80 scale that scouts use to evaluate skills -- 20 being very poor, 80 being the top tier -- he was an 80 runner.
"So you keep that in your mind," said Harris, "but usually when you draft a guy like that in whatever round and give him $1,000, those kind of guys are the fill guys, the ones that fill out your team, and you try to make them the best you possibly can. But Billy is this guy, really eager to learn and he wants to soak up everything you tell him. He's excited about it, and you see that in his personality from the first time you meet him. He truly wanted to get better."
So it was time for a new challenge to throw at the kid, who starred as a slot receiver and cornerback at Walton High in Marietta, Ga. Football was in his genes -- his father, Bob Burns, served as a reserve running back and teammate of Joe Namath for the 1974 New York Jets. But entertaining offers to play for Division I college football programs only amounted to just that.
He got a better deal for baseball, and now the game was asking something of him this time. The Nationals approached him about becoming a switch-hitter. Because, what did they have to lose on a 32nd-round Draft pick?
"His best skill is his speed," said Harris, "so you'd have to be stupid to not take advantage of what he does best and get him a step and a half closer to first base. Turns out, it was the biggest thing to happen to him."
"It was not easy. It's still not easy," Burns said, laughing. "It's still a work in progress all the time. It was pretty embarrassing at first, hitting left-handed in games. The muscles aren't coordinated enough, and it just takes a while to be comfortable. The confidence wasn't there. The coordination wasn't there. It was just really awkward, if you can imagine."
The process started at the end of 2011 in instructional league, with Burns showing up to the park hours before his teammates to get his work in, and ramped up in 2012. He hit .320 as a left-hander against right-handed pitching in Class-A Hagerstown and .324 from the right side that year. Last season, he batted .307 from the left side and .339 from the right, finishing the year at Double-A Harrisburg.
Burns also posted a .425 on-base percentage and was successful in 74 of his 81 stolen-base attempts, putting him in an elite group with top prospects Byron Buxton and Delino DeShields as the only Minor Leaguers last season with more than 50 stolen bases and an OBP surpassing .400.
"It's not like the information that was offered to Billy was different than the information offered to anyone else," said Harris. "Everyone gets the same information, the same opportunity. It's what you do with it. Billy was just one of those guys that has grasped everything that everyone was trying to teach him."
He still is. The affable Burns chatted up fellow switch-hitter Coco Crisp on the first day of camp, and the speedy veteran has become something of a mentor to the 24-year-old. He's also worked extensively with hitting coach Chili Davis, one of the game's best switch-hitters of all time.
"He came over to me and saw that every time I get back to the bag, unless I'm leaning, I get back standing up," said Crisp. "That's something he wanted to learn how to do. I feel like, over the course of the year, you can beat yourself up a little bit by diving back and getting up. Pitchers like to disrupt you that way, and you get tired doing it. You don't want to tire yourself out before you have a chance to steal.
"I like the kid. He's shown great instincts at the plate, on the bases, even in the outfield."
Burns has a chance to start the year at Triple-A Sacramento. For now, he' soaking in his first big league camp, and those watching him hope spring lasts forever.
He leads all players with seven stolen bases and his own team with nine hits. He's demonstrated tremendous instincts as a leadoff hitter, works counts and bunts, and his blazing raw speed has already created a ton of havoc for opponents.
It just may be his ticket to The Show.
"He's probably beating out ground balls and ending up in scoring position," said Harris. "I saw that happen 50 times in two years. I'm serious. Then there's the guys who throw the ball down the right-field line and he ends up at third base. He forces teams to change their defense.
"Anytime you look up, he's in the middle of the action, always doing something. He'll do something to help you win."
Perhaps that's why he earned the name "Boy Wonder" in the Minors? Not so much.
"We used to say he was a cult hero to all the 13-year-old girls," said Harris, laughing. "Everyone loves him and loves to watch him play. He's just that guy you root for."
Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.