The A’s outfield has been a bit of a mixed bag this year. Coco Crisp played his first game of the season last night, Craig Gentry has been poor all year and Sam Fuld has cooled off from a hot start to be pretty sub-par.
On the other hand, Josh Reddick is playing better than he ever has (see Dave Cameron’s excellent breakdown as to why), and rule 5 righty Mark Canha is playing very solidly despite being pressed into full time duty. The enigma here, though, is Billy Burns. Burns is off to a pretty decent start; in his first four games he had 9 hits, even hitting a double! Billy Burns is notable for being the top contender to one day race Billy Hamilton to the single season steals record, but his skills at the plate are even more questionable than Hamilton’s. He’s been working on his switch hitting ability though, which might make him more of a complete hitter to compliment his speed.
The A’s faced a question, though, when Coco Crisp returned from the Disabled list this weekend. Coco would start, and somebody had to be sent down. Reddick was out of the question for obvious reasons, so it was a choice between Fuld, Gentry, Canha, and Burns. Fuld wasn’t discussed much, probably because he was pretty decent to start the year, and hits from the side of the plate (left) which Gentry and Canha don’t, and is more unnatural for Burns. Gentry is the most experienced of the three, and also probably the best defensive outfielder while being pretty dang fast in his own right, but as mentioned, he’s been really bad (.261 OPS). Canha is in his first year, but is easily the worst fielder of the three, though he does play first base and could platoon with Ike Davis. He’s also a rule 5 pick, so if the A’s don’t want him they aren’t going to get him back. Burns on the other hand is hitting the best right now, can play all three outfield positions well, and even switch hits. The A’s have stated though that they don’t want to use Burns as a bench player; wherever he ends up, he’ll play. The A’s decided to keep Canha and Burns, sending a seemingly not happy Gentry to Nashville. Burns has played both the last two games, batting leadoff and second in those games, going 1 for 8 with a stolen base, and playing Centerfield over Fuld and Crisp, who played left field once each in those games. So the A’s are apparently buying the hype on Burns. I’m not sure that’s completely called for, though.
First off, I think Craig Gentry is getting the raw end of the deal here. While Gentry isn’t exactly Rickey Henderson with the bat, and he’s coming off a 2014 that was mediocre at best, he’s been pretty unlucky. His BABIP is an insanely low .130 this year, compared to a career .327. Gentry is the kind of ballplayer that tries to put the ball in play where his speed will play, but the hits just haven’t been falling at all for him. Fangraphs’ batted ball data suggests that he’s hitting the ball with authority. His Hard Hit % and his Medium Hit % are both up 7 points from his career norms, while his Soft Hit % has taken all that hit and is down to a crazy low 4.3%. That’s lower than Barry Bonds in any of the six years we have data for, and it blows away Mike Trout. These statistics come from stringers who are watching the game, so it’s hard to say that this is a discrepancy between the eye test and the stats. Gentry is hitting the ball hard, but it’s just not falling in. Admittedly BABIP isn’t his only problem (defense hasn’t been great and his K rate is way up), but from everything I can tell Gentry is in line for some positive regression.
None of that, though, says anything about what Burns has done. The man has hit .300, and has played fine defense, and he’s a very exciting young player who should get at-bats. I’m just not sure he’s done anything to earn those at-bats over Craig Gentry. BABIP isn’t reliable in a small sample size, but it’s worth noting that Burns had 7/17 balls in play land for hits in those first four games, which is a .411 BABIP, which obviously is high. I bring this up because the Fangraphs Batted Ball data is not painting a picture of a talented slugger. Not counting today’s game due to lack of data at press time, Burns ranks second to last in Hard Hit % with minimum 20 plate appearances at 4.8%. He makes hard contact at about the same crazy low rate that Gentry makes soft contact. Meanwhile, his soft contact rate is third worst in the league at 38.1%. He’s really not hitting the ball with any sort of authority; he’s just hitting it where they ain’t. He is hitting the ball on a line at least though; 31.6% line drive rate is very good (23rd in the league), but that isn’t saying much, because if you believe in that, then Josh Phegley (33%) should be playing more and Cody Ross (37.5%) should still be employed.
Maybe Burns has just developed an uncanny ability to bloop it over infielders’ heads? The data from this month so far suggests that Dee Gordon has done just that, according to David Schoenfield over at SweetSpot. Dee Gordon, though, has much different Batted Ball data. Gordon has a much more respectable Hard and Soft Hit Rates (20.6% and 18.6% respectively), and even his .485 BABIP can not in any universe be considered sustainable, approach revolutions or not. We’ve only had two players ever sustain a BABIP over .400 over 500 plate appearances according to the Play Index from Baseball Reference, and neither of them (Jose Hernandez and Manny Ramirez) looked anything like Dee Gordon while doing it. The only player who did it since the deadball era with more than 10 steals was Rod Carew, and I’m not ready to call Carew’s playstyle copiable. In light of all this, I don’t think we can say Burns has a demonstrable skill in blooping. The switch hitting thing might be real though. 22 of his 24 plate appearances have come as a lefty, which isn’t his natural side, and he’s got six hits there.
I’ve always defended Melvin and Beane as being into the stats, but I’m not sure I follow their reasoning here. I admit that they certainly know things that I don’t, and their understanding of the game far exceeds my own, but from my perspective I see a guy making bad contact, but getting pretty lucky on balls in play and legging it out with speed. I see him getting the nod over a guy who has been ridiculously unlucky on balls in play, even to the point where his plus plus speed can’t help him, and his excellent hit profile suggests he’s hitting the ball just fine. When you add in the fact that the one being sent down is a veteran who may not appreciate being sent down for a kid who likely could still use the seasoning in AAA (just 49 career games at that level), then I just don’t get it. Maybe Burns will prove me wrong, but for now I’m guessing their spots will be switched before May is over. Meanwhile, I’ll continue trying to figure out the enigmas that are the A’s leadership, who continue to defy my pre-existing notions of by The Book play.Next post: What’s a Shane Greene?
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