Billy Burns: The Value of Game-Changing Speed

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September 6, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics pinch-runner Billy Burns (19) is congratulated for scoring on a two-RBI double by right fielder Josh Reddick (16, not pictured) during the ninth inning against the Houston Astros at O.co Coliseum. The Athletics defeated the Astros 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On September 21, the A’s were tied with the Phillies In the bottom of the 10th inning. With one out, Nate Freiman bounced a single through the infield, and Billy Burns came in as a pinch runner. Two pitches later, the game was over thanks to a two-run blast from Josh Donaldson.

That home run probably doesn’t happen if Freiman is still on first. Phillies pitcher Miguel Gonzalez threw over to first multiple times in a clear effort to prevent Burns from stealing. When he fired home on the 1-0 count, there was no way that he’d throw an offspeed pitch, which would have allowed Burns to make it easily if he was running. Instead, he left the fastball over the plate, and Donaldson took care of the rest.

While Donaldson should still get most of the credit for the home run, Burns still deserves some recognition, even though the box score says he did nothing.

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Burns is one of the few players in the game with truly game-changing speed. He’s in the category of Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton—everyone knows they’re going to steal but they get away with it anyway. The A’s have other speedy players on their roster, but none are on Burns’s level.

Burns is a great player for September, with the expanded rosters, but his lack of offensive ability normally keeps him off of the 25-man roster. Is his speed valuable enough to keep him on the playoff roster (which will hopefully exist next week)?

Absolutely.

The playoff schedule allows the A’s to use a four-man starting rotation, giving them an extra roster spot. That spot is normally used for an extra bullpen arm, but in this case it should go to Burns. The A’s will be starting some of the best pitchers in the game, therefore making the need for a deeper bullpen less important.

Also the probable lack of Craig Gentry for the rest of the season makes Burns even more valuable. Even though Gentry is not quite as fast as Burns, his stellar defense (1.2 dWAR) and solid production against lefties (.266 Batting Average) will be missed.

Burns has struggled at the plate this year, hitting .237 between Midland and Sacramento, but his biggest value is on the basepaths. Burns won’t be needed at the plate, since the A’s already have five capable outfielders, so this is a role that he can thrive in.

Even if his speed doesn’t always show up in the box score, it can still have a tremendous impact on the game. Going from first to third on a single, advancing to second on a passed ball and even just messing with a pitcher’s head can all affect the game, especially if it’s in the late innings.

Just don’t blink; you might miss him.

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