The Royals acquired Billy Burns for Brett Eibner, a loss for admirers of Eibner's hair, but a move that could benefit them for their run next year and beyond. They made this trade because they had the opportunity to acquire a guy who fits their mold of player. Billy Burns is fast and a contact-oriented hitter. Let’s break this down.
There are two dimensions to Burns being fast - baserunning and defense. Alex Hall, editor-in-chief of Athletics Nation, had this to say about those things:
As a baserunner, he should really lead the league in stolen bases but he just doesn't run enough. It's baffling. Even when they know it's coming, he's fast enough to make it anyway. Again, he just doesn't seem to have any instincts on the base paths, even outside of stealing -- he'll run into outs or miss opportunities to take an extra base.
He just doesn't show good instincts in the field. He'll take a bad first step or a loopy route and either miss a catchable ball or turn a mediocre play into a diving grab. Factor in his weak arm, and the whole package is not as good as it seems it should be. He's so fast that he can make up for all that and at least play an average CF, but he's unlikely to be a particular plus in any of the three spots.
On the first part, Burns has been ... fine-ish. He stole 26 bases last year in 125 games and 555 PA and has stolen 14 bases this year in 73 games. There’s the potential for so much more.
Percentage of times Billy Burns attempts a steal - 16%
Percentage of times Jarrod Dyson attempts a steal - 34%
Percentage of times Billy Hamilton attempts a steal - 51%
Compared to two other speedsters in his class of player, Burns takes off way less than he could/should. He has maintained a solid 78 percent success rate in his opportunities, but there is room to be so much better. The fact that he has so much speed yet steals so little suggests one of two things, or maybe both. One, there is a coaching philosophy in Oakland that has led him not to steal very much. This is not likely - speedsters in Oakland get one-on-one instruction from Rickey Henderson, said to be a quality teacher. Two, he is not particularly adept at reading the situation and figuring out the right time to steal.
Well, the Royals definitely encourage players to steal, and Rusty Kuntz is fantastic at teaching players how to steal bases.
Another aspect of baserunning is taking the extra base. Again, Burns is really fast, in the same class of speedster as Dyson, Terrance Gore, and Hamilton.
Percentage of times Billy Burns takes the extra base - 43%
Percentage of times Jarrod Dyson takes the extra base - 63%
Percentage of times Billy Hamilton takes the extra base - 66%
Even though Burns is probably going to remain at AAA for a period of time, I would suspect the Royals are going to go pretty hard on the baserunning instruction. Burns is just oozing unreached baserunning potential, and the Royals likely believe they can open the floodgates here and extract a lot of value.
On the second part of speed, defense, Burns still has a small sample size. His DRS is OK and his UZR is negative, but both bear out Alex’s assessment of his arm. Inside Edge data shows he has had only 43 defensive opportunities that are not "Impossible" or "Routine" (he's made 100% of routine plays by the way). His arm is not particularly strong, but he should have the range to make up for it.
If it’s his route-running and instincts that are the issue, Rusty Kuntz is excellent at teaching those as well! Alex Gordon credits Kuntz with his current defensive prowess and has a bunch of metallic gloves saying the instruction has been worth it all.
In terms of his bat, Hall had this to say:
He makes a lot of contact, but he backed off the aggressive first-pitch approach that worked so well for him last year -- he even homered off Felix in 2015! He can get hot in spurts if everything breaks right.
Well, the Royals certainly love their contact hitters, and I know a certain shortstop who has been pretty aggressive on the first pitch. Burns’ low-walk, low-strikeout approach fits very well with what the Royals do. They just need to optimize his approach.
Maybe the Royals’ aggressive approach will get Burns to go back to his first-pitch swinging ways, but hopefully not too much. In 2015, Burns swung at about half of all first pitches; that’s down to 37 percent this year. He hit .479 BA / .718 SLG on the first pitch last year, but that’s down to .327 / .400 this year. That hurts.
Pitchers have made the adjustment - he’s seen a lot fewer hittable first pitches from RHP, who have decided to go further outside against him. LHP have actually come inside on the first pitch, which unfortunately is not an area of strength for Burns. If pitchers aren’t going to give him his pitch on the first pitch, he probably shouldn’t mess with that approach much.
Burns is already a ground-ball oriented spray hitter, so maybe his approach will play a little bit better in Kauffman. However, there’s a glaring problem that will limit any contribution Burns can make with the bat - his popup rate. His career IFFB% of 22.0 is ludicrous. Todd Frazier this year and Jose Reyes last year are the only qualified hitters with that kind of popup rate. No one even came close to that rate in 2014. It’s worse than Mike Moustakas’ popup tendencies.
For a guy who keeps the ball on the ground, Burns should not have this strong a popup tendency. If the Royals can do anything with his swing to reduce his popups, that will go a long way toward making his bat more viable.
What Burns does have going for him is that he’s a switch-hitter. He could pair pretty well with Dyson in this regard - his career wRC+ against LHP is 104. Dyson has an utterly unplayable 57 wRC+ vs. lefties in his career. Sadly, that’s the short side of the platoon. Dyson is an 89 wRC+ hitter against RHP, which works well when paired with his defense and baserunning. Burns has a career 76 wRC+ against RHP.
So here’s the best-case scenario. The Royals figure out how to maximize Burns’ prodigious speed on the basepaths and in the outfield and turn that part of his game into something equal to Jarrod Dyson. Burns then becomes an above-average option against left-handed pitchers and not a total zero against right-handed pitchers, which means he could play full time.
The "worst case scenario" (there could be worse outcomes, for sure) is maybe that Burns’ bat stays bad and he doesn’t improve much on defense and baserunning, so he’s playable against only left-handed pitching. At that point, he’s a fourth outfielder but can play all three outfield positions as long as his speed lasts. Given his age, that’s not particularly terrible.
This is a trade made for potential. If he doesn’t reach that potential, well he’s still a useful player in a similar way that Eibner is a useful player. The Royals believe they can help him reach that potential.