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Take a glance at the A’s outfield, and you’ll find evidence of how this season simply hasn’t gone according to plan for Oakland.
Coco Crisp, slated as the left fielder, has appeared in just 13 games because of elbow and neck injuries. Craig Gentry was expected to platoon in center, but he finds himself in Triple-A trying to rediscover his hitting stroke.
In the wake of all this, Billy Burns has emerged as one of the American League’s top rookies in 2015. Viewed as a long-term project when the A’s acquired him from Washington before the 2014 season, Burns has assumed the role of leadoff man and everyday center fielder. The switch hitter is batting .327 in 27 games, showing surprising pop at the plate and getting on base often enough to put his tremendous speed to good use.
“It’s an honor just to be on the roster, let alone getting starts,” said Burns, 25. “Every day, I kind of approach it the same way, just try to get on base and do as much as I can to help the team win. It’s been fun, and hopefully we’re on an upswing here.”
After going 3-for-4 in Sunday’s win over the New York Yankees, Burns is tied for second among AL rookies with 36 hits. He’s just two behind Tampa Bay’s Steven Souza, Jr., even though Burns has played in 19 fewer games. He also ranks second among AL rookies with nine stolen bases and leads the rookie class with 12 multi-hit games.
Burns got his first taste of the big leagues last season when he was promoted from Double-A and appeared in 13 games over two different stints with the A’s. The odds were stacked against him this spring, as the original roster configuration only called for the A’s to keep four pure outfielders.
But Crisp began having right elbow trouble that eventually required surgery. At the same time, Burns was torching Cactus League pitching to the tune of a .373 spring batting average. He made the Opening Night roster but was optioned to the minors without appearing in a game. Since returning May 2 when Cody Ross was designated for assignment, Burns has become a lineup mainstay.
His fingerprints were all over Sunday’s 3-0 victory that clinched the A’s first series win in nearly a month. Burns singled three times and scored twice. He swiped both second and third base in the sixth off Yankees right-hander Adam Warren -- who hadn’t allowed a steal in his previous 56 appearances -- and scored on Stephen Vogt’s go-ahead homer. Then Burns singled in the eighth and scored on Vogt’s sacrifice fly to add an insurance run.
He’s found success slapping the ball to the opposite field, a handy skill for a speedster searching for any way to get on base. But what’s really opened eyes is Burns’ improved ability to drive the ball. On May 24 at Tampa Bay, Burns hammered the game’s first pitch for his first big league home run. This after Burns hit just two homers over parts of five minor league seasons. More surprising was that the homer came from the left side, and the natural right-hander only took up switch hitting in 2011.
“I was actually in the cage getting loose, so I didn’t get to witness it,” A’s outfielder Sam Fuld said. “I just heard everybody going nuts in the dugout and I’m thinking, ‘No way’. That was a pretty cool moment.”
Five days later, Burns homered again, this time from the right side.
Manager Bob Melvin took notice during the spring that Burns was driving the ball to the alleys more. A’s hitting coach Darren Bush said that particular part of Burns’ game began taking shape under the tutelage of minor league hitting coordinator Greg Sparks and Marcus Jensen, who is now on the A’s staff as the assistant hitting coach.
“If he’s just slapping the ball, everybody moves in,” Bush said. “By him driving the baseball, everybody has to play a normal position. Guys have to respect that and stay back, which opens up the field for him.”
Another interesting aspect of Burns’ approach -- he’s very aggressive early in the count. Rather than be extra-selective as many leadoff men are, Burns is 12-for-23 (including both homers) when putting the first pitch in play.
“You have to kinda let him do his thing,” Melvin said. “You can say, ‘Take a strike every time,’ but it’s not what he’s used to doing. You’ve seen him take a strike … (but) it’s all about how prepared he is off a certain pitcher.”