June 18, 2015
Painting the Black
Mr. Burns Runs Afoul
Billy Burns must be tired of the word grinder and its relatives, having heard them all throughout his career. Such diction is often reserved for short players, like the 5-foot-9 Burns, or those with otherwise unimpressive physiques—hence their now-pejorative nature. But sometimes a player is called a grinder based on merit. Such is the case with Burns, who deserves the label for legitimate baseball reasons, as opposed to having the heart of a hummingbird. Burns is a grinder in the sense that he annoys pitchers by fouling off put-away attempts, disrupting pitch counts and tempers. He has a statistical claim on the title, too, having entered the week with the highest percentage of fouls per two-strike swings:
While the sustainability of a player's foul-ball rate has been questioned before, some undoubtedly possess the required skills to prolong at-bats. The modern-day example is Johnny Damon, whose survivalist tendencies doubled as one of his defining attributes and—as legend goes—started the Yankees toward a World Series victory. Burns' spoilage hasn't yet earned him a place in baseball lore, but he remains an interesting case study who challenges convention on player types and two-strike hitting.
One rule of thumb when analyzing hitters is that a batter must hit for great power if he's going to strike out a lot. Another, the inverse of the first, goes: a batter needs to hit for a good average and walk a lot if he doesn't hit for any power. Burns belongs in the second camp. He's never recorded an ISO north of .100 over a full season, no matter the quality of competition. In fact, his current .105 mark would represent only the second time he's topped .090. Instead of power or size, Burns was blessed with elite speed and high-caliber hand-eye coordination, which plays up due to his compact swing; his knack for contact is such that he seems to connect even when he throws the bat at the ball.
Yet the second rule of thumb does not apply to Burns for one important reason: He seldom walks. Rather, Burns employs one of the majors' most aggressive approaches, making him an odder topper for the Athletics' lineup than a plunger on a Christmas tree. His 43.5 percent first-pitch swing rate would rank eighth if he met the playing-time threshold, while his overall swing rate places him 12th in the majors, right below Pablo Sandoval. The results of Burns' swing-heavy ways are substandard walk (5.4 percent) and pitches per plate appearance (3.58) rates, despite his aforementioned ability to extend at-bats beyond their expiration date.
Using deductive reasoning to modify the second rule of thumb, a batter must hit for a high average if he doesn't hit for any power or draw many walks. Burns has done that so far, thanks in part to 15 infield hits. Unfortunately, his task of maintaining a high average is going to be tougher than for the average hitter. That's because pitchers don't respect him—or, more accurately, his capability to punish their mistakes. Hence Burns seeing more pitches in the zone (51 percent) than the average hitter (closer to 49 percent); this strategy jibes with conventional wisdom, as pitchers are expected to challenge low-wattage hitters more aggressively than they would big boppers.
Burns' ability to fight off tough pitches is less a hidden talent and more an evolutionary necessity; otherwise he would be a hacker with a broomstick for a bat. You can understand, then, how Burns has put together a majors-leading three at-bats that included eight strikes or more. Those marathons came against John Danks (bleh), Nick Martinez (meh), and Felix Hernandez (huh). Here's visual evidence of Burns' battle with the King, taken from the fifth inning of the May 10th game between the A's and M's:
The end is anti-climatic, but, as grandma says, the journey is more important than the destination. And how about Burns' journey? He shows off his bat control by getting a piece of four different pitch types, and his plate coverage by nicking pitches high and low, in and out, ball and strike. The last bit there, along with Burns' usual overaggressive approach, raises an interesting philosophical question: Does his bat control work against him, tempting him to offer at pitches he shouldn't? That is, does his supposed blessing also work as a curse?
First a caveat: of course it's easy to second-guess a batter's decision-making process after the fact by using GIFs or slow-motion replays. Hitting is difficult. Against Hernandez, Burns had to analyze and react within a split-second to pitches known for their insane movement and precision; he was trying to swat a fly that can move 94 mph with spin. None of what Burns accomplished, albeit less than ideal, came easy. Keep that in mind.
Now, let's analyze the topic at hand using some numbers. Prospectus tracks a metric, called-strike probability, that assigns a likelihood to each pitch's chances of being, you guessed it, called a strike. Using that metric, we know that three of the five two-strike pitches Burns fouled off versus Hernandez had less than a 1 percent chance of being called strike three. In other words, Burns was so engrossed in swing mode that he over-committed to protecting the plate. How often does this happen to Burns, and is it a problem he shares with most foul-heavy batters?
To provide further context, let's compare numbers for the season's top five foulers. Each batter's two-strike fouls were collected and broken down by the overall median of their called-strike probabilities, as well as a few buckets: the percentage of fouls that came on pitches with greater than 90, 75, and 50 percent called-strike probability, and the percentage of fouls that came on pitches with worse than a 10 percent called-strike probability. This will help us determine the "necessity" of each batter's fouls. The results:
Sure enough, Burns checks in on the aggressive end of the spectrum. He has the second-lowest median, the lowest percentage of 90- and 75-percent-plus fouls, and the second-highest percentage of less-than-10-percent fouls. Based on these numbers, you'd conclude that Burns could stand to scale back his aggressiveness when the count rolls to two strikes.
But suggesting the next step triggers another set of philosophical debates. Should the A's ask Burns to alter his approach with two strikes, knowing full well that doing so could have unintended consequences? Or should they allow him to continue his inefficient ways as long as his results stay good? Is Marisnick's foul composition preferable to Burns', or does it simply signify other issues at play? Few of those questions can be answered by outsiders, others require additional future exploration, and all of them are tricky to approach.
Ditto for projecting Burns' future. Though he's been a productive player thus far, ranking fourth on the A's in True Average, his lacking secondary skills make a full buy-in a dicey proposition. His penchants for fouling pitches off and stealing bases (and making spectacular catches) aren't enough to offset the riskiness at hand, either. Until Burns can prove he'll be able to maintain a high average, it's easier (and admittedly safer) to side with the scouts who labeled him a reserve outfielder.
Luckily for Burns, the A's impending veteran sell-off means he ought to play enough to prove those scouts wrong. No matter how his attempt goes, at least A's fans will be able to remember happier times whenever Burns does his best Johnny Damon impression.
Special thanks to Craig Goldstein for the GIF.