In the age of sabermetrics and Statcast — MLB’s in-house technology that measures every movement on a baseball field — there is no limit to the way teams can measure speed. The numbers are everywhere, timed to the millisecond, offering data on every play.
And yet, Royals outfielder Billy Burns had no idea he recorded one of the most impressive home-to-first times of the season during Monday’s 8-3 victory over the Chicago White Sox at Kauffman Stadium.
Burns legged out an infield single in 3.75 seconds, a blistering display of out-of-the-box speed. But nobody bothered to tell him, so as Burns arrived inside the visitors clubhouse at Progressive Field on Tuesday, he shrugged his shoulders.
“Unless somebody tells me … ,” he told two reporters.
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So, yes, Burns has not paid much attention to his times. But the moment offered a pretty succinct look at his skill set. A 27-year-old outfielder, Burns spent most of August and September on the Royals’ bench after being acquired from Oakland in exchange for Brett Eibner in late July. But after a five-game losing streak left the club on the outer edges of the playoff race, Burns earned three starts in five days, his first chance to make a solid impression with his new club.
“Obviously, it feels good to get out there and play, and just play the sport that I love,” Burns said. “It’s just nice to kind of feel more part of the team when you’re out there, competing.”
As the Royals began a three-game series on Tuesday at Progressive Field, Burns was back on the bench. But manager Ned Yost said he could see more action while he pieces together his outfield rotations over the season’s final two weeks.
For Burns, the playing time could serve as the first part of an audition that could carry into spring training next season. The Royals outfield could be crowded with many moving pieces. But Burns’ speed is a valuable asset as outfielder Jarrod Dyson enters his final season of arbitration. Dyson could project as a somewhat expensive reserve outfielder, which could leave Burns as a cheaper alternative — or at the very least, the long-term heir to Dyson’s current role off the bench.
The Royals will control Burns through the 2020 season. For now, they are still trying to figure out what they have.
A year ago, Burns batted .294 with a .334 on-base percentage and 26 stolen bases as a rookie in Oakland. But he took a step back this season, hitting just .234 for the A’s before being optioned to Class AAA in July. Still, the Royals were intrigued by his speed and switch-hitting ability, believing his tools fit the club’s profile.
“He can scoot down that line now,” Yost said. “And he’s a pretty good little base stealer. He’s an exciting player.”
As he prepared for Tuesday’s game, Burns did cop to knowing at least one of his speed stats. According to Statcast numbers, compiled by MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, Burns had baseball’s fastest home-to-first average in 2015. According to the data, Burns sprinted down the line in an average of 3.85 seconds on “competitive plays,” besting Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton, Miami’s Dee Gordon, and yes, the Royals’ Dyson.
“It has everything to do, I feel like, with the way I get out of the box,” Burns said. “(It’s) the way I finish my swing compared to other players. I see plenty of left-handed hitters who finish kind of moving toward the plate.”
Vargas to get his second start
Royals manager Ned Yost said left-hander Jason Vargas would be on a pitch count of close to 65 or 70 pitches when he makes his second start on Thursday.
Vargas returned from a year-long recovery from Tommy John surgery on Saturday, allowing a run on two hits over three innings of work. Vargas threw 52 pitches in his first start.
Cain unlikely to return
For now, the Royals have yet to officially declare outfielder Lorenzo Cain out for the season. But it remains unlikely that he will see the field again this year.
Cain is recovering from a Grade 2 sprain in his left wrist. He attempted to play through the injury on Sept. 9 before being shut down again. Yost repeated Tuesday that the injury has been slow to heal.