By John Perrotto
PHOENIX -- It is the most basic instinct in the game of baseball --- see the ball, hit the ball.
There was a time when that was Billy Burns' philosophy of hitting. The pitcher would throw a pitch somewhere near the strike zone and Burns would take a hack.
It was hard to argue with Burns' approach, since it got him selected in the 16th round of the 2008 amateur draft by the hometown Atlanta Braves following his senior year at Walton High in Marietta, Ga. He also earned a scholarship to Mercer University and chose to pursue that route rather than professional baseball.
Then everything changed for Burns when he went to Mercer and met hitting coach Tim Boeth.
"He taught me the value of plate discipline," Burns said. "He told me that I needed to get on base as much if possible if I was going to make it to the major leagues."
Burns hasn't made it to the big leagues yet, but he is rapidly gaining on them thanks to embracing Boethe's advice along with possessing blazing speed and being part of an offseason trade. It has helped turn the 24-year-old switch-hitting outfielder into a certifiable spring training phenom in the Oakland Athletics' camp.
The Athletics acquired Burns on Dec. 11 in exchange for left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins. In his first 15 games of Cactus League play, Burns went 12-for-42 with seven walks and eight stolen bases in 10 attempts. That gave him a .286 batting average and a .388 on-base percentage.
Not bad, considering he was the second-most known rookie outfielder named Billy when spring training opened… behind the Cincinnati Reds' Billy Hamilton, who stole 155 bases in the minor leagues two years ago. However, Burns' ability to get on base and accelerate once he gets there has opened eyes throughout the Phoenix area.
"It's a jailbreak with him all the time," Athletics manager Bob Melvin said. "Very few guys get at top speed in two steps like that. We knew he was fast, but not like this."
The old skeptical cliché about fast runners is that you can't steal first base and that might apply to Hamilton in his rookie season. His OBP was just .308 in 547 plate appearances with Triple-A Louisville last season. Burns has yet to reach the Triple-A level, but he has a .420 OBP through his first three professional seasons and 1,150 plate appearances.
Burns will likely begin this season at Double-A Midland in the Texas League. However, scouts who have watched him play in the Nationals' farm system believe he will be a premier OBP guy when he reaches the major leagues, which figures to be later this year.
"He isn't afraid to take borderline pitches and work the count," said one scout from a National League club. "He has a really good feel for what's a strike and what's not and just won't swing at bad pitches. And with that speed, he'll have a lot of infield hits. He puts pressure on the defense. The infield has got to be on its toes … because he has the speed to beat out even the most routine ground ball. He's a blur going down the line."
Which is why Burns needs to get on base to be a successful player. He is listed at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, and that's probably charitable. Furthermore, Burns has hit just one professional home run and that came in the seventh game of his career while playing for Auburn in the short season Single-A New York-Penn League, though he got his money's worth with a grand slam. Burns' career slugging percentage is .379, 41 points below his OBP, though he has been successful on 125 of 142 steal attempts -- an outstanding 88 percent.
"I understand what kind of hitter I am and I know what I need to do to get to the big leagues," he said. "Getting on base and stealing bases is going to be my ticket to the big leagues."
There was a time when it looked like football might be Burns' entryway to professional sports. Despite his small stature, he starred as a slot receiver and cornerback in high school and received interest from Division I programs.
Furthermore, Burns' father, Robert, played in the NFL with the New York Jets in 1974, lining up as a running back behind Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath.
"Baseball was always my favorite sport," the younger Burns said. "I loved football, too, but I knew my future was in baseball. There was no doubt in my mind, because I love the game."
Burns' draft stock actually fell in college -- he dropped all the way to the 32nd round in 2011, the second time he was eligible to be drafted, following his junior season at Mercer. Burns, though, wanted to begin his pro career so badly that he settled for a $1,000 signing bonus.
However, if he continues to keep getting on base, he figures to make up the lost money in the major leagues. He also figures to be a hit with the fans because of his game-changing speed and the boyish good looks that make him a favorite of female teenage fans.
"I like the kid," said Athletics center fielder/leadoff hitter Coco Crisp, who could be succeeded by Burns when his contract expires after the 2016 season. "He's shown great instincts at the plate, on the bases, even in the outfield. He's got a chance to be a really good player. It's going to be fun to see what he does in the future."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.