Look, I know why you’re here. You want to read about deadline trades, and, more specifically, you want to read about impactful deadline trades. This is a post about the A’s trading Billy Burns to the Royals in exchange for Brett Eibner. I know exactly what we’re dealing with, so I won’t take up too much of your time. I’ll just leave some information and get out of here.
Why might the Royals like Burns? He’s under team control forever, he makes a ton of contact, he’s fast, and he’s a proven center fielder. Pretty solid foundation, all things considered. Why might the A’s like Eibner? He’s under team control forever, he has some power, he’s not unathletic, and he’s mostly played center in the minors. I’m not going to say this trade fell along party lines, since neither the Royals nor the A’s are actually caricatures of real front offices, but Burns and Eibner are probably both now in friendlier homes.
Burns is the one with the big-league track record. What’s interesting — last year he was a league-average hitter, and this year his wRC+ has gone down by literally half. Yet his overall profile has been pretty similar. He puts the ball in play, and he runs. Last year there were better outcomes. I want to show you something somewhat discouraging. In this plot are all the hitters who have batted at least 500 times over the past three calendar years. I’ve plotted them by pop-up rate and rate of home runs per fly ball:
For Burns, that’s bad. In the sample, he has the game’s highest pop-up rate, but one of the game’s lowest rates of homers per fly. It’s not just a product of playing in Oakland, either, based on his splits. Billy Burns hasn’t shown good enough bat control, and with these balls in play it would be tremendously difficult for him to produce at all, long-term. Another point that isn’t exactly in his favor: here are the five lowest hard-hit rates from the sample.
Burns isn’t just in last — he’s in last by a few percentage points, which is a bad look. He simply doesn’t hit the baseball very hard. Borrowing from Baseball Savant: last year, in average exit velocity on flies and liners, Burns was tied for fourth-lowest. This year, he’s second-lowest. He doesn’t hit the ball hard, so he doesn’t flash much power, and because he doesn’t flash much power, pitchers challenge him, so he’s mostly unable to draw walks. He’s a ball-in-play sort, and that can make it hard to succeed.
But! It’s not impossible. Last year happened. Dee Gordon put together two productive years. Burns has a career wRC+ of 85, which makes him a lot like Dyson, his new teammate. Dyson might be the superior defender, but Burns is versatile, and he runs the bases well. Dyson isn’t controlled for too much longer; Burns is controlled for a while. Maybe he’s just a useful fourth outfielder, but he shouldn’t be useless, assuming he’s a better hitter than his 2016 statistics.
With Eibner, the A’s are betting on a bat. That he’s manned center in the minors shows he’s got some defensive skill, but mostly, his appeal is the consecutive productive years in Triple-A. He’s already 27, so he’s almost a Quadruple-A player, yet many believe those don’t exist. Count the A’s among them. In the high minors, Eibner has shown some discipline without having big contact problems. And, over a brief spell this year in the majors, Eibner ranked in the 85th percentile in average exit velocity on flies and liners. The pop in his bat is real. He just needs to be able to translate his eye. If he does that, he’s already an average player.
It’s an unsexy move, made between two teams currently going nowhere. A couple days from now, no one’s going to remember this ever happened. Every trade, though, is interesting if you dig into it. Here we have the Royals betting on athleticism, and the A’s betting on results. Sounds like the Royals. Sounds like the A’s.