MESA, Ariz. — Rickey Henderson’s annual spring residency with the A’s surely will include some time spent with leadoff man Billy Burns.
Henderson, who joined the team Sunday and will spend eight days in Arizona, has worked closely with Oakland’s speedy center fielder in the past. He complimented Burns’ play during an impressive rookie season but he also sees room for improvement in Burns’ base-stealing abilities.
“I still think he should be able to get better,” Henderson said. “I’m just a little concerned about his take-off. … I want him to improve that take-off, and then I think he’ll be untouchable on the base paths.”
Henderson wants to put the A’s fastest player in the best position possible to take advantage of his speed.
“I think a lot of times he stands up a lot when he wants to take off (to steal),” Henderson said. “He’ll drop his front leg back and then he’ll push off with the front leg. I think he should use his back leg a little bit more and let his front leg get out front.”
It will also help if Burns can stay healthy.
He led Major League rookies with 26 stolen bases in 2015, but only five of those came after July as he played banged up during much of the second half. The A’s are making it a priority to get Burns more days off this season. That’s apparent in how much time Coco Crisp is getting in center field so far in Cactus League games. The plan is for him to spell Burns from time to time if Crisp himself can stay healthy. Chris Coghlan and Sam Fuld — who appears on the roster bubble — are also options for center.
“(Burns) was a little banged up late in the season, and really, the last month he wasn’t even in position leg-wise where he could steal,” Melvin said. “Nobody knew that. He was banged up and still playing, but he didn’t have his legs like early in the season. So it’s our job too to give him some time off so we don’t get to that point again.”
The A’s hope a refreshed Burns can once again spark the offense from the leadoff spot. Last year he hit .294, the second-best mark by an Oakland rookie. It’s no secret that much of Burns’ success came in going after the first pitch. The switch hitter batted .479 when putting the first pitch in play, and his 56 first-pitch hits trailed only Jose Altuve’s 57 for most in the majors.
Henderson, of course, was known for working pitchers deep into counts during his Hall of Fame career. His 2,190 walks are second most all-time, but Henderson also picked his spots to pounce on the first pitch. He said a key for Burns is making sure that first pitch is in a location where he can do damage.
“If you swing at that first pitch, you basically gotta have a zone,” Henderson said. “That ball has got to come in that zone where you know you can handle it with the best of your ability.
“… He won the (center field) job. He’s done the job, he’s done a good job as the leadoff hitter. You gotta build off that, because next year they’re gonna do something different to you. They’re not going to let you just be a free swinger, and you’ve got to be patient and be able to hit your pitch.”