Expectations were high for Ramón Laureano entering the 2019 season. After all, he came onto the scene and dazzled down the stretch last year, showing off spectacular defense while providing a spark at the top of the lineup. And after a slow start, it looks like the 24-year-old is finally coming into his own.
The A’s acquired the young outfielder with little fanfare. In the 2017-18 offseason, the Houston Astros were facing a roster crunch. They had important prospects to protect before the Rule 5 Draft deadline and not enough 40-man roster spots to do so.
Tough decisions would have to be made, and one was to part ways with Laureano. He enjoyed a breakout year between High-A and Double-A in 2016, posting a 163 wRC+ between the two levels and placing him near the top of a deep Astros farm system. But in 2017, despite repeating Double-A, he struggled and fell off Houston’s radar.
Oakland took advantage, and picked him up in exchange for 2016 sixth-round pick Brandon Bailey. Laureano began 2018 by crushing Triple-A pitching to the tune of a 136 wRC+. He notched 14 home runs, 11 stolen bases and 13 outfield assists in just 64 games before earning a promotion to the major leagues on August 3 to replace a struggling Dustin Fowler.
Laureano didn’t look back. He made an impact from day one, picking up a crucial outfield assist and smacking a walk-off hit in his MLB debut. Down the stretch he was one of many sparkplugs on an A’s team that won 97 games and snagged the second Wild Card spot.
Laureano, 2018 MLB (48 G): .288/.358/.474, 129 wRC+, 5 HR, 7 SB, 9 assists, 2.1 fWAR
Few expected Laureano to repeat his 2018 performance, but he was still expected to play a huge role on the 2019 club. The outfielder reportedly added a ton of muscle in the offseason and looked like a breakout candidate. That’s where things started to go downhill.
Laureano had a somewhat concerning spring. He posted an elite .945 OPS, but he also struck out in 14 of his 39 plate appearances (35.9%). While Spring Training numbers always need to be taken with a grain of salt, this was still notable for a young player that already posted a lofty 28.4% strikeout rate in his rookie season and spent an offseason adding power.
Evidently, the A’s weren’t too worried. Laureano led off the team’s first game of the season in Japan against Seattle Mariners lefty Marco Gonzales. He went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. After being bumped down to eighth in the order the next day, he did notch his first two hits of the year (both singles), but he also added two more K’s.
The rest of March and April were not kind to Ramón. He slashed just .234/.291/.355 with a 28.2% strikeout rate. Despite taking questionable routes at times, he continued to impress in the outfield, keeping himself in the lineup every day. But he wasn’t producing and remained near the bottom of the order.
Laureano’s turnaround began in May. He started to cut back on his strikeouts and looked like a completely different hitter. He ended the month in the midst of a 16-game hitting streak, which was ultimately snapped on Wednesday night.
Since May 1, Laureano has posted a .283/.328/.496 slash line and a 27.0% strikeout rate. Despite the drop in strikeouts, he has continued hitting for power, tallying nine doubles and five home runs in that span.
But the strikeouts are only a piece of the puzzle. Laureano’s success seems, at least in part, driven by an increase in pull percentage. Pulling the ball more has allowed the center fielder to hit the ball even harder.
The Statcast data backs up Laureano’s success. His 90.5 MPH average exit velocity ranks in the 73rd percentile, while his 44.0% hard hit rate ranks in the 74th percentile. Combined with his 87th percentile sprint speed, Laureano is again looking like the sparkplug he was in 2018.
This version of Ramón Laureano is a very valuable player on both sides of the ball. But he still has plenty of room to grow.
On the season, Laureano has a .331 BABIP, which may be somewhat sustainable given his speed and quality of contact. But to become a serious offensive threat, he’ll need to continue his plate discipline improvements.
In the minor leagues, Laureano usually posted walk rates north of 10% and strikeout rates below 25%. But this season, despite the work he’s put in to cut his strikeouts, he still has just a 5.4% walk rate. If he can even push that up to the 7-8% range while keeping his strikeouts around 25-26%, he could be a reliable bat near at the top of the order.
He seems to have the most trouble with pitches up in the zone. While he does most of his damage on low pitches, he swings a ton at pitches near the letters and above. If he can learn to lay off those pitches, even if that means taking a few high strikes in the process, he should see his walk rate rise and his strikeout rate fall.
Laureano also leaves a bit to be desired defensively. He has one of the best arms in the game and uses his elite speed to get to balls that many wouldn’t, but he doesn’t always get the best reads.
By Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average, Laureano rates as one of the game’s worst outfield defenders. He has posted -6 OOA, with -3 coming on balls over his head. He also has a negative DRS and UZR for the year.
Some of this could be Laureano still learning center field. Due to his strong arm, he spent most of his minor league career in right field. He has all of the tools to be one of the best center fielders in the game, and hopefully with experience he can improve his reads and reach that potential.
In Ramón Laureano, the A’s have a young, toolsy center fielder that has shown he can make an impact on both sides of the ball. Since a young age he has been known for his work ethic, and he is no doubt putting in all of the hours necessary to improve his game.
Laureano’s power, speed and arm make him an incredibly exciting player to watch. But if he can improve his defense and his discipline, he could become one of the best young players in the game.