The Newest Exciting Oakland Athletic

It’s almost laughable how quickly the A’s have pulled away in the AL wild-card race, but back on the morning of August 3, everyone woke up to what was then just a half-game advantage over the Mariners. At that point, the chances of the A’s making the playoffs came down to more or less a coin flip. When the standings are tight, problem spots are magnified, and the A’s decided to make a change in center field. On the evening of that particular Friday, Ramon Laureano made his major-league debut. In the bottom of the 13th, he walked it off with a game-winning single.

What’s happened since then has a lot to do with a lot of players. Several different A’s have performed very well. Several different Mariners have not. These days, the A’s aren’t worried about making the playoffs; they’re trying to get a home game, or even a direct trip to the ALDS. But every contender wants to be as good as it can be, and on the year, in center field, the A’s have combined to be worth 1.5 WAR. Laureano by himself has been worth 1.7, over just a handful of weeks.

Last November, Laureano was traded to the A’s from the Astros, who elected not to protect him on their 40-man roster. Laureano has since become crucial to Oakland’s present and future.

Earlier in that game on August 3, before Laureano walked it off at the plate, he pulled off a highlight in the field. And by earlier, I mean in the top of the 13th. Watch Laureano throw out Jose Iglesias at third base:

It was a memorable debut, and especially a memorable inning, but then barely a week later, Laureano topped himself by turning in one of the greatest highlights of the regular season. You know the one I’m referring to. We might as well all watch it again together.

Let me tell you something about Ramon Laureano’s arm: It is incredibly dangerous. It’s not easy to track down minor-league defensive data, but in 2016, Laureano finished with 12 assists. The next year, he finished with 16 assists; his outfield teammates combined for 15. This year, between the minors and the majors, Laureano already has 20 assists. Since the start of 2016, then, Laureano has recorded 48 assists. The major-league leader over the same span is Starling Marte, with 36. Billy Hamilton is in second, with 34. Assists as a measure aren’t perfect, but nevertheless, it should be clear that Laureano possesses a frighteningly accurate cannon.

Outfield arms are fun. Great throws make tremendous highlights. But there’s also more to being a plus defender than just throwing well. With that in mind, watch Ramon Laureano come in:

Now watch Ramon Laureano go back:

You also saw Laureano make a good running catch shortly before that throw to first to double the runner off. The catch gets forgotten in the video, but the highlight doesn’t exist without the catch being made in the first place. We like to think we can glean the truth from Statcast in a relatively small amount of time. We should still take everything with a grain of salt. But let me at least present you some data. Here’s the Statcast-based Outs Above Average leaderboard. Laureano already shows up at +4. That isn’t taking the arm into consideration. Just range and catches. At +4, Laureano is tied with, say, Kevin Kiermaier and Jason Heyward, but he also hasn’t yet played that much. It’s expected that he would’ve converted 82% of his chances into outs. He’s actually at 87%, for a difference of +5%. That would rank him tied for fifth among outfielders, behind only Keon Broxton, Jake Marisnick, Harrison Bader, and Brett Phillips.

We can’t yet say for sure that Laureano is a great center fielder. But we know that he runs well, and we know that he throws well, and we know the early evidence is encouraging. Chances are, Laureano is better than average. Relative to other center fielders, his sprint speed is neither good nor bad, yet his instincts seem solid and the arm is definitely valuable. For the A’s, he looks like another defensive plus.

And we can keep going around from there. Where else does speed come into play? Laureano also already looks like a plus baserunner. This year, he’s racked up 16 steals out of 18 chances. Last year, he wound up 24 out of 29. The year before that, 43 out of 57. Laureano isn’t a station-to-station kind of player, and he’s already looked good in the bigs. Not that long ago, Bob Melvin referred to Laureano as a five-tool player. Manager media statements aren’t always the most objective sources of information, but it’s clear that Laureano has become an organizational favorite, and he’s done it in a hurry.

We haven’t talked about the hitting yet. Here’s some of the hitting:

Here’s some more of the hitting:

Hands in tight, pulled home run. Arms outstretched, oppo home run. There’s something we always come back to whenever we talk about players who are good in the field and on the bases: The offensive bar is relatively low. You don’t need to hit exceptionally well to stick as a regular. Laureano has more than enough bat to play, and he might just have enough bat to excel. If you care about xwOBA this early in a career, Laureano presently ranks in the 95th percentile. I wouldn’t expect him to be that good at the plate, but his minor-league record tells a story.

The reason the Astros dealt Laureano is because he didn’t hit well throughout 2017. They deemed his performance sufficiently discouraging, so as to not try to keep him. Yet Laureano was much better in the second half than in the first. And, in 2016, he was genuinely one of the very best hitters in all the minor leagues. He ran a 184 wRC+ after getting promoted to Double-A. Yes, 2017 was rough, but then this year, in Triple-A, Laureano rebounded and put up a 136 wRC+. He’s consistently drawn walk rates in the double digits. His higher-than-average strikeout rates have been offset by better-than-average power.

Something seemed to be bugging Laureano early last season. It took him a while to shake it off. He wound up changing organizations. But 2018 Ramon Laureano has looked an awful lot like 2016 Ramon Laureano, and 2016 Ramon Laureano was a player the Astros refused to trade. He is now just 24 years old. He strikes out, but then, almost everyone strikes out; his contact rate isn’t so low as to be a problem. Not yet, anyway. It might end up there, and nothing is guaranteed, but the whole of the 2018 evidence suggests the A’s made a hell of a move. Laureano, it turns out, could be a lot more than just Dustin Fowler insurance.

Forever and always, when evaluating a player so new to the majors, you should make yourself be patient. There are adjustments, and then adjustments to adjustments, and Laureano still has plenty he’ll have to prove. But as the A’s prepared for a playoff stretch run, they settled on Laureano as their option in center. He and the team haven’t looked back, and Laureano seems to possess a great number of skills. I can’t say for certain whether Laureano will be outstanding in the long run. I do know that he’s exciting right now.

We hoped you liked reading The Newest Exciting Oakland Athletic by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Joe Joe
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Joe Joe

On the Astros dealing him, they did have roster constraints on the 40-man, and probably choose to trade him instead of trading Kemp or Fisher. No chance Laureano would not have been picked in the Rule 5 Draft. It looks like the Astros choose poorly on who to keep instead of being truly discouraged by Laureano’s performance.

Towel
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Towel

They traded Laureano to keep Jake Marisnick on the roster.

Joe Joe
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Joe Joe

No chance they would have traded Marisnick before Fisher, Kemp last offseason as a roster trimming move. Marisnick is fine as a 4th OF.