Ramón Laureano’s Rocket Arm Doesn’t Make Him a Good Fielder

In August of last year, Ramón Laureano burst onto the scene with the Oakland Athletics. A mid-level prospect with the Astros, the strength of their big league outfield and the depth of their farm system pushed him out of the picture in Houston. He was traded to Oakland for a pittance in the fall of 2017 and made his major league debut on August 3. Just a week into his time in the majors, he made The Throw. You probably remember this one:

He hasn’t stopped throwing runners out with his rocket arm.

He’s made four more outfield assists since the above tweet was posted, giving him 15 across 115 career games in center field. Over the past two years, he’s second in the majors in outfield assists behind Teoscar Hernández, who has almost 400 more innings in the field than Laureano. The advanced defensive metrics back up what all those assists tell us. Since the beginning of 2018, he’s sixth in the majors in UZR’s ARM component and seventh in DRS’s rARM component. And remember, he didn’t make his major league debut until well into last season, so he’s had far fewer innings to accumulate positive marks for his throws.

You’ve all probably seen his arm in action and can recognize greatness without all the data to back it up. He has made plenty of highlight reel catches out in center too. This one’s probably my favorite from earlier this year:

That’s a silly catch and an even sillier throw. All these defensive highlights have built a reputation for Laureano. He’s seen as a premium defensive center fielder who can run, throw, and catch. But looking at his defensive metrics doesn’t match up with that reputation. There’s certainly some selection bias that forms the foundation for his reputation, as all those highlights in the field form a perception that he’s making excellent plays all the time. But the plays that he doesn’t make usually don’t make the SportsCenter Top 10, and the defensive metrics account for all his plays, seen and unseen.

After posting a +4 DRS and a +3.7 UZR last season, both of those metrics have dropped significantly this year. He’s down to -5 DRS and -1.1 UZR, with his arm contributing almost all of his defensive value. According to Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average (OAA), he’s dropped from +2 to -7, the third-lowest mark in the majors this year.

If we dig deeper into his OAA numbers, he’s had a really tough time tracking balls hit over his head. Statcast uses a ball’s hang time and the fielder’s distance from the ball’s landing spot to calculate a catch probability. Here’s a scatter chart of the balls in play he’s had to go back on that have fallen in for hits. The colored bars represent catch difficulty, with the darker gradients indicating a low catch probability.

He’s really struggled with sharply hit fly balls with lower hang time. When they’re hit right at you, those kinds of fly balls are extremely difficult to track. But he’s also allowed a few easier ones to drop in for hits. There are more than a few points on that plot with catch probabilities of 80% or higher. Last year, he didn’t really struggle with these kinds of batted balls over his head, but that’s changed this season.

The other day, Baseball Savant released a new outfield defense metric called Outfielder Jump. It takes three components — reaction, burst, and route — to calculate how good of a jump an outfielder gets on a batted ball hit to him. Laureano rates well on the first two components of Outfielder Jump. He has very quick reactions, and his quick sprint speed gives a decent burst off the bat, but he’s really struggled with running the correct routes. His initial routes off the bat are among the worst in the majors, and that was true last season too. He averages 35 feet covered within the first three seconds of a ball’s flight, but if that first step is in the wrong direction, he has a lot of ground to make up to make a catch. If the ball is hit over his head, that poor route running becomes even more of a problem. There’s a reason why little league outfields are constantly told to make their first step back when a ball is hit to them.

It’s possible more intelligent positioning could help alleviate his problems. The average center fielder positions himself around 321 feet from home plate, but Laureano’s average depth is around 318 feet. Perhaps if he positioned himself a little deeper, he wouldn’t have so much trouble with balls hit over his head. His excellent sprint speed is something that can’t be taught, but proper positioning and how to read and track a ball can be. Laureano has all the tools to be a great center fielder, but he needs to learn the skills that will allow him to leverage those tools properly.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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3 years ago

How dare you blaspheme Rocket Ramon!

(but good article and it’s something I’d noticed earlier this year)