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What is Wrong With Ramon Laureano?

After a monstrous offensive campaign in 2016 made him a consensus Top-100 prospect leaguewide, Laureano is now sporting a 52 wRC+ with Double-A Corpus. What happened?

MLB: Houston Astros-Media Day Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It should be pointed out initially that Laureano’s 2016 campaign, good as it was, was in fact influenced by some rather outstanding luck, and the best hitting environment in the minor leagues, the infamous Hangar in Lancaster. The outfield prospect’s BABIP, the foremost “luck stat,” was stratospheric at both Lancaster and Corpus Christi, topping .400 at each stop. I can’t remember any Astros prospect managing to sustain a BABIP near that level across a full season since Jose Altuve was still in the minors, and Laureano, though a very talented hitter, is not Jose Altuve. Regression in his return to Corpus Christi was to be expected, but the outfielder is hitting just .195/.270/.278 through the first half. What could cause such a precipitous drop-off for a player whom pitchers had no answer for in 2016?

Looking at the data on Laureano in 2017, one number immediately jumps off the page. While his fly ball rate has remained stable at 32.0% (32.2% last year), his infield fly ball percentage (infield flies/total flies) has jumped 23.7% to an astronomical 37.5%. A correlation between nagging injuries and an increased IFFB% can be observed at the major league level with players like Jason Heyward and Ian Kinsler, among others, so there is a possibility that Laureano is dealing with minor medical issues that are affecting him at the plate.

The fact that Laureano is known as a hustler, having notched 10 outfield assists and 16 stolen bases in 20 attempts in 2017, could give more credence to the injury theory. A player with his competitive edge is rarely keen on sitting on the bench and will have a willingness to play through pain. He has been able to put some good swings on the ball this year, but his line drive rate has dipped significantly, which combined with his unbelievable 21 popouts (8 in foul play) already, has driven his >.400 BABIP down to a paltry .247 this season.

Laureano’s offensive approach has always relied heavily on his plus bat speed, which he uses to barrel balls to all fields. You typically won’t see a healthy young hitter lose juice in his bat in his age 22 season unless he’s picked up a mechanical flaw (which I cannot detect in Laureano’s case) or he doesn’t meet the “healthy” criteria. In seasons past he has shown some significant opposite field power, with four homers and seven triples to right field in 2016. That right field punch has all but disappeared this year, and the 22-year old has struggled to get the ball out of the infield, period. Corpus has moved him up and down the order in attempts to get him going with no success, and though the athletic outfielder has been able to help the team on the basepaths and with his arm, some time on the shelf may be the best option.

We are past the point of small sample sizes in 2017 and serious concern about Laureano is warranted, but I think there is more than meets the eye here. Rest, rather than a demotion, is likely the best course, as there is some circumstantial evidence that the outfielder is playing through pain. Laureano continues to display good tools, and though he may be facing a lost season this year I don’t think this is the beginning of the end for his prospect status. Laureano received a day off on Thursday, and with the Texas League all-star break beginning Monday, it might be wise to hold the struggling outfielder out of action until second-half play commences in the hopes of rejuvenating his power stroke.