The Curious Case Of Steven Souza

Tampa Bay Rays v Cleveland Indians

By Gabe Isaacson

Coming out of his 2014 campaign where he batted .350/.432/.590 at AAA with 18 HRs and 26 steals, Steven Souza was ranked as a top-50 prospect. Per members of the Nationals front office, they did not want to move him but the interest level among other front offices was substantial. The Nationals ultimately decided to cash in on their chip, bringing back two relatively highly thought of prospects from Tampa Bay in exchange for Souza. Many, including ESPN’s Eric Karabell, were quite high on Steven Souza’s prospects for impact in 2015.

Through 275 plate appearances, he sure hasn’t disappointed.

Batting an expected .228, Souza has shown off an impressive combination of power and speed. There are only seven players in baseball who are in double-digits in both home runs and stolen bases: Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Manny Machado, Starling Marte, Justin Upton, George Springer, and Steven Souza. That’s quite an esteemed group for the rookie to be in. The obvious question, as is always the case with any surprisingly hot or cold stretch, is to the sustainability of Souza’s production.

Players that strikeout are inherently streaky. When you put the ball in play, you’re going to get a hit 26-33% of the time. For almost every player in baseball, we know this is true. The league average contact rate is around 78%. Steven Souza has among the lowest contact rates in baseball at 68%. Joe Sheehan loves to say that any player is capable of any production over 60 plate appearances. Is it possible that Souza has compiled a 275 at bat stretch that is simply exceeding his true talent level? The question revolves around power, strikeouts, and on-base ability. If he can get on base at a reasonable level – likely through fewer strikeouts – while maintaining a moderate amount of power, Souza is a truly valuable player.

The statistics on Souza’s strikeouts are almost baffling. He strikes out in about one-third of his plate appearances. He swings at the first pitch 15% more often than the league average. He swings and misses 6% more than the league average. He is nothing short of quite aggressive at the plate.

Fascinatingly, Souza is also among the league leaders in walks. He walks in over 11% of his plate appearances, good for a spot among the top-25 in baseball. Souza is an amazing outlier in this regard. Strikeouts plus walks encompass over 44% of his plate appearances. If you add in his homeruns, Souza puts the ball in play only about half the time. For perspective, the average major league hitter puts the ball in play about 70% of the time. Souza’s speed isn’t helping him leg out hits, but his eye is helping him get on base regardless.

Given so few balls in play and an even split between groundballs and fly balls, it’s almost impossible four Souza to maintain his home run rate. He is hitting home runs on over 24% of his fly balls. That is a historic figure, more than three times the league average. Save for someone with truly unmatched power, a figure like this is nowhere close to sustainable. Souza would have to hit substantially more fly balls to maintain his home run figure as his rate inevitably decreases. Souza’s best chance to maintain or even improve his production, however, does not come from changing his groundball to fly ball ratio. It comes from decreasing his strikeouts.

Striking out tends to be an oddly innate thing. Strikeouts tend to not regress to a mean, but rather every player creates their own individual baseline. If you strikeout a lot in any given season, it’s likely a part of your profile as a player. Except for situations where a young player experiences a substantial skill increase or becomes a much greater threat at the plate, we see relative consistency in strikeout rates among batters. Souza has a chance to be that exact exception – the young player who has a chance to experience a specific skill improvement that could drastically reduce his strikeout total.

There are two components in Souza’s game that offer optimism for the future. The first involves his platoon splits. For a young right-handed batter, it stands to reason that he will hit left-handed pitching much better early in his career. This has been the case. He has experienced the platoon advantage in only 26% of his at-bats, enjoying an OPS that is 341 points higher in those situations. For some reason, not unlike most young players, he is struggling to pick the ball up out of same-side pitchers’ hands.

More intriguingly, Steven Souza strikes out looking 45% of the time. The league average is under 25%. After so many strikeouts, it’s hard to call this small sample size noise, but more likely a fundamental flaw within Souza’s repertoire. I always thought it to be something deep engrained into a baseball player before their tenth birthday. With two strikes, choke up on the bat and defend the zone. If it’s close, swing. Give yourself a chance.

If Steven Souza reduces that looking strikeout rate to, say, 35%, that would indicate an amazing and reasonable progression in his game. If he swings at some of these two strike offers, he’ll miss a lot. There’ll be a lot of weak contact. But there will be some hits. There’ll even be some home runs. A reduction in strikeouts and some help from the BABIP Gods, then it’s not unreasonable that Souza could bat .260.

Souza is a 26 year old rookie. He had just one year at AAA. He’s in his first half of his first major league season, with an entirely new franchise no less. It’s fair to say that Souza is a talented, but by no means transcendent, player. He should be flawed, and he very much is. It’s also not unreasonable, however, to imagine that this kind of player could improve – especially in as he adapts to this new and smart organization. I’ve been a fan of what Souza offers, and I’m a bigger fan knowing that he has so much viable room to improve.

Whether you agree or disagree, Gabe Isaacson wants your feedback. You can find him on twitter @GabeIsaacson, join in the conversation @CTBPod,on our Facebook page or download the Fandings app and debate him today!

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