Scorching Steven Souza Shows Selectivity
Trea Turner and Joe Ross. The Rays flipped them both over to the Nationals from the Padres in return for an MLB ready, imposing bat in Steven Souza Jr. Turner had a small cup of coffee in 2015, but he broke out in 2016 with 13 HR, 33 SB and 3.0 WAR in 73 games. Joe Ross has turned into a solid mid-rotation arm, and he should be an anchor in that order for the foreseeable future. Souza, though, has followed a totally different route. The Rays threw him right into the fire in 2015, and he responded with a disappointing .225/.318/.399 slash line, and a K% right around 34%. However, his wOBA sat at .316, and he was able to produce a league average 102 wRC+. While he bumped his average up to .247 in 2016, he generally fell below league average in just about every category. His walk rate plummeted to 6.6%, and his strikeout percentage sat at 34% again. There was not much improvement, but there also was not much of a step back in terms of his performance at the plate. Many believed that this would, and still can be, the last year for Souza to turn things around as a 27-year-old going into his third season with the Rays. Souza has the tools to be an above average player. He can hit for power, he can field, and he can run. He’s been labeled a five-tool possibility, and I’m not counting that out. There just has to be an answer behind his struggles, and early success this season. I am going to take a shot at it:
Looking at Souza mainly from 2015 and 2016 you will notice one glaring weakness. Fastballs were obviously his kryptonite. He managed a measly .205 average against the hard stuff over the 2 seasons I mentioned, and not only that, but he struck out 44% of the time against the fastball. For some reason, he just wasn’t getting to fastballs on the outer third of the plate. Anything above the middle of the plate was also an issue.
Souza AB’s against fastballs were nowhere near what you might expect from someone like him. The outer third of the plate was a no-go. The upper zone wasn’t even a pipe dream. He simply wasn’t making contact with anything that wasn’t middle-middle, low-middle or on the inner third of the plate. Luckily, he was seeing sliders and changeups pretty well which made his numbers look somewhat better in a way. Making sufficient contact with fastballs is the bread and butter of turning into a solid major league regular. It was starting to look bleak for Souza, and you had to wonder if time was starting to run short on him.
You can notice the type of hitter that Souza has matured into as the years have passed. He’s a big swinger. Usually way above league average in the SwStr% (Swinging Strike) category. In 2016 however, he peaked in terms of the O-Swing% at 30.6%. The aggressiveness was there, and it showed in the amount of times he whiffed as well. The book on Souza has been to work fastballs on him, and he’ll get himself out more times than not. There’s no problem with that, because it’s worked. However, in 2017 there’s been a different approach at the plate for Souza. 12 short games into the new season he’s already triple slashing .326/.431/.558, and he’s cut down the K% from 34% right down to 21%. Not only that, but he’s more selective at the plate and his walk rate has already ballooned to 15.7%.
The heat map above shows Souza’s success against fastballs so far this season. It really didn’t take long to notice a huge change from what we saw earlier. He’s hitting those fastballs on the outer third that he hasn’t been hitting the past two seasons, or at all at the Major League level. Against the fastball in ’17, he’s working to a .333 average. That’s a very sudden shift. There’s also been a trending change in Souza’s LD%, and it’s gone up all the way to 31.3% this year after reaching 20.0% in ’15, and 24.9% in 2016. His FB% sat at 34% last season, and it’s at 25% 12 games into 2017. His BABIP is sky high at .400, so there’s obviously some regression on the way but Rays officials, and fans themselves have to like what they see.
Souza smokes the ball anyway. Does he really have to put that to waste? Nope. Scorch the ball through the hole, or scorch it in the gap. Everyone’s different. I mentioned a fly-ball revolution in my previous article, but this is one guy that it won’t apply to. His exit velocity sits at 90.4 MPH, above the league average of 87.82 MPH. He can kill the ball. There is no doubt about it. So the fact that he’s becoming more of a line drive hitter rather than a fly ball guy is more of a celebration of his skills.
He’s made some changes, and the results are showing early. Early. That’s the key word, here. However, that shouldn’t make you shy away from the fact that maybe we’re seeing the start of something special for Souza. Only time will tell, and I’d love to find out.