Clowns to the Left, Jokers to the Right
It is no secret that Steven Souza Jr. often seems caught in the middle. The non-swing at a borderline strike that goes against him always sees him just about to pull the trigger without the execution. Like many batters he’ll often get stuck in a place where he is a touch late on the fastball, and a step early on secondary pitches. On defense where he once seemed hesitant he will now sell out for a play, rightly or wrongly, in order to try to get that out. It is one area where he has determined that he will no longer be stuck in the middle as he sorts through the paralysis by analysis that happens when a 100 mph hit is upon you in mere seconds. He should think about picking a side at the dish, as well.
Steven strikes out too much. It takes 6.9 seconds of superficial analysis to know this. Despite having the prototypical body, arm, speed, power to play baseball he has tremendous contact concerns that will likely never be fixed. Honestly, he needs to embrace his skillset and live with the strikeouts. The esteemed Jeff Zimmerman ran some data last offseason at my request to see what the break-even between striking out and hitting for power looked like:
@SandyKazmir r-squared of .16, +1%K% = +.0035 ISO
— Jeff Zimmerman (@jeffwzimmerman) March 12, 2016
Since Souza strikes out 13.7 percentage points more than the league average of non-pitchers with at least 100 PA then he would need to hit for an ISO of .217 to justify all those strikeouts. He put up a .163 this year that essentially mirrored the .169 weighted average of this pool of players. Sorting the qualifying Rays by the difference between their actual ISO and what they need to put up to justify their strikeout rate (xISO) we see that he’s merely a nearby star in a vast sky of guys that don’t have the power to justify their strikeouts:
Sorting by that difference gives us an idea of surplus and shortage. Evan has hit for tremendous power this year, while striking out at close to the league average rate. He’s in the 94th percentile for guys out-powering the ISO that they need to put up based strictly on their strikeout rate. He’s joined by Brad Miller and Corey Dickerson as very high performers and you can see a few other guys that are closer to the average on either side. Souza is on the low end at the 23rd percentile, which is by no means great, but it also shows that he hasn’t been so bad that you should abandon all hope that he can figure it out.
Clearly, he has not done well enough and either needs to cut the k-rate or increase the power. This is a roundabout way of stating the obvious. It is not news that Souza needs to make these changes. He always seems like one small tweak away from being able to consistently tap into that prodigious power. The question is, will he be able to make the adjustments that make this a realistic scenario?
Starting with the power, yeah, sure he could live in that .217 range if needed. He’s done it before, and not just for short stretches. He spent most of last year there before cratering the last third of the season. He was off to a similar start this year before hurting his hip on a play that looked as awkward as a chicken trying to fly. He took forever to get his timing back, and even seemed to be making strides down the stretch before ultimately succumbing to the doctors and getting the surgery he needed. Applaud the fact that he never once complained about playing through discomfort. I do. We can also look at his strikeout rate to see if it coming, and staying, down is a realistic possibility:
This is where I’m less certain. He really only has two short-lived dips where he got below 30%. Mike Napoli is striking out exactly 30% of his plate appearances this year. The algorithm tells us that he needs to put up a .203 ISO to justify that rate. A figure that Souza would still be well short of this year. You can chalk the ISO up to injuries that may have sapped some of his power, but when it comes to the strikeouts I don’t think he has much wriggle room here. This is who he is. The last step is to combine the two, but because we’re dealing with different denominators (plate appearances for K%, balls in play for Iso) that isn’t exactly a scientific endeavour. Be gentle, nerds:
One time, briefly, Souza was posting a similar Isolated power and strikeout percentage. Things have been worse, but never better. You can see the familiar upswing at the end of the year before he shut it down, which was actually some of the best power versus striking out that he has shown in his career. That was with the hip malady so maybe there is hope yet remaining.
The things that Steven Souza Jr. has going for him mean that he will be in the plans for the Rays in 2017. He’s a good fielder that strikes fear in the heart of would be base-takers. The power is prolific. The contact issues will persist, and comparisons to players like J.D. Martinez of Chris Davis don’t really hold water. The former never struck out at rates like this while posting meager ISO, with the latter showing the opposite. Both found a way to meet in the middle to make it work. I don’t think Souza will be able to cut the strikeout rate in a similar fashion for a few reasons.
First off, he has a massive hole up and above the zone:
He has a similar issue chasing below the zone. He is showing that he can hit a pitch in the bottom two-thirds of the zone, especially if it is on the inner half, but he’s more vertically-challenged than Jose Altuve.
Secondly, he is still far too passive on the outside pitch:
You can see that he’s offering around half the time at pitches that are called strikes nearly all of the time. That is fine when you’re up in the count, but the rest of the time you’re just further burying the hole or taking the first step that leads to the next one towards the dugout. Yes, part of that is due to poor umpiring, but after two-plus seasons he has still not learned that showing up an umpire is only going to exacerbate the situation. We can see this, somewhat, when viewing a map of his strikes looking above average:
Middle of the zone he’s mostly fine, and he doesn’t have the chance to let the umpire’s blade fall when he swings so often up in the zone. You can see all those called strikes on the outer fringes of the zone, but the place that he’s actually getting jobbed the most is down and in. It is this area where I would like to see him get even more aggressive for the last reason:
He has very real power there! Much like I encouraged Evan Longoria this past offseason to become more aggressive, and more pull-conscious, I would similarly like to see Souza do the same. Neither guy sees a ton of pitches inside, but they need to be ready to uncoil when they do get something that they can mash.
Steven Souza Jr. has spent the majority of his time in Major League Baseball appearing indecisive and unsure of himself. His fear of looking bad on pitches off the plate away leads him to take far too many that actually stay on the plate. This apprehensiveness then extends into other areas where he might actually have a good chance at success. In 2017 I’d like to see Souza quit trying to walk the line in the middle, and just do what the good Lord gave him the ability to do. Cut loose and mash some damn baseballs. It’s sink or swim time.