RCG Mailbag: Can Steven Souza Avoid Wil Myers’ Problems?


Welcome back to the RCG Mailbag, where we take some of those burning Tampa Bay Rays questions on your mind and attempt to give you some answers.

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O Town RaysFan asks: In a follow-up to the other mailbag about Wil Myers, can you do a similar analysis of Steven Souza?

In case you missed it, we talked about why the Rays were willing to give up on Myers five days ago. Of course, that brings us to the player with whom Myers will always be connected in the eyes of Rays fans, Steven Souza.

Though the Rays did get other pieces in the Myers trade, the common perception is that the Rays believed in the abilities of Souza–a quite similar player–more than those of Myers. With that in mind, can Souza avoid the pitch recognition issues that caused the Rays to lose faith in Myers?

We don’t have as much information on Souza as we do about Myers because Myers has so much more big league experience. However, between scouting reports, the brief time Souza has spent in the majors, and the limited things we can talk about from his Triple-A plate appearances, there is enough here to present a reasonable evaluation of Souza’s pitch recognition.

Here’s a brief timeline of how Souza’s plate approach has been graded the last three years.

"“Scouts still worry about his pitch recognition and holes in his swing, doubting he’ll have the aptitude to hit in the majors.” – Baseball America after the 2012 season“Souza can hit premium velocity, but his swing still has some length, making him vulnerable against offspeed stuff. He couples his high strikeout totals with an improving walk rate, though he remains a fringe-average hitter.” – Baseball America after the 2013 season“Souza controls the strike zone fairly well, taking his share of walks and putting himself in good hitter’s counts. He has a short swing and projects as at least a fringe-average hitter.” – Baseball America after the Myers trade“The margin for error is very small and being that big with long arms doesn’t make it easy to make contact in the big leagues….Both Souza and [Kyle] Parker have some approach issues that worry scouts (both are called “swing and miss types”) but that doesn’t necessarily always show up in the stats.” – Kiley McDaniel after the Myers trade"

Souza has clearly made progress over the last few seasons. He will strike out, but he has improved his knowledge of the zone and makes the most of the abilities he has. With these scouting reports in mind, I’m going to show with the available data that the following is the case with Souza’s approach: his pitch recognition has made major strides and the next key juncture in his game will be to learn how to hit secondary pitches.

What stands out from Souza’s brief big league time is how often he took non-fastball offerings. Brooks Baseball described his approach as “exceptionally patient” against both offspeed and breaking pitches, and that isn’t the type of thing that happens by chance.

If Steven Souza couldn’t distinguish between pitches, we would think that he would swing roughly the same percentage of the time against pitches of all types. Instead, Souza was actually aggressive against fastballs and was apparently making a conscious effort to take secondary offerings. It would be better if he could hit them, but that still counts for something.

Looking at Souza’s zone profile like we did with Myers, he swung at 25.8% of the curveballs, sliders, and changeups he saw that were outside the zone. Myers, meanwhile, was at 35.2%, more than a third higher than Souza’s mark. Of course, the sample size is tiny, but we can actually make Souza look a little bit more impressive.

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Souza did not receive a single breaking ball above the middle section of the strike zone vertically. If we remove such pitches from Myers’ numbers, his swing rate on pitches outside the zone increases to 36.8%. Souza needs to prove that he can maintain this approach even as big league pitchers learn about him and adjust to him, but there is some validity to the idea that he is extremely patient against secondary pitches, especially in comparison to Myers.

In the minor leagues, meanwhile, one fascinating trend that could illustrate this further is the discrepancy between Steven Souza’s swinging strikeout rate (KS%) and looking strikeout rate (KL%). His KS% was just 11.1% compared to the league average of 14.0%. Out of the 65 hitters in the International League who made at least 400 plate appearances, Souza had just the 44th-highest KS%.

In regards to strikeouts looking, on the other hand, Souza was at 7.4% compared to the 4.8% league average. That was the sixth-highest rate in the entire league! At the end of the day, a strikeout is a strikeout, but we would expect that hitters who strike out looking a lot would also strike out swinging quite frequently. With that decidedly not being the case with Souza, the nature of his strikeouts can tell us something about his future.

A swinging strikeout means that a hitter either missed a pitch with which he should have been able to make contact or chased something out of the zone. Looking strikeouts, meanwhile, are much harder to get. There is a reason that they occurred nearly three times as much in the International League and at a very similar ratio in the majors.

When pitchers need to retire you with pitches in the zone, often they will miss–that’s how Souza drew many of his walks. In addition, a bad breaking ball in the dirt bounces in front of home plate while a bad breaking ball in the zone ends up waist-high and easily hittable. In exchange for all of the looking strikeouts, Souza received more walks and more pitches he could hammer. That’s a perfectly fine tradeoff.

Of course, big league pitchers will do a better job locating their secondary pitches for strikes. Patience doesn’t mean as much in the major leagues unless you hit the offerings in the zone well enough that pitchers have to be careful with you. If Souza can’t hit a breaking ball down-and-away, which was Myers’ affliction, pitchers will have a much bigger margin for error.

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At the same time, though, Souza has been better than league average in regards to KS% each of the last three seasons while Myers was worse in both 2012 and 2013. Myers also had his share of looking strikeouts, but what was so interesting for Souza was how great his KS% was while his KL% ended up high. For Myers, meanwhile, he simply struck out a lot in both fashions. Even if Souza can be beaten by breaking balls down and away, he won’t flail at them as helplessly as Myers did last season.

Finally, we can simply look at contact. So-called pitch detail statistics get sketchy in the minor leagues, but we can get a decent idea about them by only comparing a player to the rest of his team. In 2014, Souza’s overall contact rate was 81.1% compared to the team average of 80.7%, and he had a 41.1% rate on pitches outside the zone and an 85.8% mark on pitches in the zone.

Myers,on the other hand, managed just a 70.4% contact rate at Durham in 2013, the worst on the entire team even if we set the plate appearance minimum to zero. He was also the worst on pitches within the zone while ranking second-worst (minimum 15 PA’s) on pitches outside the zone.

The interesting thing to note is that Myers was actually roughly team average, exactly like Souza, in terms of the percentage of pitches he swung at both in the zone and outside of it. Myers’ approach was solid enough but he simply couldn’t make enough contact. McDaniel talked about how the “swing-and-miss” in Souza’s game doesn’t show up in the numbers and he’s right–unlike for Myers, it’s impossible to find here.

There is no guarantee that Steven Souza will be as good or better than Wil Myers, but his plate approach certainly appears to be better. While he still needs to figure out how to hit secondary pitches, he does a much better job laying off of them when they are outside the zone. He works deeper counts than Myers, and while that does lead to strikeouts, he makes up for it with walks are hard contact.

Souza doesn’t have the natural ability that Myers has. His bat speed doesn’t compare and the ball makes an ordinary sound when it comes off his bat. However, his patience and pitch recognition helps him manifest his tools in games while Myers’ weaknesses in those areas threaten to prevent him from reaching his potential. Souza’s plate approach was good enough and Myers’ was poor enough that the Rays were comfortable trading Myers as they acquired Souza.