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Tampa Bay Rays: Reflecting Upon Steven Souza Jr.’s First Half

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As you have probably heard, Steven Souza Jr. left yesterday’s game against the New York Yankees after getting hit in the pinkie by a pitch. X-rays were negative, although Souza’s finger was cut up badly, leaving reason for some concern. In any event, with 84 out of the Tampa Bay Rays’ 162 games in the books and with Souza set to receive a (hopefully short) break in his season, it is a good time to discuss how his rookie year has gone thus far. Souza has mixed flashes of brilliance with moments that have driven fans crazy, but the overall result may be better than you think.

On the season, Souza has now hit to a .210/.301/.417 line (98 OPS+) in 307 plate appearances, drilling 15 homers and 9 doubles, driving in 33, and swiping 10 bases in 15 tries. He leads the Rays in homers by an unbelievably large margin–Evan Longoria and Logan Forsythe are tied for second with 8–and he also edges Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Guyer for the team lead in stolen bases. However, he also ranks second in baseball in a less flattering statistic: strikeouts. His 108 K’s are behind only Chris Carter and no one else on the Rays has more than 67.

A pretty obvious thing to say is that Souza’s rookie year has fallen far short of Wil Myers‘ from 2013. Souza is hitting for power, but he is not hitting for average to any extent. He is walking a lot more than Myers ever did–10.4% of his plate appearances–but that doesn’t matter when his batting average is so low. In addition, his 10 steals don’t mean much because of how often he has been caught, and he has actually been a poor baserunner, making some boneheaded mistakes. He has also looked iffy in right field at times.

Add up everything we said, and you end up with an overall evaluation that goes something like this: “Souza is a player who has his strengths but also several critical flaws, making him a below-average corner outfield starter.” That jives extremely well with Baseball-Reference’s WAR calculation for Souza, which currently stands at 0.6. If we project that over the rest of the season, we get a total of 1.16, which would make Souza a good margin above replacement level, but also well below where a starting outfielder should be. In WAR, a 2.0 mark is considered the barometer for an average starter at any position, and Souza falls short of that.

However, the thing about Baseball-Reference’s WAR calculation for Souza is that its calculation relies upon Souza’s defensive WAR, which currently stands at -0.7. Is Souza really that bad of a fielder?  The consensus is that he is not. Total Zone particularly likes him, considering him to be 8 runs above average, while Ultimate Zone Rating gives him a +2.0, and Fielding Runs Above Average has him at +0.2. It is only Defensive Runs Saved, which rates him at 4 runs below average, that really hates him–and of course, DRS is the metric used for Baseball-Reference WAR.

How should we really rate Souza’s defense? We can get some inside into that by looking at the components of UZR. In terms of range, UZR has Souza at 1.9 runs below average, but he makes up for it by being +0.3 in terms of errors and an outstanding +3.6 mark with his arm strength. That 3.6 mark actually ties Souza with Giancarlo Stanton for the best mark among all qualified right fielders. Souza has below-average range but an excellent arm, and the question is how to weight those two factors. That is one reason that we get all of those different numbers for Souza’s defense.

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Let’s go on a slight tangent and discuss just how good Souza’s arm strength really is–do we buy the fact that he is right up there with Stanton? The most basic measure to look at is outfield assists, and in that regard, Souza is tied for second in baseball with 8. Getting slightly more complicated, we can talk about held rate–the percentage of the time that opposing baserunners were unable to take an extra base on balls hit to an outfielder (e.g. stopping at third on a single if they were on second or being held at third on a flyball to the outfield with less than 2 outs). Souza’s held rate is 50%, placing him fourth among right fielders with at least 50 chances. Opposing teams do truly fear Souza’s arm.

Fangraphs, who values Souza’s arm strength more highly than Baseball-Reference, has Souza at 1.4 WAR on the season, putting him on pace for 2.7 by the time the year is through. Even though Souza isn’t hitting well, his defense and baserunning has been enough to make him an above-average starting outfielder in their estimation. If you don’t buy Souza’s baserunning being anything special, consider this: the average baserunner takes an extra base 39% of the time, but Souza is at 61%. That places him 11th in baseball–his speed isn’t blazing and he has made some blunders, but we have to credit him for hustling.

These secondary skills won’t mean a lot for Steven Souza Jr. if he isn’t a formidable hitter, but if he can maintain his power to go alongside his defense and baserunning, he can continue being a productive starting right fielder. The major area of concern is the strikeouts, but on the other hand, we can also say that Souza has room for improvement. A guy like Myers has to hit and hit for power to be a player you want starting on your team–Souza has been good enough with only the power, and any increases in average and OBP would only move him closer to stardom.

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Souza’s eye at the plate is actually fine–according to Fangraphs, he swings at only 26.1% of pitches outside the zone compared to the average of 30.6%, placing him 29th among the 164 qualified hitters in baseball. He may always swing and miss, but his batting eye is fine and there is hope that he can cut down on the looking strikeouts. He currently has 42, 11 more than any player in baseball, but he actually ranks 14th in swinging K’s. If Souza can simply put more of those two-strike pitches on the corners in play or at least foul them off, that may be all he needs to start striking out a more reasonable amount of the time and taking the next step as a hitter.

Even if Souza does keep striking out looking like crazy, however, the way that pitchers beat him may not sap his ability to hit home runs. In addition to the fact that Souza has as much raw power as anyone in baseball, pitchers will need to continue coming in the zone to beat him, and they will inevitably make mistakes that he can drive as they attempt to do so. You can’t simply bury breaking pitches down in the zone or throw a ton of fastballs up and expect him to chase too often. That will give him opportunities, and if those chances keep coming, so will the homers.

Hopefully Souza will learn to hit at least .230 and get his OBP up to .320, but he has the skills to make a living as a low-average slugger, especially because his defense and baserunning are so much better than the others who fit that mold. Tampa Bay Rays fans can hope that either Souza improves or the Rays find a better option to replace him, but Souza has the ability to be an above-average if not excellent right fielder in the mean time. We will have see if that makes him better or worse than Myers in the long-run, but for a Rays team built around pitching, defense, and aggressiveness that has been sorely lacking power, Souza is a nice fit.

What do you think of Souza’s rookie season so far and what he can give the Rays moving forward?

Next: Tampa Bay Rays MiLB Recap: Dylan Floro’s Remarkable Comeback

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