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Steven Souza Jr. is walking his way into a breakout season

Milwaukee Brewers v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Steven Souza Jr. capped off yesterday’s game with a dramatic walk off homer off Jacob Barnes to help the Tampa Bay Rays avoid the sweep.

On December 19, 2014 the Rays shipped Wil Myers to the San Diego Padres in order to acquire Steven Souza Jr. in a three way trade from the Washington Nationals. The Nationals side of the trade has been heavily criticized for giving up the option of Joe Ross and PTBNL that was Trea Turner.

This year Souza has broken out to be the player the Rays hoped to acquire in the blockbuster deal. He is hitting .269/.371/.517 and has a 140 wRC+. He’s hit 24 homers and been the best hitter on the team. He’s your prototypical middle of order bat.

How did Souza go from his first two years of hovering around a league average bat to being the best bat on a team with some really solid bats?

Steven Souza Jr.

2016 468 6.6% 34.0% 0.247 0.303 0.409 0.308 94
2017 443 12.9% 28.4% 0.269 0.371 0.517 0.376 140

The overall value Souza has provided at the plate has been massive. He currently sits at 3.4 fWAR and could push 5.0 fWAR with a strong finish to the year.

The first two things that stick out is the walk rate and strikeout rate showing dramatic improvement. Improving his walk rate by 6.3% while lowering his strikeout rate by 5.6% is absolutely massive.

The batting average is up 22 points which sounds like a lot. It’s not coming from a marked improvement in accumulating hits. He currently sits only 25 plate appearances below his 2016 total, however he still has four fewer hits.

If you used hits per plate appearance instead of at bats his hit rate is very similar. Last year his hit rate was .226 and this year it’s only up to .230. Over 450 plate appearances that is a difference of less than two hits.

In 2016 41.6% of Souza’s plate appearances ended without the ball being put into play. This year that has marginally increased to 42.6% of plate appearances ending in a strikeout, walk, or hit by pitch.

The walk rate increase, causing the denominator to decrease, is almost entirely responsible for the 22 points of batting average gained. This has also seen him be an elite on base threat with an increase in 68 points of on base percentage. These are great things to see out of the player the Rays front office hoped to be a middle of the order monster.

Souza is swinging less. More importantly the lower swing rate is coming almost entirely on pitches out of the zone. Last year he swung at 30.6% of pitches out of the zone and has improved to 24.8% this season. On pitches in the zone his swing rate has been relatively stable at 71.8% in 2016 and 72.2% in 2017. This has also helped Souza’s whiff rate fall by 2.0%.

Souza’s ISO has seen an increase from .163 to .248. Like with batting average some of this comes from a lower denominator inflating his slugging. Some of the power difference can be attributed to health.

Through June 14th Souza was hitting .255/.313/.433 and had a 106 wRC+ through 232 PA. Then he went on the disabled list with an injury to his hip. He was likely rushed back into the lineup due to the awful stretch where the Rays couldn’t win a game and didn’t have a healthy outfielder with Kevin Kiermaier and Steven Souza Jr. on the disabled list.

After returning from the disabled list Souza struggled to hit for power and hit .239/.292/.376 and had a 82 wRC+ over his final 236 plate appearances. It would have looked much worse if not for a heater he was on during September. The Rays ended up ending Souza’s season two weeks short due to surgery on his hip that he played through the second half of the season.

Souza is being shown the respect you would expect of one of the best performers this year. Pitchers are throwing almost 5% fewer pitches in the zone and 10% fewer first pitch strikes. This has led to Souza being in a hitters count for 31.7% of pitches he’s faced, and is what leads to Souza smashing epic home runs like he did yesterday!

Last year he only was ahead in the count 23.8% of the time.

It has really been a joy to watch Souza play for the Rays this year. Turning a significant amount of strikeouts into walks has been huge, and the results have been great.

If he continues to avoid swinging out of the zone and stays healthy I think Souza can be the player that the Rays thought they were getting when they made the bold move of trading Wil Myers for Steven Souza Jr.