Steven Souza and the Three True Outcomes

It’s easy to cringe at Steven Souza‘s miserable strikeout rate of 33.1 percent and assume that the 26-year-old rookie has had immense difficulty transitioning to the major league level. By contrast, Souza’s 14 home runs, a tally that leads all American League rookies by a wide margin, make that transition look a bit less excruciating.

At any rate, Souza has irrefutably been an above average hitter this season — 25 percent above league average according to the park-adjusted wRC+ metric — with some rather predictable shortcomings mixed in. The Rays knew of Souza’s offensive limitations when they parted ways with Wil Myers in order to acquire him this past off-season, eventually anointing him the franchise’s next outfield phenom despite his meager 26 major league plate appearances.

While Souza’s deficiencies at the plate have been exposed to a degree over the first few months of this 2015 season, that’s not to say that he has failed to meet the expectations of most. In fact, his power and run production, albeit somewhat sporadic, has been a pleasant surprise. I’ll concede to my moderately reckless failure to anticipate the K’s at such a high rate, however, Souza’s promising output on balls put in play leads me to believe that he is, in fact, the hitter I thought he was.

It’s challenging and often unreasonable to make legitimate conclusions about a hitter’s offensive prowess and how it will translate to future performance after less than half of a season’s worth of plate appearances, but in Souza’s case, several intriguing characteristics can be recognized from this small sample size based on his distinctive approach. Souza has essentially developed into the poster child for a spreading mentality configured around baseball’s three true outcomes.

The three true outcomes in baseball — classified as a walk, home run, or strikeout — are described as the three potential results of a plate appearance that do not involve the defense whatsoever, and the purpose of three true outcome (TTO) percentage is to gauge a hitter’s aptitude in the possible occurrences that he has isolated control over. Souza owns a TTO percentage just a tick over 50 percent.

Steven Souza either draws a walk, hits a home run, or strikes out in over half of his plate appearances. That is a staggering and almost unbelievable statement. Regardless of whether it’s in any way sustainable — his raw power and elevated swinging-strike percentage (12.7 percent) make it fairly feasible — the early returns on Souza’s skill-set are nothing short of fascinating.

But what meaning do these statistics carry? Well, I can tell you that, in Souza’s case, an attribute like this has just as much to do with an approach as it does skill. One common misconception about Souza is that he’s the prototypical free-swinging power hitter. In reality, Souza’s often a bit too selective at the plate — explaining his superb walk rate and high total of strike outs looking — but when he does swing, he certainly does it with authority.

Screaming line drives and moonshot home runs have become almost routine and a constant reminder of one thing: Steven Souza hits the ball hard. This is a hitter that primarily sacrifices his strikeout percentage to maintain an approach and that’s translating to productivity. That’s not to say that Souza aspires to strikeout north of 30 percent of the time or that he’ll never attempt to cut back on that number, but, if nothing else, he’s proving that his value doesn’t necessarily hinge upon his capability to limit his punch outs.

This is a development that’s seemingly becoming much more prevalent across baseball. Many talented young players such as Joc Pederson and Kris Bryant, both of whom are enjoying tremendous rookie seasons, have shared a similar proficiency in the TTO events. Whether this is a trend or nothing more than a few comparable rookies performing according to their talent remains to be seen, but the captivating case of Steven Souza is unique in a lot of ways and will be undeniably crucial for the Rays as they continue to make their stunning run towards the postseason.

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