Steven Souza, Jr. is showing signs he might be ready to break out. Fourteen games are far too few to make any determinations, but the numbers are promising. The Tampa Bay Rays slugger is slashing .320/.424/.520, and six of his 16 safeties have gone for extra bases. Every bit as notable is the fact that he’s drawn nine free passes, and fanned just 13 times, in 59 plate appearances.
Power has never been a problem for the 27-year-old Souza. Making consistent contact has. Coming into the season, he was a .234/.309/.404 hitter with a propensity for being punched out. All of a sudden, he’s the one doing the punching.
When I asked Souza why he’s gotten off to such a good start, he offered a fairly generic answer.
“I really don’t know,” Souza told me on Saturday. “Right now I’m just running into some balls, finding some holes, finding the barrel. I don’t get too caught up in the analytics stuff. I’m a guy who can’t overthink things, so I just try to keep it simple. Right now the ball is falling for me.”
For a baseball reporter, “I just try to keep it simple” is a commonly heard phrase. It’s an honest answer, but at the same time, a more concrete reason is often lurking behind the facade. Souza is hitting the ball harder than ever before — at least in terms of big-league success — and simplicity is rarely a new concept for a professional athlete.
It turns out there’s more behind his resurgence. The built-for-power outfielder had found himself getting too homer hungry, which detracted from his ability to punish baseballs. In order to move forward more efficiently, he’s needed to tap the brakes.
“You can get away from stuff and try to do too much,” said Souza, when asked to expound on his answer. “That’s what I did. The last couple of years, I’ve tried to hit the ball in the air a little more, and that ended up making my swing a little longer. Now I’ve gone back to just trying to hit line drives right back at the pitcher.”
The old approach worked well. Souza hit for a high average, and had a relatively low strikeout rate, in the high minors. That changed after the Rays acquired him from the Washington Nationals and inserted him into the lineup. Between the 2015-2016 seasons, Souza batted a paltry .237, and his 33.9 K% was the highest among MLB hitters with at least 600 plate appearances.
Two weeks into the current campaign — again, we’re talking small sample size here — those numbers are .320 and 22.0%. Cutting down on his swing has been part of his panacea.
“I know that I’ve been gifted with some power, and I’d been trying to exploit that,” explained Souza. “Now, instead of trying to hit every pitch 500 feet, I’m just letting the ball take its path. One of my hitting coaches in the minors, Bobby Henley, told me he wanted me to be a hitter first and a power hitter second. His idea was that you learn to hit like a leadoff hitter, and the power will come. That’s what I need to get back to doing.”
Souza — all 6-foot-4, 225 pounds of him — batted leadoff against Red Sox southpaws Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz this past weekend. He’d hit first in the order before, mostly in the low minors. Looking at him now it’s hard to imagine, but Souza was initially a shortstop in the Nationals system. He “ran pretty well,” but switched to first base, and then the outfield, after putting on “about 20 pounds” in 2011.
Distance upon contact has come naturally since he bulked up. From 2012 to -14, Souza socked 57 long balls in 1,035 plate appearances down on the farm. Since reaching the majors, 37 of his 209 base knocks have cleared fences, and several of them have traveled 400-plus feet. The muscular slugger has 461- and 463-foot bombs on his resume.
His old minor-league hitting coach hasn’t been his only learning source. Words of wisdom from a future Hall of Famer have also impacted his decision to return to basics.
“I don’t need to try to hit for power,” said Souza. “Albert Pujols said in an interview that he’s not a home-run hitter; he’s a line-drive hitter that accidentally hits 40 home runs a year. I try to take that mindset. I’m not going to hit 40-50 homers, but I am going to hit around 20 or 30, and they’re all going to be accidents.”
The Rays will happily take as many of them as Souza can provide, and if he can keep up the more consistent contact, they’ll certainly come. With his raw power, Souza is an accident waiting to happen.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.