Steven Souza: The 26-year-old Rookie

Steven Souza destroyed Triple-A pitching last season. In 96 games with Triple-A Syracuse, the outfielder hit a gaudy .350/.432/.590, and and kicked in 26 steals for good measure. All told, his offensive exploits generated a wRC+ of 180, which was the highest of any player with even 100 plate appearances in Triple-A last year.

With that showing, Souza made it clear that he was ready for a new challenge. However, as a member of the Washington Nationals organization, he was blocked by incumbent starters Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Denard Span. Additionally, he was competing with Michael Taylor — another hotshot outfield prospect who made a mockery of the minor leagues last season.

Souza’s path to the majors became a lot more clear last December when the Nationals dealt him to the Tampa Bay Rays in the deal that sent Wil Myers to the San Diego Padres. As a Ray, Souza’s only real competition is Brandon Guyer, David DeJesus and Mikie Mahtook. Clearly, the Rays are placing a lot of faith in their rookie right fielder.

Souza isn’t your typical rookie. Most prospects who are projected to have significant big league impacts are in their early 20’s. Souza, on the other hand, will celebrate his 26th birthday in April. Believe it or not, Jason Heyward, Giancarlo Stanton, Starlin Castro and Freddie Freeman — who feel like they’ve been around forever — are all younger than Souza. Still, despite his age, Souza’s gotten a fair amount of hype in prospect circles this winter. Baseball America, John Sickels and our very own Kiley McDaniel each placed him in their respective top 100 lists.

Based on his excellent 2014 season in Triple-A, KATOH forsees a respectable 5.2 WAR from Souza through age-28, which puts him 60th overall among current prospects. By itself, this sounds pretty modest. However, considering Souza’s already entering his age-26 season, that forecast is much better than it appears on the surface. KATOH’s essentially projecting Souza to average 1.7 WAR over the next three years.  This jibes his 2015 projections from Steamer and ZiPS, which project him for 1.6 and 1.4 WAR respectively.

Unlike many players who took until age-25 to reach Triple-A, Souza wasn’t some late-round draft choice who consistently played above his tools. He was actually taken in the third round — as a third baseman — back in 2007, but completely stalled out in the low minors. In his first four years as a pro, Souza hit an uninspiring .226/.326/.360 between Rookie Ball and A-Ball.

But something seemed to click for Souza in 2012 — his fifth season in A-Ball. Between Low-A and High-A, the then-23-year-old broke out with a .297/.366/.572 batting line. For the first time as a pro, Souza was hitting for power. But thanks to his five-year bump in the road, he was extremely old for his level.

In 2013, Souza followed up his breakout campaign by crushing it once again in Double-A. Then, last year, he elevated his game to the next level with his other-worldly performance in Triple-A. From 2012 through 2014, Souza went from being a mildly intriguing A-Baller to banging on the door of the majors.

Having an excellent season in Triple-A is great and all, but the jump to the majors isn’t always a seamless one. There have been plenty of hitters who mashed in Triple-A only to hit like utility infielders in the big leagues. To see if Souza might run the risk of facing a similar fate, let’s look at some hitters similar to Souza, and see how they transitioned. Below, you’ll find a list of all hitters since 1990 whose league-adjusted walk rate, strikeout rate, BABIP, ISO and stolen base frequency fell within 1.5 standard deviations of Souza’s marks. I also included their big league stats from the following year.

Year Name Age PA WAR WAR/600
2003 Bobby Crosby 23 623 2.6 2.5
1994 Marty Cordova 24 579 3.6 3.7
2007 Ben Francisco 25 499 1.7 2.0
2008 Chris Dickerson 26 299 1.7 3.4
2005 B.J. Upton 20 189 -0.4 -1.3
1991 Derek Bell 22 184 0.7 2.3
1993 Tony Tarasco 22 144 0.2 0.8
1996 Rod Myers 23 121 0.7 3.5
2011 Collin Cowgill 25 116 0.1 0.5
2010 Trent Oeltjen 27 91 0.2 1.3
1994 Dwayne Hosey 27 87 1.6 11.0
1992 Dave Silvestri 24 26 0.4 9.2
2006 Shin-Soo Choo 23 20 0.2 6.0
1999 Chris Latham 26 0  0.0 0.0
1993 Chipper Jones 21 0  0.0 0.0
2014 Steven Souza 25 ? ? ?

For the most part, these Triple-A studs adapted pretty well to life in the big leagues. Of the players who received a decent amount of playing time, B.J. Upton’s 2006 season is the only one that I’d characterize as bad. And you could even talk yourself into throwing out that data point. It’s not clear that Upton’s age-21 season tells us all that much about what Souza might do as a 26-year-old.

There’s always the chance that Souza will follow in the footsteps of Colin Cowgill. Like Souza, Cowgill was an outfielder who raked in Triple-A as a 25-year-old, but forgot how to hit upon arriving in the majors. However, the more likely scenario has Souza providing value to the Rays. Marty Cordova, Ben Francisco and Chris Dickerson — all mid-20’s outfielders — are good examples of what Souza might be capable of next year: An better-than-average bat with adequate defense in an outfield corner.

Yes, Souza has been old for his level for years now, but the “old for his league” caveat means less and less the closer a hitter gets to the majors. And when a hitter performs like Souza did in Triple-A, you absolutely have to take notice. More often than not, hitters who rake in Triple-A turn into serviceable big leaguers, regardless of how old they are.

Souza may be older than most rookies, but he’s done nothing but hit in each of the last three years. And if his 2014 performance is any indication, he’s more than ready for the show. At 26, Souza’s closer to his decline years than most rookies, so his peak will likely be shorter than most fellow prospects’. But short peak or not, he has the looks of a useful major league outfielder who’s ready to start contributing right now.

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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Sandy Kazmir
7 years ago

You get kind of a Matt Joyce vibe with him. Joyce didn’t get regular playing time until 26, was around average if not a touch above defensively, and paired a good idea of the strike zone with legit power. We’ll see if he translates, and nit having the platoon advantage could skew that line down compared to Matty, but he should get every opportunity to ride out the rough stretches with the Rays. I’m excited to see what he brings, though I am working hard to temper expectations.

7 years ago
Reply to  Sandy Kazmir

A pretty good comparison. But for whatever it’s worth, Souza has actually fared better against LHPs than RHPs, though the difference is not very great.

14: 1.011
13: .919
12: .753
14: .972
13: .955
12: 1.007

7 years ago
Reply to  Will

Well….. He is hits right handed

7 years ago
Reply to  Bob

Sorry, obviously based on the stats I provided, that should read, “he hits better against RHPs than LHPs,” which is counterintuitive given that he’s right handed.