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Delmon Young finally reaching potential
Young, not long ago, had all the wrong labels: head case, undisciplined hitter, bust. This season he is arguably the Twins’ most valuable player — yes, even over catcher Joe Mauer — and a top MVP candidate in the American League.
Oh, Young isn’t about to overtake the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton or Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera for MVP, but he leads the Twins with 86 RBIs and is a close second on the team to Mauer in doubles and hits entering this weekend’s series against the Angels (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 4:10 p.m. ET).
Not bad for a player who as recently as the 2009 All-Star break was considered a major disappointment.
“(Former Twins general manager) Terry Ryan used to say when you acquire a player, you have to give him a mulligan after one year,” says Twins GM Bill Smith, who acquired Young from the Rays in a six-player deal that cost the Twins right-hander Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett on Nov. 28, 2007.
“The first year is an adjustment period — new city, new teammates, new ballpark, everything. But in year two (last season), Delmon made good strides. He’s a great member of this ballclub, popular with his teammates. And he’s still a young man, just 25. We all look at him like he’s a 10-year veteran. But really, he’s just coming into his prime.”
Actually, Young does not turn 25 until Sept. 14, but he indeed is a familiar name.
The Rays made him the first pick in the 2003 draft. He spent three years as one of the game’s top prospects, had a well-documented incident at Triple-A in which he threw a bat — unintentionally, he said — at an umpire. Then came the trade that only added to the scrutiny he was under, the trade that helped transform the Rays into the 2008 AL champions sans Young.
Turns out Young went to the right team — a Twins team renowned for its patience.
Some in baseball attribute some of Young’s early problems to the merry-go-round of hitting coaches that he had as a young player. Unable to build trust, or long-term relationships, he would lean on his father, Larry.
Enter the Twins’ Joe Vavra.
Truth be told, Vavra did not get off to such a hot start with Young either. Nor did he expect to, knowing that Young looked up not just to his father, but also his older brother, Dmitri, who spent 13 years in the majors.
“You don’t want to come between any of that,” Vavra says. “You just can’t announce yourself and say, ‘Here I am.’ That isn’t how it works. That isn’t how it works with anyone.
“Any relationship takes time. Some take a little longer than others. This one took a little longer. But in the end, it probably makes it more worthwhile.”
Vavra says he had a “few confrontations” with Young, but that Young eventually came to understand that he only wanted the best for him.
Young declines to discuss their relationship — he answered only specific baseball questions in an interview conducted by e-mail. Vavra says they started to click toward the end of Young’s first season.
“He’s a pretty tough customer to get to understand, get to know, have him adapt to some of my ideas that I thought would benefit him,” Vavra says.
“He’s one of those guys that talks to a lot of people, a lot of players. He likes to look at players, how they hit, how they work. He formulates his own plan.
“He was kind of his own guy.”
Young was 23 when his mother, Bonnie, died last May after a three-month battle with liver and pancreatic cancer. The Twins placed him on the bereavement list. Young saw Bonnie in her final days and attended her funeral.
Some with the club say that the Twins further gained Young’s trust by supporting him unequivocally during such a trying time.
“We all expect that major league players are invincible, that nothing bothers them,” Smith says. “They are human. Something like that would impact anybody.
“Delmon left the club for a short time. He never asked for special treatment when he was gone. He was very appreciative of the time he got to spend in California. (Manager) Ron Gardenhire made it clear to him: Take whatever time you need.
“He came back. He stayed with it. He was a huge part of our success down the stretch.”
Young told The Associated Press in spring training that he could not properly grieve until after the season was over. He said that baseball became his sanctuary after his mother’s death.
After helping the Twins to the AL Central title, he reported to camp 30 pounds lighter, seemingly reaching a new level of determination.
Twenty-four years old, and a man.
While Young finally is starting to fulfill his promise, his development did not follow an even path. Baseball careers rarely proceed along a straight line.
The Twins considered trades involving Young during the 2008-09 offseason, sources said at the time. Even after Young got hot in the second half of last season, he still was not a full-time player.
“Just knowing that I am going to be in the lineup every day has helped dramatically,” Young says. “I can go through those bad stretches but still know I’ll be out there the next day.”
His breakthrough, he says, “should show people that it takes time to develop into a good hitter. It is very rare for people to do what Joe Mauer, Evan Longoria, David Wright and Ryan Zimmerman did — get to the big leagues with minimal work in the minor leagues and have immediate success.”
Mauer actually was similar to Young, a No. 1 overall pick out of high school who spent a good amount of time the minors. But Young is correct about one thing — Mauer had more immediate success in the majors.
Vavra says that Young always has understood the mental process of hitting, but mechanically “wasn’t quite getting it done.” Young swung not just at pitches outside the strike zone, but also way outside the strike zone, Vavra says. Even this season, he is only one of five major leaguers with 400 or more at-bats and 20 or fewer walks, according to STATS LLC.
While Vavra says Young is taking a more controlled approach, advanced statistics suggest otherwise. Young is seeing only 3.19 pitches per plate appearance, his lowest rate over a full season and the second-lowest rate in the majors.
Here’s something even more interesting: Young, according to fangraphs.com, has swung at 41.7 percent of pitches he has seen outside the strike zone, his highest rate over a full season. He is making contact on 74.9 percent of those pitches, by far the highest rate of his career — freakish, Vladimir Guerrero-type territory.
Some of Young’s other numbers better explain his progress. His flyball rate is up, his groundball rate is down, a trend that has helped him produce the best slugging percentage of his career. Young also is batting .381/.401/.556 with runners in scoring position. Uh, don’t expect that every season.
Maybe this season is an outlier. Maybe it’s just the start. But no sense judging too quickly.
With Young, people already have made that mistake.
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