Asking Delmon Young to explain the nearly month-long hitting surge that gave him more runs batted in than any Minnesota Twin except Justin Morneau can be challenging.
Thoughtful and glib when he wants to be — multiple teammates call Young the funniest guy in their clubhouse — Young rarely shows that side in interviews. Often, he remains as guarded as he was when he joined the Twins three seasons ago.
Fox Sports North field reporter Robby Incmikoski learned that last Wednesday night. In a live postgame interview pumped through the Target Field public address system, Incmikoski asked Young why he has been hitting so well at home and on the road, a standard query that most players would run with.
Young’s response: “I don’t know. I’m just getting lucky.” That was it. Incmikoski, caught off-guard by the short answer, stammered into his next question.
Young was a little better in Friday’s postgame with Incmikoski, though not any more enlightening. So for insight, MinnPost turned to Denard Span, who jokingly claims credit for Young’s .347 average with four homers and 24 RBI in 21 games since May 21.
Span and Young needle each other constantly. During batting practice about a month ago, Young ragged Span about bunting, asking Span why he practiced something he never did in a game. Span, in turn, used to ask Young why he hit home runs in batting practice since he never did that in a game, either.
“He was hitting balls in the third deck, and I got on him,” Span said. “I said, `This 5 o’clock B.P., when are we going to see some of this at 7 o’clock?’
“Ever since I said that, he’s been going good.”
Good enough that his 40 RBIs put him ahead of Jason Kubel (36), Michael Cuddyer (30) and Joe Mauer (28) and trail only Morneau’s 43. Young’s three-run shot Sunday against Atlanta gave him eight homers for the season; last year he didn’t reach eight homers and 40 RBI until Aug. 20. He’s also on a 10-game hitting streak and already has drawn more walks (14) than all last season (12). Young’s career high for walks is 35, from 2008.
In one sense, Young and fill-in closer Jon Rauch are compatriots. Neither enjoys discussing his success, Rauch in part so as not to appear disrespectful toward the injured Joe Nathan. Rauch, whose 16 saves in 18 chances ties him with Tampa Bay’s Rafael Soriano for the American League lead, is even more straightforward about his reticence than Young.
“I’ll talk about anything else about this team except closing,” he said. “I don’t want to be the guy who toots his own horn.”
Fair enough. So we’ll do it for him, with stat help from fangraphs.com. Rauch lacks the mid-90s fastball one might expect from someone 6-foot-11 — he threw harder before his 2001 shoulder surgery — but he gets ahead of hitters. Early on, he threw first-pitch strikes 75 percent of the time, a remarkable rate that has since fallen to 63.4 percent, which is still better than the major-league average (58.2). In 25 innings he’s walked three, following the Twins’ pitching mantra of throwing the ball over the plate and letting the fielders work behind him.
“What’s neat about him is, he doesn’t pitch away from contact,” pitching coach Rick Anderson said. “He says, ‘I’m going to throw strikes and I’m going to use my pitches. If you get me tonight, you get me, but I’m going to make you swing the bats.’ That’s why he’s been successful.”
And Anderson added one more cautionary thought. “Don’t wake him up.”
Rauch, a veteran, fit in a lot faster than Young, who was 22 when the Twins acquired him from Tampa Bay in the November 2007 trade that sent Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett to stardom and the World Series.
It took more than a season for Young to warm to his teammates, and almost two before he trusted hitting coach Joe Vavra. Young mainly listened to his father, Larry, his older brother, Dmitri, and Brook Jacoby, the Cincinnati Reds’ hitting instructor who Young sometimes worked with in the off-season in California. In a candid moment last year, Vavra joked that Young might never give him any credit until after he’d been traded.
Over time, Young and Vavra reached an instructional détente. “We’ve got a good relationship,” Vavra said. “I don’t try to do too much. He’ll basically self-analyze, and I agree or I don’t agree.”
With Vavra’s help, Young is keeping his head steady and his weight back. Often last year Young shifted his weight too soon to his front foot, wrecking his timing and costing him power. While still free-swinging, Young stopped chasing so many pitches off the plate, Vavra said, forcing pitchers to throw him more strikes.
“It’s easy as a player to be guarded like that,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “His brother’s a major-league player. He listened to his father and his brother, and rightly so. But if they’re not there, you’ve got to trust. The one big thing that’s helped him is he trusts his teammates around here a lot more now. He trusts the coaching staff a lot more. And he just fits right in.”
There is a sense among the Twins that the death of Young’s mother, Bonnie, from cancer last year profoundly affected his view on life and baseball. Besides losing 30 pounds over the winter, Young told the Twins’ media relations staff he wanted to do more community outreach events and public service announcements, things he largely avoided before. Young declined to talk about this with MinnPost.
In April, Young took part in one of Michael Cuddyer’s “Unplugged” events at Bunny’s, a bar in St. Louis Park. Fans got to see Young as his teammates do. In this video clip, he tells a terrific story about hanging with Ken Griffey Jr. when Dmitri Young played for the Reds.
“He had ’em all rolling,” Cuddyer said. “He was great.”
So why don’t we see that more often?
“He’s guarded,” Cuddyer said. “A lot goes into that. Look at his career. He didn’t spend long in the minor leagues. He had that incident [in the minors in 2006, flipping a bat at an umpire and drawing a 50-game suspension]. He was with different teams all the time. He was with Tampa in the big leagues for one year.
“He came over here, and had to get used another environment, another new team, all new coaches, and he changed positions. The second year, his mom passes away. This is the first year where he knows everybody, he’s comfortable with everybody, and he doesn’t have anything going on in his personal life. There’s a lot to be said about all that coming together this year.”
Plus, with the media, Young may be wary after blowing himself up before. In a September 2005 conference call after being named Baseball America’s minor league player of the year, an impatient Young, then 19, called the Rays “cheap” for not calling him up, and he threatened to depart in free agency the moment he was eligible. “Why not call up guys when you’re 50 games out of first place and you’re not going to the playoffs?” he said at the time. “They’re so worried about saving dollars and cents, and they can’t compete with no one.”
His frustration bubbled up again in 2006, when he ripped the Rays for keeping him, B.J. Upton and Elijah Dukes in the minors. “They think we’re going to upset clubhouse chemistry,” Young told USA Today. “What are they waiting for? They always have an excuse.”
Sunday, Young drove in all the runs in a 7-3 loss to Atlanta with a seventh-inning homer into the second deck in left at Target Field, his second such blast in five days. No other Twin had much luck against Braves starter Kris Medlin, and Young cracked a funny line about it: “I played against him in high school, they used to kick the crap out of us like this. Same thing today.”
The home run? “I saw a pitch up, took a hack at it and squared it,” he said. And Young insisted his surge was the result more of good fortune than anything else. “You can still be lucky as long as they don’t catch the ball,” he said.
Said Span: “Delmon gets misunderstood a lot by people. He comes off as being thick-skinned, a typical athlete. Underneath all that, he’s like any other human being. He’s got a kind heart. I’ve seen him go out of his way to help others. It comes from, I think, his upbringing. I’ve heard the same thing about his older brother. He’s definitely a good teammate, a good friend and a good person.
“Last year was an eye-opener for him. He worked hard last year. But he didn’t play like he wanted to. I think he just wasn’t satisfied with himself. You can just tell. Coming into this year, and all through this year, he wanted to show everybody he was — and still is — the Delmon Young that was the first overall pick in 2003.”
Meanwhile, to his teammates and selected others, the lines keep coming. “Delmon told Alexi Casilla he might be the first player in history to score 100 runs and only have three at-bats,” Gardenhire said. “He’s got good stuff.”