By Jesse Marx
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We don't know Twins left fielder Delmon Young, and perhaps we never will. Although modern technology offers more access to the private lives of jocks than ever before, Young prefers to present himself through 140 games instead of 140 characters.
Selected as the No. 1 overall draft pick by Tampa Bay in 2003, Young and his older brother Dmitri (taken No. 4 overall by St. Louis in 1991) were the first pair of siblings to be selected top-five in Major League Baseball's amateur draft. Delmon may have earned more publicity for petulance than production en route to the Show, but in 2007 he earned runner-up status for American League Rookie of the Year.
Young arrived at Twins Fest this year having shed nearly 30 pounds from his muscular frame. But that only made him a stronger baseball player, as evidenced by a May-June stretch that found him hitting .317 with 42 RBI. The swelter of July saw Young swinging the hottest stick of his career, as he led all of baseball with a .434 average and 46 hits.
"When he first got over here, there were a lot of unknowns," says Twins center fielder Denard Span. "I think he just had to learn the organization, as well as the organization had to learn him."
Span recognizes that the fan base still has a ways to go before they truly know Young.
"I think he does get misunderstood at times," Span says. "Maybe he's been private, or however he is. But I think only the guys in this locker room truly know how he is. I think as he gets older, he will be able to lighten up a little bit, possibly. And I think the city will know, but I don't think people have an idea how good of a person he is and how good of a heart he has."
Young's newfound determination at the plate was borne out of familial tragedy. In May 2009, his mother Bonnie succumbed to cancer. His father Larry, a former Navy F-14 pilot who now flies for Delta, says the struggle helped turn Delmon into a man.
"After losing his mom last year, he decided it was time to grow up," Larry says. "He and his mom were very close. She was like his social person. They'd talk for hours and hours about life. And the only thing he wanted to talk to me about was baseball."
Some baseball families—the Boones, the Bells, the Hairstons—are deeply woven into the fabric of the pastime through the generations. The Young brothers arrived via an alternate American pursuit: cold-calling.
"Every place I would visit when I was in the military, I'd call the coaches at the local universities," Larry explains. "I started off with Old Dominion, then Auburn, then Alabama and then Alabama State, then Tuskegee. When I got out to California I called USC. And all those coaches gave me information on how to play the game. I'd just say, 'I don't know anything about the game of baseball. I'm trying to help my son.' And they all felt sorry for me."
While Delmon speaks in one-sentence staccato, his father converses in a manner both soft and stately—think Sam Cooke only with the din of batting practice. Larry recognizes his son's inward nature.
"He reads a lot of books. He's kind of private about that," Larry says of his son. "I know he buys a lot of books online, listens to audio books in the car and puts them on his phone. That seems to be his passion: knowledge."
Delmon's knowledge at the plate has earned high marks with hitting coach Joe Vavra. To borrow a phrase from Bull Durham's Crash Davis, it's well-noted in baseball circles that Young and Vavra once communicated with the clarity of "a Martian talking to a fungo." But the passing of seasons has proven the pair simpatico.
"Early on, Delmon had so many things going on," Vavra explains. "A lot of movement—late movement, late set-up, what we call a 'trap' with the hands. He had a hitch, a trap and head movement when the ball was already on its way. And he still was a decent hitter."
Young's impressive line at the close of August puts him on pace for the highest RBI total (114) for a Twins outfielder since Kirby Puckett plated 121 teammates in 1988. Going further inside the numbers reveals a drastic improvement in his ability to make contact with pitches outside the strike zone, a stat known as "O-Contact." According to FanGraphs.com, Young was making O-Contact at a clip of nearly 75 percent at the onset of September, near the American League's top 20. That's a vast improvement over last season, when Young's O-Contact came in at 53.8 percent—putting him in league's bottom 20.
"He's defined the strike zone quite a bit," Vavra says. "The reason that number was so poor before was because they were expanding that strike zone further and further. And he would swing at it further and further. I mean, he had a four-by-six strike zone; but he's shrunk that down to where it's manageable now. Just outside the zone: He can handle it pretty well."