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Updated: June 21st, 2010 10:28pm
Mackey: A deeper look at the surging Delmon Young

Mackey: A deeper look at the surging Delmon Young

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

Sometime during late April -- I believe it was a few days before the Twins left for Kansas City on April 23 -- I approached Delmon Young in the clubhouse to ask about his hitting mechanics, knowing full-well this was one of his least-favorite topics to open up about.

I wanted to know what he had done differently down the stretch in 2009, when he hit .301/.318/.483 with 28 extra base hits from June 1 until the end of the season. That production has carried over into this season as well, with Young hitting .306/.343/.502 with eight home runs, 17 doubles, and 43 RBI so far.

"I haven't changed anything," Young said, with that 'stop asking me about my mechanics' stare.

'Nothing at all?' I repeated.

Young leaned forward, as if to make sure there was no confusion, and said, "Nothing."

Of course, I disagreed, but the moment was already slightly awkward without me pressing, so I decided to drop it. Young is a good guy, and there was no need to ruffle his feathers with the team sitting 10 games over .500.

He just looks so much more balanced and relaxed at the plate these days. He looks like he has a better rhythm, and he may or may not have reduced his leg kick, as shown by the video in Parker Hageman's blog post from this past offseason.

Whether you want to believe Young or not in regards to mechanics, his performance this season certainly suggests a drastic shift in some capacity.

Delmon's power

In his first two seasons with the Twins, Young hit .290/.336/.405 and .284/.308/.425 respectively. The classic argument went something like this:

Old-school baseball guy: "Hey, Delmon got off to slow starts in both seasons, but eventually finished with high batting averages. Hooray!"

Voice of reason: "That's great, but a high batting average means nothing without a high on-base percentage and a jolt of power."

When the Twins traded Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for Young, they weren't looking for a hollow batting average. The baseball world is already full of Orlando Cabreras. The Twins wanted someone who could mash extra base hits.

In 2010, Young is hitting more fly balls (37% vs. 31% career), hitting for more power (.502 SLG vs. .425 career, and a .196 ISO vs. .133 career), drawing more walks (6.1% vs. 4.2% career and 2.9% last year), and has cut way down on strikeouts (11.5% vs. 19.1% career).

And of course, those career numbers include the 2010 stats, so the improvement is even more drastic than illustrated.

Just to put the fly ball/groundball ratio into perspective, among qualified hitters from 2008-2009, only seven players hit more groundballs than Young -- Skip Schumaker, Derek Jeter, Ichiro, Michael Bourn, Yunel Escobar, Cristian Guzman, Ryan Theriot, and Denard Span.

Now, there are some decent hitters in that bunch. Being mentioned on the same list as Jeter is usually a good thing, unless you are a corner outfielder who is expected to hit for power -- which Young is.

How was Young supposed to hit for power if he also sat among the league leaders in worm-killing? Huge disconnect.

"I think he's learned to use the whole field a little bit better now, rather than just try to work on shooting the ball up the middle and the other way," manager Ron Gardenhire said last week. "I think we've seen that. He's jerking more balls, he's looking for pitches in certain situations and when he gets them he drives them.

"I think he probably prepares a little bit better than he used to, and that's just part of the growing up process. Studying the other pitcher, knowing what he's going to do, and actually being in the league long enough now where he knows a lot of the pitchers he faces. And the guys that he doesn't (know), he watches some video and he kind of knows what they throw, and he has a plan when he goes to the plate. That's kind of where you start getting ahead in the game, is having a plan."

Delmon's defense

Defense is difficult to quantify, but I don't think it's outrageous to suggest that Young -- after losing 25 or 30 pounds during the offseason -- has improved significantly in left field this season.

He still has trouble going back on balls, and his running style doesn't exactly remind people of Ken Griffey, Jr. from the early 90's, but overall Young is covering more ground and making more plays.

His Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) has improved to -7 from the -20 range in 2008 and 2009, and he has thrown out as many runners in 2010 (four) than he did all of last season.

Many fans and even reporters shrug off defense and only focus on offensive prowess, but the difference between Young earning a long-term contract or not could revolve largely around his ability to avoid butchering left field on a daily basis.

Delmon batting seventh

Because of Young's offensive outburst, it's fair to raise the question of whether he should be moved up in the batting order.

When Orlando Hudson missed nearly three weeks with his wrist injury, the Twins used a variety of over-matched hitters in the two-hole, rather than moving Joe Mauer or somebody else up. That would have been a good time to tinker with moving Young up in the order, although as a free-swinger who is better at driving in runs than he is at drawing walks, Young probably fits better in the five, six, or seven slots than in the two-hole.

When the Twins' lineup is fully intact -- minus J.J. Hardy right now -- it still might not make sense to move Young up. Span, Hudson, Mauer, and Justin Morneau are locks in the top four spots. After that, it could make sense to move Michael Cuddyer or Jason Kubel down, and put Young behind Morneau.

But Gardenhire likes stability. And he likes the productivity Young provides down low.

"You always talk about depth in your lineup, and with him swinging like he is, that's what he gives us -- a little more depth all the way down," Gardenhire said. "A big RBI down there in the six or seven hole, depending on where he's at in a given day. And that's kind of what we envisioned when we got the guy."

Delmon's contract

After this season, Young will have accumulated four years of MLB service time, which means he still has two years of arbitration left. He's under team control through 2012.

Young will make $2.6 million this season, after avoiding arbitration last fall, and with his jump in productivity he will see another fairly significant raise heading into 2011.

The Twins will be forced to decide if they want to go year-to-year with Young, or if they want to lock him up with a long-term contract.

The production Young has provided the Twins this season is solid, but certainly not superhuman. In fact, there are currently 23 outfielders with a higher OPS than Young this season. Compared to his numbers in 2008 and 2009, Young's offense this season is obviously a huge boost, but in reality, an .846 OPS isn't an unreasonable request for a corner outfielder.

Is it worth offering a four-year deal for $30-40 million? Or would it be better to make Young prove his 2010 numbers weren't a fluke?

These are questions Bill Smith and company will kick around for the rest of the summer.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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