Almost Famous

Texas Rangers shortstop Michael Young is the defending American League batting champion and on track for his fourth straight 200-hit season. So why isn't he one of the game's big stars?
May 07, 2006

It is a balmyApril afternoon at Ameriquest Field in Arlington, and a smattering of fans hasarrived early to watch the Texas Rangers take batting practice. Because theRangers' lineup is thick with power hitters, an impromptu home run derby breaksout. First, brawny first baseman Mark Teixeira, a switch-hitter batting lefty,sends a succession of moon shots into the rightfield seats. Next, headsturn--and a pack of preteen ball hounds scampers into place--as designatedhitter Phil Nevin and catcher Rod Barajas, both righthanded hitters, take aimat leftfield, the crack of the bat followed by the rifle sound of baseballshitting bleachers. ¶ Then shortstop Michael Young steps in, and the show stops.As always, Young begins by bunting--who wants to watch bunting?--thensystematically sprays the outfield with line drives, first pulling balls toleft, then directing them the other way. He begins each swing in the samemanner, by tapping his left foot in the dirt, then striding into the pitch.Likewise, the end result is metronomically consistent: Another ball goesskidding onto the outfield grass. "Most guys will take a round in battingpractice to have fun, to hit some home runs," says Barajas. "You neversee that from Michael. He's always working, every day the same. If he happensto hit one out of the park, it's by accident." ¶ It is one thing for ascrappy reserve infielder to employ such a workmanlike approach, but this is atwo-time All-Star and the defending American League batting champion, a playerwho has had 200-plus hits for three consecutive seasons and can hit for power(24 homers and 91 RBIs last season). Such numbers suggest that the 29-year-oldYoung was born into baseball's aristocracy, one of those five-tool playersblessed with natural talent. But ask baseball people about Young, and they'lladmiringly tell you that he is a "grinder," vernacular for a player whoworks his butt off. The subtext, of course, is that the grinder needs to workhis butt off. He can't survive on his talent alone.

Young is thequintessential grinder made good, a guy who was considered by most majorcolleges to be too small to play at their level, too erratic to play shortstopand too light a hitter to play in the big leagues. Yet here he is, one of thegame's most consistent batters and toughest two-strike threats, a player whocan hit for power without sacrificing average. Consider: Over the past threeseasons Young went more than two games without a hit only once. (By comparison,the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki also did it once.) "Young is one of thetoughest outs in the league by far," says Boston Red Sox righthander CurtSchilling. "He's just trying to make solid contact, so he hits home runs[when he's] not even trying. That's what makes him so dangerous."

That Young hasevolved into an elite if relatively unglorified player is a testament to hiswork ethic, his upbringing and what his wife, Cristina Barbosa, who has knownhim since he was a scrawny 5'9", 145-pound high school sophomore, calls his"quiet, internal confidence." Says Cristina, "Mike never had a PlanB. It was always going to be baseball." His devotion to the game has wonYoung fans throughout the league. His manager, Buck Showalter, says Young"is everything that is right about baseball." Red Sox skipper TerryFrancona, a former Texas bench coach, calls Young "as good a kid as you'llever find." Rangers reserve infielder Mark DeRosa has patterned his gameafter Young's. Toronto outfielder Vernon Wells, who came up through the BlueJays system with Young, went so far as to name his second child ChristianMichael Wells, in honor of his former teammate.

The story of thismuch-admired grinder, now a sturdy 6'1" 200-pounder, begins with a pair ofboots near L.A. and ends with a toe tap in Texas.

Young grew up inCovina, Calif., a suburb 20 miles east of Los Angeles. His mother, Anna, was aschool secretary, and his father, Fred, worked as an electrician andconstruction worker. Fred left the house early each morning, usually came homelate and worked most weekends. Some nights he'd be so tired and sore that Annahad to take off his boots for him. "Stuff like that sticks in your mindwhen you're a little kid," says Michael. "I learned early that if youare going to work at something, you don't take it lightly."

Young's mother isMexican-American, and some of his athleticism no doubt comes from her side ofthe family. Anna's nephew, Zachary Padilla, was the WBO light welterweightchampion from 1993 through '94, and another nephew, Johnny Chavez, also foughtprofessionally. When he was 13, Michael tried out for a Southern Californiatravel team and was stung when he was cut. He made the squad a year later, andafter the season he wrote a letter to one of the coaches, Bob Lamb (father ofAstros infielder Mike, a high school teammate of Young's), respectfullypointing out that he should have been on the team a year earlier. "Usuallywhen people are in the middle of their careers, things that happened to themwhen they were 13 are distant memories," says Young. "But for me,that's kind of where it all started, in terms of people always telling me whatmy limitations were."

Young played theoutfield at Bishop Amat High and remained there through his freshman year at UCSanta Barbara, but then that innate confidence in his own ability led to ashowdown with his coach, Bob Brontsema. "I had it all planned out,"says Young. "If he didn't let me play shortstop, I was going to transfer toEast L.A. junior college, and then I'd try to get another scholarship to afour-year school or enter the draft." When a shortstop recruit signed withanother school, Brontsema relented, and Young returned to the infield with onlya few hiccups. Like the time against New Mexico State when he overthrew thefirst baseman by so much that the ball ended up on frat row. "And fratrow," Brontsema says, "was across the street." Nevertheless, Youngestablished himself as a big league prospect with his bat, earning All--BigWest Conference honors his junior year by hitting .359 with 12 homers.

A fifth-round pickby Toronto in the 1997 draft, Young played short and second base in the minors,alternating with Cesar Izturis (now with the Los Angeles Dodgers). But when theBlue Jays needed a starter for the stretch run in July 2000, they had to giveup prospects to make a trade. Rangers general manager Doug Melvin offeredrighthander Esteban Loaiza, and asked for Izturis in return. Instead, TorontoG.M. Gord Ash offered Young and righthander Darwin Cubillan, and the Rangersagreed. "We liked his overall work ethic, and it looked like he played thegame the right way," Melvin says of Young, who was in Double A at the time."We weren't sure he was going to be the hitter he's become,though."

Called up in Maythe following season, Young hit only .249 in 106 games, then .262 as theregular second baseman in 2002. Playing alongside shortstop Alex Rodriguez, hedid play solid defense. Before the '03 season Young made an adjustment in hisswing on the advice of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. "You could tell thebat speed was there, but there were too many fly balls because he was jumpingat the pitch," says Jaramillo. They added the toe tap, which helped Youngstay back, establish a rhythm and increase his power.

That year Younghad a breakout season, hitting .306 with 14 homers. The following year he hadrefined his swing to the point that DeRosa, who arrived as a free agent fromthe Atlanta Braves, began mimicking Young's style. "I completely changedwhat I had done for 10 years after watching him in spring training," saysDeRosa. "I'd go out and hit early with him, and it just feltright."

One thing DeRosacouldn't replicate was Young's adjustment in two-strike counts. When he's downto his last strike, Young, instead of tapping his toe, plants his left foot outfront so he no longer strides into the pitch and relies more on his hands tomake contact. "You don't see many guys attempting to change their swingsmid-count," says DeRosa. "He's got an uncanny knack for it." Theresults have been impressive. On 1-and-2 counts last season, Young hit .303--orbetter than the overall averages of all but 20 major leaguers. Says Jaramillo,"Last year when he got two strikes, we'd say, 'Man, the pitcher is introuble.'"

For the year Younghit .331 and finished 11th in the league's MVP voting. (He was eighth in 2004,when he hit .313 with 22 homers.) He also ranked fourth among AL shortstops infielding percentage, having returned to his favorite position after Rodriguezwas dealt to the New York Yankees before the 2004 season.

Young is off to aanother hot start this year, batting .352, tied for the league lead in doubles(11) and tied for second in hits (38) through Sunday. Despite hisaccomplishments, however, his national profile remains low. This may be in partbecause Young plays on a mediocre team in Texas--"in New York, he'd bebigger than Derek Jeter," says Teixeira (chart)--and in part because hedoesn't draw attention to himself. The next headline he makes for complainingin the clubhouse, throwing a tantrum on the field or running afoul of the lawwill be his first. In fact, if there's a knock on Young, Rangers insiders say,it's that he is not a vocal, take-charge type of leader.

Still, teammateslaud the example set by Young, who never skips BP or fails to take infieldgrounders. He always talks to the press after games. He ritualistically patsplayers on the head and puts away their batting helmets after they score.DeRosa compares him with Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, saying both have a"presence," while Showalter likens Young to Don Mattingly. "I usedto ask Donnie, Why do you do all this work and prep?" says Showalter, whoplayed with and later managed the former Yankees captain. "He said, 'In theninth inning there's a quiet confidence I get because I know I've outworked thepitcher; I'm more prepared for this situation than he is.' Mike's the sameway."

Most nights on theroad, Young and DeRosa will order a couple of beers and talk about the game.When they're done with the beers, Young is finished with the game too."Whether he went 0 for 4 or 4 for 4, the next day it's gone [from hismind]," says DeRosa. "A lot of people have trouble doing that."

His batting lineis not the only thing Young forgets. "Half the time, if I don't put moneyin his wallet, I think he'd leave with it empty," says Cristina, whomajored in economics and East Asian studies at Columbia. "And I can't tellyou how many times he's left the house with my phone by mistake."

Young'seven-keeled nature and dry sense of humor are what drew the equally laid-backWells to him in Toronto. The two met as minor leaguers, roomed together whilein the Florida Instructional League and have remained tight. They weregroomsmen in each other's weddings, and Wells was one of the first well-wishersto call after Young's first son, Mateo, was born last June. (Young chose thename because "my wife is 100 percent Mexican and I'm half Mexican, so wewanted a name that was 75 percent Mexican.")

Part of Young'sappeal is his humility. This is a guy who spent part of his time at the WorldBaseball Classic this spring getting autographs from other players. (He wasespecially psyched to meet Jones and the Chicago Cubs' Derrek Lee.) His house,a 15-minute drive from Ameriquest Field, features a wall of baseballmemorabilia. While Young "won't put his own stuff up," says Cristina,there are bats and jerseys from such players as Albert Pujols, Ken Griffey Jr.and Don Mattingly.

Consider it partof the grinder mentality. If you start believing you're as good as other peoplesay you are, you lose your edge. The next thing you know, you're talking aboutyourself in the third person, taking days off and trying to go Dave Kingman inbatting practice. Don't expect Young to fall into that trap. "I'm a firmbeliever that if you're not getting better, you're getting worse," he says."I can get better on the bases, I can tap into more power, I can improve asa shortstop...." And on and on Young goes, swiveling in his chair in anempty locker room, ticking off goals, certain that one day--if he just puts inenough hard work--he'll be a success.

Short Story

Derek Jeter (left)of the Yankees, Miguel Tejada (right) of the Orioles and Michael Young of theRangers are the holy trinity of American League shortstops. From the start ofthe 2005 season through Sunday, Young--one of only five shortstops to win an ALbatting title--was the best hitter of the three based on his Value overReplacement Player ranking. (VORP is a statistical measurement of a player'srun contribution in comparison to a below-average hitter who plays hisposition.) But according to the Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) measurement(an analysis of a fielder's performance that assigns credit or blame for runsscored), Young's defense allowed nine more runs than the average shortstop's.By the same criteria Jeter is the lesser hitter of the three, but he makes upfor it with superior glovework. For the best balance of offense and defense,Tejada is the choice.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

SHORTSTOP VORP FRAA TOTAL
Jeter 79.7 11 90.7
Tejada 83.9 2 85.9
Young 82.9 -9 73.9
Source: Baseball Prospectus

 

SI.COM

More baseball coverage, including power rankings andTom Verducci's Insider, at SI.com/baseball.

Ask people about Young, and they'll admiringly tell youthat he is a GRINDER, vernacular for a player who works his butt off.

TWO PHOTOSPhotograph by Darren Carroll;TONY GUTIERREZ/AP (YOUNG BATTING) HEAD TOTOE
Young developed into an elite hitter three seasons ago, after he added a toetap to his swing that increased his rhythm and power.
PHOTODARREN CARROLL THEYLIKE MIKE
The Rangers traded for Young because they valued his versatility, and hedelivered with a smooth transition from second base to short.
TWO PHOTOSJOHN CORDES/ICON SMI (JETER); J. MERIC/WIREIMAGE.COM (TEJADA)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)