Expectations have been high for Justin Upton since he was 14 or 15-years-old according to his outfield mate and friend Chris Young. The Arizona Diamondback star right fielder and MVP candidate just turned 24 and has made huge leaps forward dealing with the pressure of his situation. We asked Young for his thoughts on the maturity Upton has shown this year and about the connection between Justin's growth as a person and the development of his game.
Young might almost be too close see how far Upton has come over this summer. Just like a parent doesn't always notice how much a child has grown over a year period until an outsider mentions it, according to Chris, Justin is the same confident person he's always been.
Chris also pointed out the natural development of a talented young player that you would expect to see. Upton is smarter now about how pitchers are trying to attack him. He's quicker at making adjustments to his approach which has limited slumps this season.
But there's more to Justin Upton this season. He's more than just a "better player". There's a different level of maturity that many have noticed.
This interview with Young took place hours before a recent Diamondbacks game in the team clubhouse. Upton and Young have their lockers next to each other and for a long time were engaged in intense conversation over what appeared to be the new Lil Wayne album, "Tha Carter IV".
Knowing that Young might be uncomfortable talking about Upton with his friend sitting right there, we waited for Justin to head off for other pregame preparations. At one point Upton returned and immediately noticed that he was the subject of discussion and quickly departed.
Unlike many stars, Upton isn't always comfortable talking about himself which is why we didn't interview him for this story. We've tried before but the answers are almost always less than revealing. He's a humble guy who's fire, passion and confidence is much more at home on the field than off.
It took some prodding, but Young eventually opened up about Justin's growth beyond the easily observed.
"There's been times in the past where he let the outsiders get to him a little more," Young said. "This year, he just understands the player he is and he trusts in that. He can't really worry about everybody criticizing all the time. He trusts in his game and he knows the talent that he has and he allows that to speak for itself."
Dealing with the criticism is something all stars go through. They have to learn how to tune it out and believe in what got them where they are so they can reach an even higher level. There's a battle between being self-aware and open to feedback and losing yourself to the noise that comes with being a Justin Upton. Young confirms the progress made in this area.
There's yet another sign of greatness that has appeared in Upton's game 2011 that Young confirmed as well. This season, for the first time, we are seeing Justin channel his emotions during a game into positive results.
This is what great players in all sports do. There's a reason teams didn't want to make a guy like Kobe Bryant mad. He, like many other greats, has the rare ability to channel his anger into destroying his competition.
That's what we are seeing from Upton now and at a very young age. In baseball it can come from being hit by a pitch (Upton has been plunked more than almost any other player), from bad umpire calls and from making an error in the field.
As much as fans get on him about dropping the occasional fly ball, Upton feels it internally even more. In the past a mistake would carry over to the rest of the game and ruin his night. Now, Upton's anger or frustration is channeled into winning.
"That's definitely a sign of maturity," Young said. "He doesn't pout about anything anymore. I think he understands he's not perfect but at the same time there are outside things in the game like umpires or if you make an error. He may of let that get to him in the past but lately he just dials in even more and tries to lock in."
Typically, this level of athletic maturity comes later in life. This star quality that allows rage to turn into increased competence doesn't normally show up until an player is in their late 20's or early 30's.
But Upton isn't a typical athlete. Unlike professionals in other sports, he was drafted at the age of 17. By 19 he was at the pro level when most baseball players are clawing their way through the lower levels of the minor league or playing on a college campus somewhere.
"Most guys don't have four years in at 24. I think that's pushed the process up a little bit, being in the majors at such a young age. He has more time (in the game) than quite a few guys that are 30-years-old. He's been through a lot more than the majority," Young explained. "He's had expectations like that on him since he was 14 or 15 years old. His name has been out there. I think it kind of speeds the process up and he's definitely done well with it."
He certainly has done well with it recently, but as we know, that wasn't always the case. So, who deserves credit for Justin's maturation this year? Is it his friends and veteran teammates? Does Kirk Gibson (who was called the next Mickey Mantle early in his career) get credit for mentoring the young star?
Young puts it all on Upton himself and this is by far the best answer.
Justin might be fortunate to be surrounded by the right people, but ultimately, he's responsible for who he is and he's the one who made these huge steps forward in 2011. We can't wait to see how much farther he can go.