AFL Spotlight: Shawn Armstrong
The “AFL Spotlight” is a weekly feature piece on a player from the Cleveland Indians farm system that is participating in the Arizona Fall League. League play wraps up on November 15th.
The Indians had several players put forth good breakthrough campaigns this past season, and one of those players was right-handed pitcher Shawn Armstrong.
Armstrong, 22, made appearances with four different teams this season pitching at Low-A Lake County, High-A Carolina, Double-A Akron and then this fall with the Scottsdale Scorpions in the highly prestigious Arizona Fall League. Outside of right-handed reliever Cody Allen, no other player moved through the Indians’ system so quickly and at the same time saw his value soar.
The speed with which Armstrong acclimated himself to the professional ranks is rare, but his success came about because of the combination of his strong work ethic, health, stuff, and willingness to listen to what his coaches were telling him.
“I learned a lot from all the older guys and pitching coaches,” Armstrong said in an interview with the IPI. “Going from Low-A to Double-A was a learning experience, and noticing the jump between the levels I can only imagine what the jump is between Triple-A and the big leagues. I am really happy with the strides I made this year going through the season.”
Most players will play all season at one affiliate and most others will split time between two affiliates. A select few true prospects will ever see three levels in one season, but that is what Armstrong did. Even though he set a goal at the beginning of the season to make it to Double-A, it was a goal he knew he had no control over and thus did not expect it.
“I didn’t really expect it,” Armstrong said about his rapid move up the system. “Coming into the organization I did not even know what I would be doing and if I would be starting or relieving. When I started out the season in Low-A I told myself the goal was to finish in Double-A. That’s what I wanted to do, to go out there and prove myself and fortunately that is what I was able to do. I feel I had a really good year and I learned a lot as a pitcher just growing up and learning the game.”
Armstrong dominated all three levels of the minor leagues he pitched in this past season where in 45 combined appearances between Lake County, Carolina, and Akron he went 2-3 with 4 saves and a 1.60 ERA. His peripheral numbers were off the charts good as in 67.2 innings he held opposing batters to just 44 hits (.191 AVG), no homers, and piled up 78 strikeouts.
While there was some talk in spring training of developing Armstrong as a starter, the thought was that he always fit best in a relief role. With his power arsenal along with some issues with his command (37 BB in 67.2 IP) and inconsistent delivery, the feeling was that in a relief role his stuff would play up, his command and delivery issues could be covered up a little, and most importantly he could be fast tracked through the system.
While Armstrong is always open to starting again, he is glad the Indians decided to develop him there.
“I absolutely love it,” Armstrong said. “I did both in college as I started and relieved, but I always liked the relief role better as you could blow it out for an inning or two where as a starter you have to maintain yourself and stay under control. The relieving aspect is exciting and I love it.”
The numbers that Armstrong put up this season pale in comparison to the statistics he had over his three year college career at East Carolina from 2009-2011. He missed his freshman season in 2009 because of a shoulder injury, and in the two seasons he pitched from 2010-2011 he combined to go 4-3 with a 4.45 ERA in 43 total appearances (95.0 IP, 97 H, 39 BB, 95 K).
The numbers show why stats are often a secondary performance measure as teams scout the tools and abilities a player has and often believe with better coaching, training, nutrition, and facilities that a player’s numbers can spike in the pro ranks. This season everything came together for Armstrong as hoped, and he was 100% healthy for the first time since he went off to college.
“My first two years in college I was still trying to come back from shoulder surgery and I did not really have the offspeed stuff that I wanted to have,” Armstrong said. “My last year [in 2011] it started clicking every now and then as there were spurts where it was there and spurts where it was bad. Playing in summer ball [in 2011] and before committing and signing with the Indians, I started figuring out my offspeed and how to locate it. I guess just playing 150 games this year and with the repetition of throwing every day, I kind of found myself mechanically with my body and throwing my fastball for strikes. Yeah, there were times I struggled to throw strikes, but for me as a person as a whole I feel like I made tremendous strides this year with my mechanics.”
Armstrong is a very good power bullpen prospect for the Indians and one of the best internal options the Indians could use to fill a bullpen need at the big league level as soon as next year. With his improved health, his velocity is now more consistently in the mid-to-upper 90s.
“Shoulder-wise I feel like it is stronger than it was when I came out of college,” Armstrong said. “There were times in college where I would get up to 96 MPH, but this year I was more consistently at 96 MPH and I touched the upper 90s a couple of times. I topped out at 99 MPH in the championship game against Trenton. That was the first time I ever hit that, but I hit 98 a few times before that this season and was more consistently at 96-97 MPH.”
In addition to his live fastball, Armstrong also throws a very good cutter-slider hybrid (or slutter as I call it). It has cutter-like action, but he changes the look of it into more of a slider when he gets ahead in the count to try and put hitters away.
“When I get ahead 1-2 or 0-2 I will make the cutter into more of a slider,” Armstrong said. “The cutter is obviously harder than the slider, so what I try to do is make it have more depth into the bottom of the zone. It is the same grip; I just make a slight adjustment with my thumb.”
In addition to his health some changes to Armstrong’s mechanics have also helped his command and with his consistency of his offspeed stuff.
“I used to have a really long arm swing, and last year when I first signed and went to Mahoning Valley and threw a bullpen for [Minor League Pitching Coordinator] Dave Miller, he sat me down and showed me a couple of videos and pictures,” Armstrong said. “He shortened my arm slot so I am quicker and not so long, and that helped me with my offspeed pitches because I tended to have really late hands with everything so it really helped me a lot. I never even thought that something that small would help so much.”
On Wednesday the Arizona Fall League announced the players that are to participate in the Rising Stars game (airs tonight at 8:00pm ET on MLB Network), which is basically their version of a league All Star game. Armstrong was one of the players selected to the team, but he has since gone home after suffering from a bout of mild shoulder soreness. As a precaution, the Indians shut him down and his fall league season has come to an end after just five appearances where he did not allow a run in 5.2 innings and allowed 2 hits, 4 walks, and had 3 strikeouts.
Armstrong used his time in the fall league to fine tune his fastball command and incorporate his curveball more heavily into his pitch mix.
“It was an honor to be in the Arizona Fall League,” Armstrong said. “For me personally I wanted to throw more strikes on a consistent basis and develop my curveball more. I started working on it more toward the end of the season, but out [in Arizona] you want to do well so you stick with what is working. But I [threw] my curveball more than I did throughout the season. It is more 12-6 than my cutter-slider and is something I can throw to a lefty back door versus having the same look as a cutter that runs in on the hands.”
Now that the season is officially over for Armstrong he can go home, catch his breath, and look back on his accomplishments this past season. But he knows he can’t let up and that he still has not accomplished his ultimate goal of reaching the big leagues.
“I’m going to go home, work my butt off in the weight room, and try to and get ready for spring training,” Armstrong said. “Hopefully I will have a good spring training and see where it goes from there."
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