Shawn Armstrong received a phone call that he knew was coming. You don’t have this much professional experience and self-awareness and become oblivious to the situation.
Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias was on the other end of the line on June 4. Armstrong had been designated for assignment.
After clearing outright waivers, Armstrong had the freedom to decline and become a free agent. He chose to stay.
Armstrong, 30, made the drive yesterday to Norfolk, hitting the gas and the reset button. Only one required his right foot.
“I’ve had quite a few teams offer that they wanted me to basically elect and sign with them, but it’s like, am I really do myself or my family justice to leave there, go to another team?” Armstrong said yesterday morning. “As bullpen depth, yeah, they’ve got a really good group in Triple-A, but if you think they’re just going to walk into the big leagues, it’s not going to happen. I’m ready to go down there, work with Kennie (Steenstra), work with the good group of guys they have down there in the bullpen and the starting rotation, and do what I need to do to get back.
“I love being an Oriole, I love what the organization offers, I love where they’re at and where they’re heading, and I have a real good relationship with their entire analytical and pitching staff. They have a very good understanding of what I need to be successful in my career. The comfort of working with these guys that I’ve been with for the past three years is a huge plus for me. I don’t have to go learn a new staff, I don’t have to go learn new catchers. I can come here and settle in and get going.”
First came the part where he had to leave. Momentum out the door building while registering an 8.55 ERA and 1.900 WHIP in 20 appearances.
“Being around the game and knowing that Harvey was coming off, I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t in the back of my mind that it was coming, you know?” he said. “Just because of, you look around and there’s no other moves that really need to be made besides me at the time. It’s the business side of things. They take a chance on keeping me.
“From the front office and everybody, when Elias called and told me the news about everything, he was like, ‘We really don’t want to lose you. We think you’ve had some tough luck and it’s just snowballed a little bit. We want you to go down there, catch your breath, get in a groove. We want you back here as soon as possible.’ Those are always encouraging words whenever you are being sent down. It’s just part of the game. Sometimes this stuff happens.
“As a player it’s not what you want to happen, but in the grand scheme of things you also have to look at yourself in the mirror and you have to understand where it’s coming from and the reasons behind it. You have to live with it and make the adjustments to get back there.”
Yes, the adjustments. Instituted from conversations with pitching coach and director of pitching Chris Holt and assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes shortly before the Elias phone call.
One topic was the first batter of an inning going 6-for-16 with four doubles and four walks, compared to 0-for-14 with five strikeouts in 2020. And this was just scratching the surface.
“I was in the top one percentile, getting to two strikes and putting the guy away in four pitches or less, and I think that has a lot to do with it. If you look at what I was doing this year, I think I was averaging 7.26 pitches per batter, and in the big leagues, you’re going to get hit,” said Armstrong, who allowed three earned runs in 15 innings last season and stranded 11 of 13 inherited runners.
“As a reliever, when you have a three-pitch mix and then you’re throwing seven pitches, they see each pitch twice, it’s the big leagues. You have to execute pitches, as well, and I was doing it early, I wasn’t doing it late, I was trying to make the pitch too good, I guess you could say, and it just put me right back to 2-2, 3-2 counts. I think a lot of it had to do with trying to be too fine. The way my stuff plays, if I’m trying to throw strikes, I’m going to get hit. That’s just kind of how it is. And the pitches that I was missing in the zone, they were getting hit.”
A team that operates heavily in data-driven material made Armstrong a project, including a biomechanical analysis to compare numbers between 2021 and previous seasons.
“I found some interesting information as far as that,” Armstrong said.
His explanations venture into a thickness of confusion unless you’re ingrained in it. A casual fan or observer could get lost.
“That was the reasoning behind my arm slot misses, the gyrospin on my cutter, just little things like that that were causing my stuff not to play the same,” Armstrong said. “Holty was working a little bit with me about that, like my weight distribution. The biomechanical analysis and all really made sense that my body was kind of working against itself going down the hill versus working as a continual movement, a pendulum, and everything being connected. So it was pretty good information that I found there.
“And there also was some pretty good information that I found with the differences of what I was doing and then a little bit of, I wouldn’t really call it a mechanical change. It’s more of really inducing that vertical spot to let the body and weight travel together down the slope, because the information that we saw, the center mass of gravity in my body was moving at nine mph and my pelvis was moving at 5.6 mph, so it was just causing me to really lean back and not be able to maintain a vertical spot down the slope. I was becoming disconnected having early lumbar extension.
“Just little things like that that can really make a big difference, and honestly, that’s the difference between a 93 mph fastball and for me a 96 mph fastball. But it all comes down to getting ahead and not being too predictable, which is something I did in ‘19, as well, where it was cutter, cutter, cutter to one location and then I started getting hit. That’s kind of where it was leading to this year, as well. And I didn’t do a good job with inherited runners, which is what I did a really good job with last year.”
So we’re talking a much deeper dive than altering a grip or where a pitcher stands on the rubber.
“We went over that stuff before my last outing and I saw the information, I understood the information that was presented to me and it really made sense,” Armstrong said.
“Everybody I talked to in the organization, they didn’t want to get rid of me, they didn’t want to see me go, but it’s baseball. I’ve done this a long time. I’m also a realist. I wasn’t pitching well, I wasn’t pitching good enough to deserve to stay there right now, especially with how the vast majority of that bullpen has been pitching. It’s one of those things where, hey, I’m coming to Triple-A, I’m still with the Orioles. I’m going to try to get my stuff together and try to get back up there as soon as possible.”
Armstrong conquered one important challenge before meeting or getting reacclimated with his Tides teammates. His attitude was positive. Mainly due to the sessions with Holt and Holmes.
Where some might find darkness, Armstrong saw light.
“Let’s be honest, nobody wants to leave the big leagues,” he said. “I’ve been there the past three, four years. You can get mad about it and be in a pissed off mood or you can go to work and try to better yourself and try to get back there. That’s the name of the game. It’s a game of failure and the guys who stick in the big leagues are the guys who are consistent day in and day out, make adjustments pitch to pitch, and I wasn’t doing that right now.
“This is going to give me an opportunity to come down here and do that and compete and get back to the big leagues and get back to where I want to be. It’s not like it was one of those things where I’m just getting crushed, crushed, crushed. I see what’s going on, I see where my misses are and why they’re getting hit. It’s a game of adjustments and I need to make that adjustment.”
Armstrong has been doing it all year. From a COVID-19 spring training setup to becoming a father and going on the paternity list prior to opening day to a minor league assignment and the drive to Norfolk.
“It’s been a lot of variables that happened and I’d be lying to you if I said that adjusting with a baby was easy for me. It wasn’t,” Armstrong said. “That’s not an excuse as far as my performance and the way I pitched this year. I didn’t contribute to the team to where we want to be day in and day out. But I’d also be lying if going home for the last five days, six days, and being able to go train from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. and then be able to spend the day with little man and actually see him all day and understand what he’s doing and see him grow ... it was a big refresher.
“Mentally, I wasn’t in a good spot before I left just because I wasn’t pitching well. It’s baseball. That’s my life, it’s what I do, and I never really felt like that before in the game. So it’s a humbling experience and you can either dwell on it and be upset, look at all the negatives, or you can take the negatives, turn them into positives and just look at yourself as a person.
“It’s time to grind. That’s what this game is. It’s a humbling experience and there are life lessons on and off the field. I’m thrilled that I still have a job. There are a lot of guys who don’t have a job right now. I’m happy to come here and get to work and help the Norfolk Tides in any way I can to win ballgames and help myself get back into the big leagues and help the Orioles win ballgames.”