Opportunities are infinite for Armstrong
Life in the pros consists of day-to-day opportunity. Each day a player treads across the dirt of the diamond, new opportunities surface. For Cleveland Indians’ right-hander Shawn Armstrong, opportunities lie in overlooked places.
The 6’2” reliever started last season with the low-A Lake County Captains, where he appeared in just two games before a quick promotion to the high-A Carolina MudCats. There, Armstrong pitched in 26 games, posting an ERA of 2.06 as he fanned 52 and walked 23. Armstrong had expected to advance to Carolina at some point, but not so soon.
“I was expecting to move up quickly, but not that quick,” Armstrong said. “My agent and I talked about possibly by May 1, not six games into the season. It was really surprising that I went up that quick and I’m glad I got that opportunity and that chance.”
The Carolina League presented more than an advancement opportunity for Armstrong, who is a North Carolina native. It’s no secret the league is one of the toughest, and the challenges that presented themselves served as valuable learning platforms. Armstrong noted that the eight teams in the Carolina League make it difficult to keep secrets from the opposition, which is one of the more onerous obstacles to overcome.
“Everyone knows your tendencies if you stay in that league for the whole year,” Armstrong pointed out. “It’s hard to pitch in. I think that league really brings out a lot in some certain pitchers, like their qualities and things they need to work on.”
Armstrong worked on gaining the edge on hitters by getting ahead with first pitch strikes and attacking them early. “If you didn’t get ahead early, that’s when you get hurt and those hitters know you as a pitcher,” he said. “If you don’t get right on them and you fall behind into two-one, three-one counts, you’re going to get hit hard.”
Instead of getting hit hard, Armstrong worked hard, which resulted in some notable awards. He was named to the Carolina League Midseason All-Star Team. Soon after, he received another promotion. In July, he joined the AA Akron Aeros, an opportunity he hadn’t anticipated. He said it was a bit nerve-racking at first as he was one of the younger players on the roster. Soon, his nerves subsided, and were quickly replaced with inimitable bits of knowledge.
“I learned so much from being up there in double-A, just pitching tendencies, pitching sequences, little things,” he said. He also accredited Aeros’ 2012 pitching coach Tony Arnold, who helped Armstrong enhance his mental game as a reliever.
“He [Arnold] just said, ‘Get after them. Get ahead,’” Armstrong explained.
Armstrong filled roles as both a starter and reliever in college, but has now grown comfortable in his relief role with the Indians organization.
“I told them whatever role I got, I wanted to run with it because I feel comfortable in both,” he said. “After my first year in pro ball, I felt more comfortable as a reliever than I did a starter, but I was excited just to get the opportunity to play pro ball for a great organization, and I’m really happy to be a reliever and I’m ready to see what the next step forward brings me.”
He also learned that perfection is a false commodity on the mound.
“The first pitch, don’t try to be too perfect,” he explained. “The second pitch, don’t try and be too perfect. Know the hitters that you’re facing and just use the same mindset, and that’s kind of what I was trying to do.”
Now, Armstrong is working to add a third component to his repertoire of pitches. He’s mastered the fastball and cutter, the pitch he attributed for much of his success last season, but he intends to boost his pitch resume with a curveball. This offseason, he’s been working on the curveball and working out so that he misses no opportunities when spring training starts. One of the biggest differences between collegiate and pro ball is the personal dedication required to stay in shape.
“It’s just kind of more laid-back now, but you can also work your way out of the game if you don’t do what you need to do,” Armstrong said.
In order to remain on the incline, Armstrong has been working out five days, lifting three and running twice per week. This week, he’ll increase throwing five days to six in addition to throwing his first bullpen session, which will consist of strictly fastballs.
Physical workouts aren’t the only form of development Armstrong has implemented this offseason. Last month, he participated in the organization’s winter development program. The nine-day program consisted of a list of invitees within the organization, including Francisco Lindor and Jesus Aguilar.
“We went to the stadium every morning, we had breakfast, and we’d go and have a discussion,” Armstrong recalled. “It was kind of more the mental part, like showing you what hard work gives you and to never give up. Then we’d have speakers come in to talk to us about leadership, teamwork and hard work and accountability, and how they used it in the past.” Among these speakers were manager Terry Francona and team president Mark Shapiro.
The 14 players who attended the program stayed with host families in the Cleveland area, a city which Armstrong loves. “It’s bigger than where I went to college [East Carolina University], but the whole city is built around the sports,” he said. “They’re straight Cleveland fans and I love it. I wouldn’t ask to play anywhere else. “
Cleveland is closer than Armstrong initially realized on the scale of advancement, as he finished last season with an 0.89 ERA and 92 percent left-on-base percentage in just over 20 innings through 17 games with Akron. Now, just AAA-Columbus rests between Armstrong’s last level and the big league club. Though he’s aiming for the top, he says his proximity to Progressive Field isn’t something he dwells on.
”In my eyes, I’m just as close as anyone else,” he noted. “I don’t really like looking ahead at that, just because I’ve had shoulder surgery and I realize how fast it can be taken away from you. I don’t really like looking ahead. I like staying in the moment and just seeing what happens. I’m hoping to get that opportunity this year, but I don’t want to run with it.”
Armstrong is hoping for the best, no matter the level of play. Winning counts more to him, especially since he received a full dose of it last season.
“Wherever I’m at, I want to help the team win,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. You also have personal goals, but if I’m in double-A, I want to win. If I’m in triple-A, I want to win. If I’m in the big leagues, I want to win. Ultimately, my personal goal is I want to finish at the top. I want to win another ring like I did last year in Akron.”
Last season, the Aeros were crowned the Eastern League champs, an opportunity Armstrong said he had never come close to experiencing before. The team had to win three straight over the Bowie BaySox in the playoffs before they rolled over the Trenton Thunder in the finals, which Armstrong said he won’t soon forget.
Now, as he awaits the arrival of his ring, he’s enjoying the remainder of his offseason on the golf course and outdoors. He’ll head to Arizona on February 10th to get started in spring training, which he sees as another opportunity to excel. His biggest goal for the start of the season is to anchor his arsenal of three pitches.
“I’m just really trying to get that back pitch curveball working where I’m confident in that as much as my cutter and fastball,” he revealed. “I just feel like if I can get that and have a three pitch mix, and throw more strikes than I did last year, good things are going to come.”
Opportunity is not everything, unless it’s expended. For Shawn Armstrong, the mileage to the major leagues is relatively short, but the opportunities are infinite.
Stephanie is a crime and general assignment reporter for The Morning Journal in Lorain, Ohio. She’s an alumna of Cleveland State University with a degree in Journalism and Promotional Communication. You can follow her on Twitter @7thInningSteph.