Did you think Shawn Armstrong was “the guy” earlier in the season?
If so, you weren’t alone. For over a month after he arrived in Baltimore in early May, Armstrong seemed to be automatic in the Orioles bullpen. He struck guys out at a decent rate, got some holds, and all in all looked like perhaps like another Darren O’Day — some team’s cast-off that found a home in Charm City.
Well...water tends to find its level, and given 162 games’ worth of time, it certainly will do so. Armstrong came back to earth, the numbers began to swell, and by year’s end he was just another average arm in a below-average bullpen. He finished the season 1-1 with a 5.74 ERA and four saves.
In fairness, though, it would be unfair to expect more from a player who was sitting on the market a month after the season started. An 18th-round pick in 2011 by the Indians, Armstrong had spent three years in Cleveland and another in Seattle coming into this season and compiled a 2.95 ERA over 53 games. He got off to a rough start with the Mariners this season, however, and was 0-1 with a 14.73 ERA in only four appearances when Seattle decided to cut bait and place the then-28-year-old on waivers.
Baltimore added him on April 28, and at first, it looked like they had found a stud. He made his first appearance with the O’s on May 1, and from then to June 16 made 17 appearances while pitching to a 1.50 ERA. He fanned 21 in 18 innings, picked up four holds and surrendered only a .156 batting average against and .552 OPS. He was settling in both as Baltimore’s seventh-inning guy and a go-to arm when the game was getting dicey.
Then on June 19, Armstrong allowed four runs in a total of an inning in a loss to the Athletics, and the season seemed to take a turn from there. He allowed three runs two outings later and struggled to find his form, pitching to a 4.09 ERA for July, a 10.50 mark for August and a 5.54 average for September.
There were some upsides to the season’s numbers — Armstrong struck out 60 in 54.1 innings pitched, the best rate he’s had yet — but most of the statistics are pretty middling. His WHIP (1.638 overall, 1.546 in Baltimore) was the highest of his career, and for the season he averaged his most hits per nine innings (10.2) of his five years in the majors.
That’s not to say Armstrong didn’t give the Orioles a sense for how he could be used next year, if he’s around next year. Despite being a right-handed pitcher, Armstrong had a far easier time against left-handed hitters (.209 batting average against, .612 OPS) than right-handed hitters (.324, .934), and he was better at home (4.97 ERA, .239 average) than on the road (6.52, .320) despite Camden Yards being one of the most difficult parks in which to pitch.
Those splits aren’t new. For his career, Armstrong has been better against lefties (.205 batting average against, .606 OPS) than righties (.280, .832), and his ability to pitch well in a bandbox like Oriole Park suggests he’s continued to demonstrate what was observed in 2015 as an ability to keep the ball low. As often as he gave up hits and runs, he was a little more stingy with home runs. He allowed eight to 271 batters; for a comparison, Mychal Givens allowed 13 to 260.
These numbers should be encouraging to Brandon Hyde, since they indicate that Armstrong can be an effective major league pitcher going forward in the right role. Maybe his value is as a right-handed version of a lefty specialist, or someone — again, like O’Day way back when — whose primary value was coming in whenever needed and getting a ground ball to snuff out a rally.
The odds for a return look good. Armstrong is under contract through 2023, and at only $559,100 is good value for the team. With the Orioles still looking at a few more seasons before the rebuild starts to show in the standings, they have all the time to see if Armstrong can recapture the form that had scouts and talent evaluators impressed with his ascension to the majors and his performance once there.
It’s more doubtful to envision Armstrong as part of that rebuilt Orioles team, however. Assuming 2022 is when Baltimore fully turns the corner, Armstrong will be 32 by then and potentially replaced by the younger, stronger arms. For now, though, it’s worthwhile to see what he can do in a full season with Baltimore. We’ve already seen what it looks like when he’s having success.