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Shawn Armstrong is struggling to locate and getting hit hard

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The righty appears to have a slightly altered repertoire of pitches, and it could be causing him some trouble learning how to be effective out of the bullpen.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It’s really not fair to draw any meaningful conclusions from nine games worth of baseball. But that is the situation in which we find ourselves. Bills have to be paid, blog posts have to be written, and baseball data (no matter how limited) yearns to be analyzed.

Orioles reliever Shawn Armstrong has made four appearances since re-joining the team on April 5. In each of those outings the righty has allowed at least one earned run and been hit around the ballpark (very) hard.

Now, let’s be calm about this. These poor performances have encompassed all of two total innings. Armstrong tossed 58 innings in 2019 between the Mariners and Orioles. So, this could be nothing more than a speed bump on what becomes an otherwise solid season for the reliever.

That said, there are some worrying signs.

Very few pitchers are giving up harder contact than Armstrong. The 98.7-mph average exit velocity he has allowed is 10th-worst among pitchers with at least one batted ball event. If you raise the bar to at least 10 batted ball events, then Armstrong is fourth-worst in the sport.

These hard-hit balls include things like the 115.1 mph missile off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton last week that wound up in the Yankee Stadium bleachers for a grand slam. But hard hit balls are an outcome. It doesn’t help much unless we know the cause, or at least a possible cause.

The easy culprit oftentimes is pitch velocity. Armstrong was not a flamethrower entering the season, so any significant reduction in pitch speed could be highly problematic. And coming into Sunday’s appearance against the Red Sox, Armstrong’s fastball was slower than in 2019, by an eye-popping 1.5 mph.

However, he improved on the radar gun on Sunday, with his fastball bouncing between 93.2 and 94.8 mph. If he were able to extend that over an entire season it would actually be an improvement over the 93.6 mph average velocity he showed in 2020.

The Red Sox did not record a hit against Armstrong’s fastball, although it wouldn’t be fair to classify the outcomes as “good” either. He did record a strikeout on the pitch, and he was on the mound for a calamitous series of events from the Orioles infield, but he also hit a batter and issued a walk with the fastball.

Instead, it was Armstrong’s cutter that was knocked around. Rafael Devers launched a 110.8-mph home run, and Xander Bogaerts laced a 113.6-mph double down the left field line. Opposing hitters have a 1.333 slugging percentage against the pitch this season.

Now, it’s not all bad news for the cutter. Armstrong has been able to maintain its velocity (88.6 mph) from a season ago while increasing its spin rate by more than 100 RPM (to 2759 RPM) and adding more than an inch of horizontal break (8.5 inches total).

What seems to be the problem with the pitch is how Armstrong distributes it in and around the strike zone.

Image depicting distribution of Shawn Armstrong’s cutters in 2021
Source: Baseball Savant
Major League Baseball

Armstrong is attempting to pepper the bottom of the zone with cutters, but is struggling to find his mark. The result is a whole lot of non-competitive pitches and easy takes. Then, when he does elevate a little, he gets crushed.

Where the 30-year-old is finding success with the offering is way up in the zone. Opposing hitters don’t have a hit against Armstrong’s cutter when it ends up in the top third of the strike zone. Most often the outcome is a swinging strike or weak foul contact, like against Aaron Hicks on April 5th.

This makes sense. In general, a higher spin rate gives a pitch its illusionary “rise.” So, a batter thinks it will be lower than it actually ends up. High pitches look enticing, low pitches look like they are headed for the dirt.

There are similar troubles with his fastball. It is also coming in with more spin than a year ago (2663 vs. 2479 RPM). But location, once again, appears to be an issue.

Photo depicting distribution of Shawn Armstrong’s fastball in 2021
Source: Baseball Savant
Major League Baseball

The distribution is more random here than with the cutter. And there are many more pitches left in the middle of the zone. That, on its own, is not a problem. After all, Armstrong has good spin rate on his fastball, so he can get away with certain locations that other pitchers can’t. But pair that location with diminished velocity, like we saw in his first three appearances of the season, and you’re gonna have a bad time. The Stanton grand slam was on a 92-mph fastball in the middle of the plate.

In general, it seems Armstrong has entered this season with a repertoire that is slightly altered from years past. His pitches move differently, and he has not yet figured out how to harness them. Or he could even be having some mechanical difficulties that are causing him to miss his spots by more than he would like.

In a perfect world, Armstrong would go back to the “lab” (a.k.a. the alternate site in Bowie) and work on some things before returning to Baltimore as a brand new pitcher. But he is out of options, and there is a chance another club would scoop him up given his promising peripherals and years of team control remaining.

Unless the Orioles feel they have an obvious internal candidate they have to see in the majors right now (they probably don’t), then it’s probably worth working through the struggles with Armstrong on the major league roster.

He doesn’t appear to be “broken.” His lost velocity returned over the weekend, and his increased spin rate is encouraging. The more appropriate word might be “rusty” or simply just “out of rhythm.” It’s only been two innings. Armstrong deserves a few more chance to prove he can figure things out in Baltimore.