Big leaguers are often defined by their ability to forget the bad days and rebound from adversity.
For Akron RubberDucks relief pitcher Shawn Armstrong, remembering the lessons learned from his adversity and channeling his fire is the newfound key to his success. After a disappointing start to the 2013 season, and an injury that cost him six weeks of game action, Armstrong has rebounded this season to be a leader in the RubberDucks bullpen. Recently Armstrong was named Indians Minor League Player of the Week for April 28-May 4.
“We’re in a great organization and any time you get a chance to represent the organization, it’s awesome,” Armstrong said. “We strive to get up there and play with those guys, so any chance you get to be named Player of the Week, it’s an honor to have that.”
In 2014, Armstrong has a 0.66 ERA in 13.2 innings, allowing just six hits, six walks and one run, while striking out 19 batters in 13 games. The right-hander, combined with left-hander Kyle Crockett, has settled in to the back end of Akron’s bullpen. Depending upon the match-up, either pitcher can close. Remembering his setback, however, could be the biggest development that helps get Armstrong to the big leagues.
It hasn’t always been as easy as Armstrong is making it look this season. Drafted in the 18th round of the 2011 First Year Player Draft out of East Carolina, Armstrong shined in 2012 in the Tribe’s organization. Opening the season in Low-A Lake County, he quickly moved to High-A Carolina and finished at Double-A Akron. Armstrong helped the then-Aeros win the 2012 Eastern League title. The hard-throwing, right-hander was compared to Cody Allen, another hard-thrower that had just completed a quick climb to the big leagues.
Entering 2013, Armstrong had high expectations for himself and goals of pitching at the big league level by the end of season. However, opening the season back at Akron, things did not go as planned. Armstrong struggled in April 2013, starting the season with a 6.35 ERA, allowing four earned runs in 5.2 innings. On April 19, the frustration boiled over after a disappointing outing. Armstrong injured his non-throwing hand and was sidelined for six weeks.
“That was a learning experience for him—a tough one—but a good learning experience for him,” RubberDucks manager David Wallace said. “It’s matured him a little bit and kind of calmed him down.”
Sidelined for six weeks, Armstrong had to return to Arizona to rehabilitate his hand and work on his mechanics. His largest adjustment wasn’t a physical one, but instead controlling his fire and passion on the pitcher’s mound and using it as a strength.
“It was a big eye-opener for me with the injury and everything,” Armstrong said. “I had a lot of time to think about it and I used that to my advantage to see how quickly your career can be taken away from you.”
Even upon returning to Akron on June 30, Armstrong did not have immediate success. He was 0-2, with a 6.17 ERA—allowing eight earned runs over 11.2 innings with 10 walks in 11 games. With the goal of reaching Cleveland in 2013 seemingly out of reach, Armstrong was able to relax and get back to pitching the way he had in 2012.
“He’s a guy who needs to pitch with that fire in his gut,” Wallace said. “He’s learning how to control that and use that for his benefit and not let it overcome him to where he loses his temper out there or can’t throw strikes.”
“I like to use the fire. I’m kind of a calm guy outside the field, but when you get 60-feet, six inches away, it’s a completely different game,” Armstrong said. “There’s no better feeling than being on that mound, throwing that baseball.”
Relaxed, and channeling that fire in a positive direction, Armstrong found success. In August and September he was 2-1, with a 1.84 ERA in 14.2 innings, allowing just two earned runs over 12 games. Trying to make up for time lost during his injury, Armstrong continued his success in the Arizona Fall League. He was 1-0 with a 1.59 ERA in 10 games for the Surprise Saguaros. Along with teammates Tyler Naquin, Joe Wendle and Tony Wolters, the Saguaros won the Arizona Fall League championship.
In 2014, Armstrong and Crockett have been the back end of the RubberDucks bullpen. Both have had a chance to close games this year, Armstrong recording five saves and Crockett six of his own. While Wallace and the coaching staff do pay attention to match-ups, they have complete confidence in each when they enter the game.
“Right now, once they come in, the inning is theirs,” Wallace said. “We do try to look at it a little bit. If there are two or three righties coming up, then we’ll probably lean toward Armstrong and the other way with Crockett.”
Wallace doesn’t feel either are just match-up relievers at the big league level. He trusts each with their own inning and feels they are capable of the same success at the big league level, soon.
“In the future they might both be matchup guys,” Wallace said. “And that’s how a lot of guys break in, but I have confidence in both of them being full-inning, even two-inning guys, and eventually working their way to being back end of the bullpen guys in the big leagues.”
Now, Armstrong uses that fire on the mound as a positive outlet and channel. At times when his best stuff has not been there, he feels it can get him through a high-pressure situation on the mound. He’s had his best stuff most of the season though and has not allowed a run in 12.2 innings or a hit in his last 8.2 frames.
“His stuff is there, the velocity is there, everything is there to be a successful back end of the bullpen guy in the big leagues,” Wallace said. “It’s just a matter of growing in to it and learning how to use his stuff and keep his energy and fire up but in control.”
“He’s a guy we really like and think will be in a Cleveland Indians uniform very soon.”
Currently, Armstrong is just trying to remain focused on Akron and his role in their bullpen. The RubberDucks are currently 23-13 on the season, good for a two and a half game lead in the Western Division of the Eastern League. Instead of worrying about Cleveland, Armstrong is just enjoying an exciting Akron team that’s full of potential.
“Last year was a big eye-opener,” Armstrong said. “Using that stuff and knowing what I know from my first full season, and having a chance to do it again with a special team in Akron, I’m excited.”
With the Indians bullpen currently at a state of influx, with the announcement that John Axford will no longer close games and the team will use a closer-by-committee plan, there could be a shake-up in Cleveland. The now 23-year old Armstrong could be on the horizon, completing what would still be a quick climb to the big leagues. When the Indians call him, he’ll be ready, but in the meantime he keeps that fire focused on Akron and the game he can control. The rest will come to him when he’s ready.
“I just have to take what comes to me and run with it,” Armstrong said. “Hopefully, the Indians give me an opportunity, if not this year, they always have a plan and I’ll use it to my advantage.”
Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN photographer