As the 2018 Mariners flirted with the postseason down the stretch and cycled through journeyman relievers, management likely found themselves often wishing they had one more guy who could, well, pretty much do exactly what Shawn Armstrong was doing down in Triple-A all season.
Acquired from the Cleveland Indians for international bonus pool money last offseason, Armstrong came to Seattle with just under 50 career major league innings under his belt. After flashing appealing strikeout upside and good command of his arsenal through a brief opportunity with Cleveland back in 2015, he burned through his two remaining options over the next two seasons, failing to make enough of an impact at the big league level to stick either time. With the Mariners lacking the ability to option Armstrong to the minors without exposing him to the waiver wire, the club opted to let him continue to establish himself with Tacoma for most of 2018. They eventually took a chance on the flamethrowing right-hander at the end of August. Through 14.2 innings for the M’s, he demonstrated better control than he’d shown in the minors all season and posted a 1.23/3.23/4.03 slash line and racked up 0.2 fWAR, fourth-most among Mariners relievers over that time frame.
After historically attacking the lower part of the strike zone throughout his minor league career, the Eastern Carolina University alum made a shift towards pitching hitters in the upper part of the zone for 2018 which allowed his high-spin rate heater to force batters to swing through it and generate fly outs on a more regular basis.
A student of the science of pitching, Armstrong credited his work with Tacoma pitching coach Lance Painter and the Rapsodo machine, which allows him to obtain instant feedback regarding his arsenal, for his recent success at the upper minor league and major league levels, going as far as to purchase his own personal machine for his offseason training facility. His fastball—which averaged 2627 rotations per minute in 2018—ranked seventh in RPM among all major league fastballs and was highly effective when called upon for in-game action as he allowed just one extra-base hit off of it.
The five-time Minor League All-Star keeps opposing hitters guessing with a four-pitch mix that includes a sinker, slider, and cutter in addition to his 4-seamer, all of which rank in the top 10 in RPM league-wide. Below, you see his slider at work to set Mike Trout down swinging.
Armstrong heads to camp as part of a group vying for a spot in the opening day bullpen, a group which includes just four right-handers with 100.0 career innings at the major league level. If he can turn in a a performance this spring anything like he did a year ago when he posted an 0.96 ERA and 0.86 WHIP through seven appearances, he should face a better fate than he did last March when he opened the season in Tacoma. With the club having invested little in the bullpen for the upcoming season, a spot on the 25-man for the extent of the season looks like his to lose. He’s even likely to receive a longer leash than that of his potential fellow-relievers as the club can maintain control over him through the 2024 season should prove himself a capable contributor to the big league squad.
And most importantly, a thread of his beautiful Golden Retriever, Benson: