Jack Armstrong 6At this time in 1990 the Reds’ Jack Armstrong was on top of the world. He had just been named the starting pitcher for the National League in the All Star game, which is pretty much the ultimate honor for a pitcher. The team was in first place on its way to a wire-to-wire World Series victory over the juggernaut Oakland Athletics. Armstrong was 11-3 with a 2.28 ERA at the All Star break. The Reds were 13-4 in games started by Armstrong. The 25 year old was seemingly on his way to superstardom in his first full season in the rotation.

The Reds’ young ace was one of 5 Reds to make the All Star team that season. Chris Sabo was the starting third baseman and went 0 for 2 at the plate. Barry Larkin was inserted as a pinch runner for Tony Gwynn and stole second base but he didn’t get to bat. Nasty Boy Rob Dibble pitched one inning and allowed the two baserunners he inherited from future Red Jeff Brantley to score the only runs of the game. Nasty Boy Randy Myers pitched an inning, allowing a hit and two walks but no runs.

There were several other former or future Reds players in the game as well. Jeff Brantley, Kevin Mitchell, John Franco, Benito Santiago and Frank Viola were on the National League squad. Playing for the American League, Ken Griffey Junior made his first All Star team as a Mariner and Dave Parker made his last All Star team in his only season as a Milwaukee Brewer.

Jack Armstrong 2The game was played at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on a soggy day. The game was stopped several times, including one hour-long rain delay but they still played all nine innings in just under three hours. The wet weather probably helped contribute to the low-scoring affair, which the AL won by a 2-0 score.

The game featured a boatload of Hall of Famers. Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Ozzie Smith, Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, Tony Gwynn and probable HOFer Barry Bonds all played for the NL. Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken, Kirby Puckett, Randy Johnson, Dennis Eckersley and probable HOFers Roger Clemens and Ken Griffey Junior all played for the AL. That is a whopping 15 future Hall of Fame players in one game.

Jack Armstrong 4Jack Armstrong faced a daunting task. He was going up against a Murderers Row of sorts, starting with the greatest leadoff hitter of all time — Rickey Henderson, who flied out to right field. Henderson would go on to win the AL MVP Award that year and was the first of three Oakland Athletics Armstrong would face in his two innings. The Reds, of course, would go on to defeat the A’s in the World Series that same season. Wade Boggs of the Red Sox was the next batter, and he hit an infield single to third baseman Chris Sabo of the Reds.

The next batter was another Athletic, Jose Canseco, who ended up with 37 home runs that year. Would you bat Jose Canseco third in a lineup full of Hall of Famers? I wouldn’t. But the manager of the American League team that year was our beloved Tony LaRussa, manager of the A’s. Leave it up to LaRussa to favor his own players in the All Star game and do something stupid like bat Canseco in the coveted three slot instead of a Hall of Famer. It wouldn’t be the last time LaRussa would degrade the Midsummer Classic with his shenanigans; remember him leaving Johnny Cueto off the 2012 All Star team in revenge for the fight his Cardinals started against the Reds? You know, the one where 20 of his players ganged up on Cueto in the scrum. But back to the story; Armstrong was able to strike out Canseco to bring another HOFer to the plate in the person of Baltimore’s Cal Ripken, who grounded out to his shortstop counterpart Ozzie Smith to end the first inning.

Jack Armstrong 5In the second inning Ken Griffey Junior led off and flew out to left field in foul territory. Griffey and Armstrong were both drafted in the 1st round of the 1987 draft. Griffey was taken with the 1st overall pick by the Mariners, then Armstrong was taken by the Reds with the 18th pick, four slots ahead of future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio and nine slots ahead of future Red Pete Harnisch.

The next batter was Mark McGwire, yet another Athletic. McGwire would hit 39 home runs that season but he struck out against Armstrong. Next up was catcher Sandy Alomar of the Indians, who would be the AL Rookie of the Year that season. Alomar fouled out to first baseman Will Clark to end both the inning and Armstrong’s excellent outing. Jack gave up only one hit, the infield single to Boggs in his two innings of work. That moment would mark the highest peak of Armstrong’s baseball career, but the glory did not last long. Not long at all.

Jack Armstrong 3After his great half-season of dominance and his brief moment of glory in the All Star Game, it all came crashing down in a hurry for Armstrong. In his first start after the All Star game he allowed 5 runs in 3.1 innings to the New York Mets, which is more runs than he had given up in any start before the break. The next several games were more of the same, including a 7-run shellacking from the Padres. Over the course of his first nine starts after the All Star break Armstrong posted one win, six losses and a dismal 6.36 ERA. He was then swiftly demoted to the bullpen for the rest of the season. So on July 10th he was starting the All Star game as the best pitcher in the National League, and six weeks later he was banished to the pen. That is a stunning fall from grace.

In the post-season he was relegated to pitching as the long man out of the bullpen during the Reds’ championship run. He was not used in either the divisional series or the NL championship series. But he did come up big one more time. Armstrong helped the Reds win the World Series over the Athletics when he came into game two in relief of Scott Scudder and pitched three scoreless frames in a contest the Reds eventually won in the 10th inning. But his biggest contribution to the championship was helping them build up the big divisional lead during the first half of the season. The Reds actually had a losing record after the All Star break in 1990, but regrouped in the playoffs and won the title.

Jack Armstrong 1

Armstrong’s 1990 splits are stark:

1st Half 2nd Half
Wins 11 1
Losses 3 6
ERA 2.28 5.96
AVG 0.222 0.284
OBP 0.277 0.380
SLG 0.322 0.416
BABIP 0.258 0.321
K/9 6.1 5.6
BB/9 2.43 4.93
K/BB 2.52 1.14

He was the best pitcher in the league in the first half, then one of the worst in the second half. He started out nearly unhittable but quickly morphed into a punching bag. You can see that he was a bit lucky in terms of batting average on balls in play in the 1st half (league average BABIP was .295) and a little unlucky in the 2nd half, but neither half was extremely lucky or unlucky. The biggest difference was his walk rate, which doubled after the break. His 2.43 BB/9 in the first half was good but not great, but his 4.93 BB/9 in the second half was dreadful. You can’t survive in the major leagues when you walk as many batters as you strike out. Except for that brilliant three month period in 1990, control was a major problem for Armstrong throughout his seven year career.

Unfortunately those 2nd half numbers were the real Jack Armstrong. The Reds put him back in the rotation for the 1991 season, but he turned in the worst season of his career, going 7-13 with a 5.48 ERA in 140 innings. After the 1991 season the Reds traded Armstrong and Scudder to the Cleveland Indians for Greg Swindell, who would go on to pitch brilliantly for the Reds in 1992 (12-8, 2.70 ERA).

Jack Armstrong 7After going 6-15 with a 4.64 ERA for the Indians in 1992, Armstrong was left exposed to the expansion draft, where he was taken by the Marlins. He then went 9-17 with a 4.49 ERA as a member of the inaugural Florida Marlins team that lost 98 games in their first year in the league. He then pitched 10 innings for the Rangers in 1994 and that was it. His career was over.

In terms of talent Armstrong was a fringe major leaguer, but he managed to put together one remarkable stretch of elite success in that wonderful 1990 wire-to-wire season. It is safe to say that the Reds would not have won the championship that season without Jack Armstrong. He had a career unlike any other. He shot straight to the top of the baseball world, then plummeted straight back down to Earth and right out of the game altogether. It didn’t last long but he reached heights few players ever reach and he earned himself a memorable place in Cincinnati Reds history.

 

 

16 Responses

  1. Greg S

    Nice piece. I don’t the article mentioned Armstrong’s great quote during salary negotiations in the spring of ’91:

    “I`d rather make $30,000 on a tuna boat and have peace of mind than continue to take insults,“ Armstrong said.

  2. Big56dog

    Seems I remember some story that he made reporters go through this very tedious procedure to set up interviews. It cam across as very arrogant but he got off to such a great start I think a lot of reporters honored it. Does any one remember the particulars.

  3. redsfan06

    Great article. I must take an opposing view on the comment that Rickey Henderson was the greatest hit off leader of all time. That honor belongs to none other than Pete Rose.

    • PRoseFutureHOFer

      Nice. I tend to agree with you – but what bothers me most is simply that “greatest leadoff hitter of all time” always seems to be stated as fact. It’s at least arguable.

    • Nick Doran

      Yeah you could make a case for Pete Rose as the best leadoff hitter of all time. Both players were great. Pete’s career slash line was .303/.375/.409 while Henderson’s was .279/.401/.419. Rose is the all-time leader in hits, while Henderson is the all-time leader in runs scored and stolen bases. Henderson stole 1406 bases, Pete stole only 198 (and was caught 149 times). I think Henderson was the ultimate, prototypical leadoff hitter and I think most people agree. Both helped their teams win a lot of games.

      • Vicferrari

        I would have to argue that Henderson’s OBP above .400 is very impressive, a lot more than a .303 BA. Considering how many times Rose was on base and he is not the all time leader in runs scored seriously dampens any argument.
        I seriously doubt Rose getting on base with his hustle seriously effected the pitcher’s mentality more than Henderson, so I am curious as why anybody would even suggest Rose was a better leadoff hitter.
        I would say all this without factoring in the SB’s

    • John Hay

      Looking at Baseball Reference, I see that Henderson led off 585 more times than Rose. Henderson also had a higher OBP and SLG while batting leadoff. Not to mention stealing over 1250 more bases than Rose from the leadoff position. Rose was a great player, but it looks to me like Henderson was the better leadoff hitter.

      • John Hay

        ninja’d while trying to get my password reset.

  4. icee82

    I would have to comment that Armstrong continues to be very bitter towards the game of baseball. As everyone knows, he is one of the few players that has stayed away from all of the 1990 celebrations. He did not appear at RedsFest for the 20th reunion and has not appeared this season at any of the many events. He did a private signing with a Florida dealer about three years ago and I was able to snag an OMLB but that has been it. He is also having some health issues. There was another signing set up in Florida but due to hip replacement surgery, he cancelled.

    • Vicferrari

      Seems like the guy had a poor attitude, wonder if any one has any favorable memories from his days as a player

  5. vegastypo

    Thanks for the remembrance, Nick! He might have had only one-half of a season to brag about, but the guy has a World Series ring, and that hot start really did make the difference.

  6. Tom Gray

    Some similarities to Wayne Simpson in 1970. Made All-Star team that year and never did much after that.

  7. Matt WI

    What impresses me is that the Reds were proactive enough to stop the bleeding at the time and demote him. Pretty impressive move to tell an All-Star starter to hit the bullpen, especially in the era before innings limits were en vogue.

    • Tom Gray

      Lou Piniella knew how to manage. Not sure Reds have someone like him now.