Kris Armstrong, Jacksonville (JU photo)


Golden Spikes Spotlight: Jacksonville’s Armstrong enjoying breakout campaign

Golden Spikes Spotlight

They call Kris Armstrong “Clydesdale.”

The nickname fits.

Armstrong is big at 6-4 and 225 pounds, he has been known to carry his teammates during hot streaks, and he trots a lot – specifically around the bases. 

In fact, few players trot more than Armstrong, who enters this weekend tied for second in the nation with 20 homers.

Armstrong, a 23-year-old switch hitter, played mostly first base in his first four seasons with the Florida Gators. But after losing playing time at Florida – ironically Gators first baseman Jac Caglianone currently leads the nation with 23 homers – Armstrong entered the transfer portal.

From there, Jacksonville Dolphins coach Chris Hayes pounced, quickly signing the ex-Gator.

“Kris is such a physical presence,” Hayes said. “When we had played against Florida, Kris had always captivated my attention. He runs hard onto the field. He runs hard off the field. When he walked into the batter’s box, we knew we couldn’t make any mistakes against this guy.

“Then, when he entered the transfer portal, we were thrilled just to have a conversation with a guy like that.”

It was more than just small talk.

Armstrong, who was a high school shortstop at The Benjamin School (Jupiter, Florida), saw the potential to get consistent at-bats at Jacksonville. 

He also got a chance to play third base, which has expanded his prospect portfolio for a possible spot in the 2023 MLB Draft. 

“I weighed 235 at Florida,” Armstrong said. “When I got (to Jacksonville), I dropped 10 pounds and got more athletic, lighter on my feet. I think third base suits me. Not that first base isn’t a good position, but I was a bit limited there. 

“The biggest thing about third base is the reaction time. You are almost like a goalie in soccer, reacting to the ball left and right. But I’ve found that you have more time than you think, and there’s no need to rush your throws even if you bobble the ball.” 

Armstrong, who arrived at Florida as a hitter/pitcher, has a strong arm at third base, having been timed at 94 mph off the mound while in high school. However, he has made 14 errors so far this season.

Most of those miscues came early in the season, Hayes said. 

“At first, he was a little stiff,” Hayes said. “He needed to get comfortable with the positioning and how you attack the ball at third base. He just had to relax and let his natural ability take over.

“He earned that spot in the fall and then got off to a bit of a shaky start in the season. I think that was due to nerves and not trusting himself defensively. But now that he’s gotten acclimated to the position, he’s been good over there.”

Then again, fretting over some Armstrong errors when he’s busy hitting 20 bombs, including eight in one magical five-game stretch in March, is like worrying about John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson showing up a few minutes late to the set of Pulp Fiction.

Just watch the tape. 

Indeed, Armstrong was the D1Baseball.comNational Player of the Week in late March for his five-game performance, which also included an incredible 24 RBIs.

“Those were video-game numbers,” Dolphins shortstop Chase Malloy said. “To witness that in person was incredible.”

Armstrong has quality genes as his father, sister and two brothers all had their moments in sports. His father is Jack Armstrong, a former pitcher who was a first-round pick out of Oklahoma in 1987 and then an All-Star and a World Series champion with the Cincinnati Reds in 1990. 

Kris’ siblings include his sister, Jessica, who played college volleyball at Jacksonville. Kris’ brothers Jack (Vanderbilt) and Erik (UC Santa Barbara) played college baseball. 

By the way: Kris’ mom, Kristine, did some modeling in her youth and was once Miss New Jersey Shore.

As for Kris, it was obvious early on that he had athletic talent. Coached for many years by his father, Armstrong – a natural right-hander – picked up a lefty’s glove as a kid and taught himself to throw with his off hand.

He got so good that he became a switch-pitcher and a switch-hitter in high school.

At Florida, Armstrong soon became a hitter only, but he got just 66 at-bats combined for his freshman and sophomore seasons. As a junior in 2021, Armstrong broke out, hitting .308 with nine doubles, one triple, eight homers, 30 RBIs and a .955 OPS in 143 at-bats.

Last year, though, he slumped to a .230 batting average and a .682 OPS.

“I got into a slump early,” Armstrong said. “I was trying to do too much – pressing to get back in the lineup. I let my emotions get the best of me.”

Already graduated from Florida with a degree in Education Sciences, Armstrong is studying for his Master’s in business administration at Jacksonville. His goal – after baseball — is to become an athletic director, and he’s on track to graduate in the spring of 2024, taking online classes likely.

On the field, Armstrong changed his approach this year.

“I used to sit on pitches,” Armstrong said. “I tried to anticipate what pitch was coming. It wasn’t really working for me. 

“(This year), I started to sit on location. I don’t want to give too much away, but middle-away is my danger zone. Anything in that area, whether it’s a fastball or off-speed, I’m able to stay on time and hit it up the middle or the pull gap side.”

Known as a pull hitter early in his career at Florida, Armstrong tried to change that perception. 

“I was super concerned with trying to increase my power to the opposite field and really forcing that issue,” he said. “It wasn’t helping me.”

This season is different, of course. 

Armstrong has led Jacksonville to a 25-15 record, including a 3-2 ledger against Power Five schools Florida, Miami, and Florida State – all of whom have been in the top 25 this season. In those five games, Armstrong went 5-for-20 with two homers, three RBI and five runs. 

Jacksonville split two games with the Gators, and Armstrong homered once, adding that he “blacked out” while rounding the bases against his former teammates.

Armstrong’s season reached another level on March 25 against Central Arkansas. He went 4-for-5 with three homers and eight RBIs.

After Armstrong’s third homer, Hayes had to giggle.

“I had goosebumps on both arms – not even knowing what was going to happen on Sunday,” Hayes said. 

Indeed, on that Sunday against Central Arkansas, Armstrong went 3-for-3 with three homers, one sacrifice fly and seven RBIs.

“He was as locked in as anybody I’ve ever seen for those two days,” Hayes said. “He didn’t swing at a bad pitch. 

“He’s still swinging the bat well, but it’s hard to sustain that level of success.”

Hayes said Armstrong puts a lot of pressure on himself, expecting greatness every day. 

“Sometimes when you have too many thoughts in your head in the box, you’re not going to have success,” Hayes said. “We’ve tried to simplify things for him. We gave him a couple of things to think about. We tried to have him be more approach-driven than pitch-hunting. 

“We’ve worked on him being patient. Kris gets a little over-aggressive at times. It’s tough when you are not getting much to hit. 

“If he stayed in the zone, he would walk four times a game.”

Hayes said he believes Armstrong will get a well-deserved shot at pro baseball “whether it’s in the top 20 rounds or as a free agent.”

Other than speed, Hayes said Armstrong does just about everything needed.

“He can drive in a ton of runs,” Hayes said. “He will help an organization because he’s a good person who knows how to prepare. He makes a lot of good decisions off the field. 

“There is so little risk with Kris. Whomever takes him will be happy.”

No matter what, though, Armstrong is having a blast this year.

“You think about hitting eight homers in a whole season,” he said. “To do it in one weekend is awesome. To have three-homer days in back-to-back games at the D-1 level was amazing. 

“I’ve soaked it all in. Hitting 20 homers is fun.”