When Justin Armbruester took the mound Monday for his spring debut, he began a season in which he could earn a unique distinction for the Orioles: The first pitcher drafted by this front office under Mike Elias to reach the big leagues.

For a third-day pick in the 2021 draft, that honor would be a welcome one — and a credit not only to him but to the progressive pitching program that has helped him reach this point. At every stop in the minors, he and his coaches have pushed his development to new levels, resulting in a completely different pitcher than the one who entered the organization less than three years ago.

“They definitely have a plan for all of us,” he said. “Everybody’s plan is different, but day-by-day, you can tell we’re all working towards the same goal. Everybody’s got their own thing to do, and everybody stays busy.”

Armbruester, 25, was signed as a senior out of New Mexico in the 12th round of the 2021 MLB draft. The Orioles liked the life on his four-seam fastball and ability to spin a slider, which in the organization’s eyes portends the ability to add other pitches that require the baseball to be similarly manipulated.

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He pitched well but sparingly at Low-A Delmarva in 2021 after a long college season, and said it was “a little overwhelming” joining the organization.

“But then,” he said, “once you kind of learn the system and how things work, they make it really easy to understand what you do well, what you don’t do well, what your low-hanging fruit is and how you can build one day at a time and slowly get better throughout the year, throughout the season.”

He appreciated how there wasn’t specifically one goal dominating anyone’s focus at any time, with a holistic program helping players improve through both their strength and movement training and time on the mound.

Armbruester took to it quickly. His ability to fill up the strike zone with his fastball/slider combination, as well as some improvement of the shape on his slider, helped him excel at High-A Aberdeen to begin 2022. While he was there, he spent the last few weeks of his time with the Ironbirds working with pitching coach Forrest Herrmann on adding a cutter as his third pitch.

He debuted the cutter once he got to Double-A Bowie and his performance jumped along with it. He saw how beneficial the Orioles’ collaborative approach could be.

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“It’s kind of a, ‘Hey, what do you think about this? Do you want to try this? What’s your opinion on this? How does this feel?’” Armbruester said. “If you want to dive in, you can dive in. if you’re not interested, you’re not interested. But here, they’ll show you the facts of why it has upside, or why it has downside, and how it can really play into your arsenal based on what you do or what your hand does, or how your mechanics work.

“They really sit you down, first analyze you — tell you what you’re good at and what you’re not good at — and then take what you’re not good at and say, ‘If we add this, we can make you really good at this, and it’ll make your other pitches better.’ … It’s very two-way — there’s no one-way streets.”

That pitch helped him finish 2022 as one of the best-performing pitchers in the Orioles’ organization. He had one of the best strike zone rates of any pitcher in the minors, but would return to Bowie to start the 2023 season with another enhancement to his repertoire meant to make his major league pursuit more realistic: a curveball.

Lefties had an .836 OPS against Armbruester in 2022, compared to a .564 OPS for righties, as the movement profile of his primary pitches had nothing to challenge them on the outer half of the plate: The four-seamer elevates up in the zone and his slider and sweeper move right-to-left, both moving inside to lefties. The curveball was added both with that and a desire to induce more contact on the ground as developmental targets.

“We looked at, where am I getting the most damage against me, and what can be added to keep lefties off-balance?” Armbruester said. “I felt comfortable with it and started throwing it in games, had success, then kept picking away, picking away, picking away at it. I got a good hold on it and had some success against lefties last year.”

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While lefties fared worse off Armbruester than righties in 2023, other issues cropped up. His strikeout rate fell in Bowie, even as the rest of his results were great. Then his walk rate spiked as his strikeouts were restored to attractive levels once he was promoted to Triple-A Norfolk midseason. There was a sense within the organization that while his stuff remained the same, throwing too many early-count pitches over the plate didn’t allow Armbruester to get to those leverage, swing-and-miss counts where his pitches could shine.

He’s not the same pitcher now — in his first major league spring training and with a chance to make an impression ahead of a potential 2024 debut — as he was then, though. True to form for an Orioles pitching prospect, he came to camp with yet another new pitch: a splitter to help give him another movement profile against lefties.

“I’m just trying to toy with something, just so I have something that goes to the right,” Armbruester said. “I started getting leaned on by right-handed hitters — and also left-handed hitters, not having anything that runs away from a lefty or down and in to a righty. Just trying to add something that gives me that right side of the movement axis. I have a bunch of stuff that goes left. I do a really good job of getting pitches to go to the left, but I have to get the right. It’s the next phase of development.”

His has had plenty of next phases already, and he credits Herrmann — who coached him in Bowie in 2023 and is now the team’s lower-level pitching coordinator — with making sense of the reasoning behind his constantly-accelerating development.

“He’s an absolute wizard with the iPad and how to understand all the TrackMan data,” Armbruester said. He said he understands the data more now than he did when he was drafted, but appreciates how Herrmann can translate “a bunch of jargon about vertical break or horizontal break that I don’t really understand” into language about how it applies to him, and how they can use that information to generate success.

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While results have been slow to reach the major league level, that’s been the goal of the Orioles’ pitching program for the last several years. He’s moved relatively quickly compared to some of his peers (though it should be noted that Elias has prioritized hitters high in drafts until last year), and now may have the inside track to reaching the majors. His path here, and how he’s used the staff and resources around him to get to the cusp of that debut, would make him an attractive case study the team will undoubtedly seek to replicate.

“Knowing that they know what they’re doing, and I have had previous success on what they told me, gives me a huge confidence boost,” Armbruester said. “If they come to me and are like, ‘We were looking at how you release the ball and maybe this will work,’ it’s really cool to see, and really good to know they have my best interest in mind. They’re just trying to develop more pitches.”

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