Power surge: Armstrong getting comfortable at the plate

In baseball lexicon, a batter who can hit a home run to any part of the field is said to have “light-tower power.” For Gators first baseman Kris Armstrong, that phrase might not be hyperbole. He may very well hit one of the light towers in left center or right center field before his career is over.

In the fall, he took out a panel near the top of the newly installed scoreboard in right field with a home run. On Wednesday, he did it again, this time near the bottom of the scoreboard.

“I was in disbelief,” Armstrong said. “I didn’t know I could hit the ball that far, so it was awesome to see that.

“They told me they were going to take it out of my scholarship. I got to pay for that.”

He was joking, of course, about that latter point, although the maintenance staff probably starts sweating and experiencing heart palpitations every time he steps into the batter’s box.

At McKethan Stadium, the scoreboard was right behind the right field wall and was struck by home run balls rather frequently. At Florida Ballpark, however, it takes a herculean effort to hit the scoreboard. The outfield wall is about 350 feet from home plate at that point. Then there’s the UF bullpen and finally the scoreboard, which is raised higher in the air than the one at McKethan. It probably takes close to a 400-foot blast just to graze the scoreboard. You’re probably looking at an exit velocity in excess of 100 miles per hour to damage the scoreboard instead of harmlessly bouncing off of it.

And yet, Armstrong is something of a forgotten man when you think of the 2021 Gators. Center fielder Jud Fabian draws headlines for being a rare five-tool college player and a potential top-5 pick in the upcoming draft. Third baseman Kirby McMullen is the sentimental fan favorite for being from nearby Ocala and blossoming as a batter late in his career after beginning his college career as a pitcher. Shortstop Josh Rivera and second baseman Cory Acton were hot-shot recruits who have started from day one.

Instead, Armstrong is merely the player with the most raw power on the roster. If fans are allowed into the stadium to watch batting practice before games this season, you should get to the stadium early and keep your eyes on Armstrong. The ball just makes a different sound when it leaves his bat than it does for any of his teammates. It doesn’t even look like he’s swinging as hard as he can sometimes, and yet the ball sails off of his bat and into the bullpen.

“I think my strengths, no pun intended, is my strength and my power right now,” Armstrong said. “I’ve really come into my own, and I’ve filled out my body, and I’ve been able to figure out my swing and figure out that I am a power hitter, trying to hit the ball deep into gaps.”

While launching long balls looks effortless for him now, it wasn’t always that way. He began his career in 2019 as a two-way player who was buried on the bench behind the annual stockpile of talented upperclassmen. He made nine appearances as a right-handed pitcher as a freshman and didn’t fare well, posting a 7.71 earned run average over 11.2 innings. He batted .294 with one home run in 34 at bats.

An injury forced him to focus exclusively on his work in the batter’s box as a sophomore in 2020. That injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He hit .250 in the abbreviated season and homered in the season opener against Marshall.

He’ll likely be the primary starter at first base this season and bat in the middle of the order. Based on his performance this offseason, he should contend for the team lead in homers. If he does that, you can bet that MLB will come calling. Switch-hitting, powerful first basemen don’t grow on trees.

“Right now, I’m enjoying hitting, just trying to see how far I can hit the ball,” Armstrong said. “But in the back of my mind, [the desire to pitch] kind of is there. I miss it a little bit, but the hitting is too darn fun right now.”

How could it not be when you do it the way he does it?

The challenge for Armstrong this season is to produce more results in games. For all of his physical attributes and practice feats, he only has two career dingers to his credit. He believes he’s made the necessary changes to translate his offseason success into games.

First, he thinks he’s found the right balance with his weight. As he started to realize that he could be a potent power hitter, he increased his strength and bulked up to 240 pounds by the start of the 2020 season. Once the season started, he felt too heavy and slow. He couldn’t get his bat around as quickly as he would’ve liked. So, he shed some of the weight over the long offseason and feels comfortable in the 230-235-pound range. He feels more athletic and agile but just as powerful.

He’s also gotten some more work in from the right side of the plate. He’s faced way more right-handed pitchers than lefties going all the way back to little league, which caused him to become a better hitter from the left side than the right. He credited the coaches for finding ways to get him as many live at bats against lefties as possible this offseason.

The extra work seems to be paying off. He took lefty Hunter Barco deep to left field during a scrimmage on Tuesday night.

Barco mentioned Armstrong as one of the batters that’s given him the most trouble this spring.

“Every time he steps in the box, he’s a big presence because you know if you make a mistake, he’ll make you pay,” Barco said.

Actually, Armstrong makes himself pay – for new panels on the scoreboard.

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.