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Appreciating George Kirby, the Mariners' ace
And maybe, just maybe, a glimpse of another step in his development?
If the Mariners had a playoff game tomorrow and could pick their starter—it would be George Kirby. They do not have a playoff game tomorrow. There’s a solid chance they won’t have one this year. They might not even next year.
But when they do, provided its in this current era of Mariners Baseball, there’s a good chance it will be started by GK.
Let’s start with the soft side on George. Well, not soft, but subjective.
Yesterday, after Kirby’s dominance against the Twins—doing all he could to secure a must-win game—a buddy dropped the following text in the group chat.
“Every time I see Kirby shove I just imagine him doing it out of spite for his teammates.”
That is, assuredly, not true, but this is at least the second time this year when the Mariners were fresh off one of their many, many low-points only to have Kirby play the role of stopper.
At the end of May, after two games of having their teeth kicked in by the Yankees, George Kirby had the series finale at home against his childhood team.
Of the 701 four-seam fastballs George Kirby has thrown thus far in 2023, only one was faster than this rising heater to the fan first batter of the game.
Ready to roll from the jump, Kirby threw eight innings of shutout ball with seven strikeouts, three hits and no walks. He did not get the win because the Mariners’ lineup was also shut out before eventually walking the game off on a Cal Raleigh single in the 10th.
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Then we get to yesterday. The club lost four of six coming out of the break and its starting left fielder was in tears in the home dugout pregame as he explained how he cracked a bone in his foot kicking a cooler.
Approaching AND OUR PETS’ HEADS ARE FALLING OFF! territory.
George: 7.0 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 10 K
Divish tweeted this pregame yesterday and it was still true postgame.
Kirby has thrown more quality starts than anyone in baseball. And that isn’t the best stat, for sure, but Kirby’s shown he can rise to the occasion and deliver more than just “quality.”
Now it’s just a matter of how consistently he can be not just good—but great.
I stay up way too late on weeknights and last night saw PitcherList tweet out a link to Nick Pollack’s regular morning-after review of the starting pitching performances the day prior. It’s not a regular read of mine but George Kirby being on the lead image got my attention.
Perhaps the analytics showed a spark of a big step forward? Let’s see.
I’m grabbing more of an excerpt than I normally ever would but I want you to go on the same little journey I did.
I’ve been yelling at George Kirby, waiting for him to find a secondary pitch to take his low ~22% strikeout rate into the 25%+ range, and at first glance, tonight was the night dreams came true: 7.0 IP, 0 ER, 4 Hits, 0 BBs, 10 Ks – 20 Whiffs, 37% CSW, 99 pitches. It’s rare to see 20 whiffs from Kirby, let alone more strikeouts per innings pitched. And he did so while returning 14 whiffs on his secondaries. SIKE! That’s the wrong number. It was just six. SIX.
If you’re like me, you saw this GIF on Twitter and thought Oh dang! There’s the pitch we’ve been waiting for! Unfortunately, that was the sole whiff off his splitter across all five he threw. Whoops.
The slider returned a decent amount of whiffs at 4/22, though its purpose is to find the zone and allow the four-seamer to do its work up in the zone, and if he can execute it this well in the future, who cares about needing anything else outside of the heater for strikeouts, right? Sadly, this is the first time we’ve seen this arsenal and approach actually return this result, making me skeptical he can actually take that leap without something truly propelling punchouts outside of the four-seamer.
So in the end, this is a wonderful night without the addition I was hoping to see. It is pretty dang cool though, isn’t it?
Nick, first of all, is right. At least, that’s what I believe.
For Kirby to be a true ace-level pitcher across baseball, not just the best pitcher in his team’s rotation, he needs to find an above-average secondary pitch that can generate the whiffs and strikeouts emblematic of that level of pitcher.
The humorous thing is though, this has been the knock on him since he was at Elon, before he was drafted.
He was viewed by some in scouting circles as “boring.” He got strikeouts and he didn’t walk people and he threw an upper-90s fastball but…it just wasn’t sexy enough. No real nasty pitches in the repertoire.
The Mariners looked past that paltry(???) combination to take Kirby at 20th overall in 2019 and he’s been doing his thing ever since.
But maybe, just maybe, we’re starting to see a glimpse of something new, as Nick alluded to on the splitter.
In a Saturday afternoon game a few weeks ago, the Fox Sports national broadcast crew asked Kirby about who he was looking forward to potentially meeting at the All-Star Game.
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently,” said Kirby. “Probably Gausman, because I’ve kind of been using his split grip, so I’d love to just pick his brain and hopefully get any advice and maybe he can make it better for me… [Broadcasters: How’d you decide to do that having never met him?] I saw it on Pitching Ninja once and went ‘you know, I’m gonna try this’.
“I started throwing it in the offseason and a little bit in Spring Training and then I didn’t feel comfortable enough throwing it until probably a couple of weeks ago. But I think it’d be a great pitch for me.”
So, ~new splitter?
Though only five were thrown yesterday, it marked his fourth-highest total for the pitch on the year. The number of lefties opponents throw at him is going to dictate some of this, but the four games with Kirby’s highest splitter totals—topping out at 13 thrown in a June 25th matchup in Baltimore—are Kirby’s four most recent starts.
There isn’t anything beyond usage that’s super special to me.
Of the pitchers to throw at least 10 splitters since May 1st, Kirby’s 12.5% whiff rate on the pitch (five of 40) would rank 27th out of 52. Buuuut that’s exactly one spot ahead of none other than Kevin Gausman (86 whiffs on a bananas 713 splitters over that time).
No matter the total, they’re nice to look at.
As with so many things with the Mariners and with life—we’ll see.
I’m hopeful for even more than what we’ve already seen from the kid, as I’m sure he is of himself and the Mariners are of him. But right now, George Kirby is a very, very good pitcher.
Can he be great? That’s something to watch in the second half.