Commentary: George Kirby delivering “savage” season in second year with Mariners
May 25, 2023 Updated Thu., May 25, 2023 at 10:16 p.m.
SEATTLE – All-Star. Is that the most apt description?
It will almost certainly be a true description if George Kirby maintains this pace. The second-year Mariners starting pitcher has posted a 2.62 earned-run average through nine starts and 58⅓ innings, while leading all of baseball in walks per nine innings (0.77) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (9.4).
It’s been the opposite of a sophomore slump – more like a sophomore surge. And that’s coming off a season in which Kirby finished sixth in the American League Rookie of the Year vote.
Or maybe it’s marksman. That’s a pretty suitable characterization, too.
Kirby’s strike-to-ball ratio of 71.4% is second only to the Twins’ Joe Ryan in Major League Baseball among qualified starters. Mariners skipper Scott Servais spoke of his accuracy Wednesday, saying, “I’d like to say that we are the reason why he throws strikes – he threw a lot of strikes before we drafted him. That’s been his M.O. since he was 6 years old.”
Still, marksman isn’t quite the word we’re looking for. The most apropos one is …
Yeah, that’s what Sean McGrath, Kirby’s pitching coach at Elon University, told him he needs to be whenever he steps on the rubber. You can have all the control and technique in the world. You can have secondary stuff that has batters flailing regularly. But to be a true ace, you also need – as Kirby puts it “that mentality to own the mound and compete your (behind) off.”
This is exactly what the 25-year-old New York state native has done in his second season in the show. After a regrettable outing in his 2023 debut – when he gave up four runs on nine hits in 4⅓ innings – Kirby has delivered eight straight quality starts, tallying five wins, two losses and a no-decision .
I’ve mentioned some of the numbers reflecting Kirby’s precision. These numbers underscore how weak opponents’ contact is when they manage to get a bat on one of his pitches.
Kirby has allowed just three home runs this season, with hitters homering just 1.3% of the time when facing him. That’s down from 2.4% last season, which was among the league’s best.
Through Wednesday, Kirby is in the 72nd percentile among MLB pitchers for average exit velocity, up from the 28th percentile last year. And his hard-hit percentage jumped from the 44th percentile last season to 80th .
In short: Good things happen when you can place the ball in the exact spot you envision before it leaves your hand.
“It’s really impressive that he can put any pitch wherever he wants it. It seems like that most of the time,” M’s catcher Cal Raleigh said. “You don’t see a lot of those guys. Especially in today’s game.”
Kirby’s ERA of 2.62, and WHIP of 1.01 this season compare favorably to last year’s 3.39 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. He’s also throwing a lot more two-seam fastballs, has a curveball with an opponents’ slugging percentage that’s dipped from .492 last season to .342 this one, and has slowed his slider in hopes of getting more swings and misses.
No, the strikeouts aren’t quite where they were last year, as Kirby’s strikeout-per-nine rate has dropped from 9.21 to 7.25. Not that he’s particularly worried about that.
“That doesn’t really matter to me,” Kirby said, whose next start is Friday vs. the Pirates. “As long as I’m giving our team the best chance to win going seven or eight innings, I could care less about the strikeouts.”
That speaks to the competitiveness that Servais said is an underappreciated aspect to Kirby’s approach. To Kirby, it’s never about his performance or stat line – it’s only about whether the Mariners get a victory in his starts.
Speaking of his competitiveness, his college coach told him to be a savage, I told Servais.
“I think that’s a perfect adjective to describe him,” Servais said. “I’m going to use that. He is a savage when he’s out there.”
There’s still a lot of season left for Kirby and the Mariners, who entered Thursday’s game vs. Oakland at 25-24. Things could improve for him, go south or stay about where they are. Hard to tell with a young pitcher.
But the man certainly isn’t struggling to find his identity. He knows who he is.
“I’m going to establish the inside part of the plate, and I don’t walk people, and I’m probably not going to hit the guy too often,” Kirby said. “I like to take charge.”
He’s taking charge all right. And MLB is taking notice.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.