Long before they worked together, righthander George Kirby was on Sean McGrath’s radar.
“He was in Rye, N.Y., pitching at Rye (High), and I was at Iona in New Rochelle,” McGrath said, “so I had seen him a handful of times throughout his high school career, which is pretty cool.
“Fast-forward to the fall of 2017 and I get the opportunity to coach the guy I never thought I’d be able to get at Iona.”
The fall of 2017 is when Kirby landed at Elon, where McGrath had become the pitching coach. At that point, McGrath saw the same intriguing qualities in Kirby that were on display as a high schooler.
“He was athletic and super coordinated,” McGrath said. “He was a strike-thrower in high school, and at the time (his fastball) was 88-90, 91-92 (mph). And it was almost like he had an attachment to the strike zone at times, like an unwillingness to leave it.”
Even as Kirby’s stuff ticked up during three years at Elon, his attachment to the strike zone never wavered. He walked six batters in 14 starts as a junior and earned the nod as having the best control among college pitchers in the 2019 draft class. The Mariners drafted him 20th overall.
“Kirby is pretty simple,” a scout said at the time. “He fills the zone and can throw strikes with every pitch.”
That reputation as a control artist only strengthened in his pro debut, when Kirby spun 23 innings in the short-season Northwest League without allowing a walk. His encore performance was delayed a year by the pandemic, which led to the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season and forced all development to be done either at a team’s alternate training site or via remote work or at the instructional league.
Kirby was one of the prospects invited to the Mariners’ alternate site in Tacoma, and his progress began to show in big ways during the following spring training. That’s when he unveiled a fastball that had jumped way, way up, all the way to 102 mph.
“It felt great,” Kirby said. “When that happens, your arm just feels so good. Everything comes out nice and easy, you’re not really trying to overthrow, and it just comes out.”
Kirby came out firing at High-A Everett this season. The 23-year-old recorded a 2.56 ERA through eight starts with 50 strikeouts, eight walks and one home run allowed in 38.2 innings.
Beyond his velocity spike, Kirby’s changeup also made impressive strides. Scouts liked it as his best secondary pitch as an amateur, but a change in the way he throws the pitch—based on analytical feedback—has turned it into an even more potent weapon.
The sheer separation in velocity between his fastball and changeup, which is usually around 10 mph, is excellent enough. But now a tweak in the way Kirby grips the pitch has created a version with a deeper break.
“Just the idea of having a 10 mile per hour difference is meaningful,” Mariner's pitching coordinator Max Weiner said. “When he’s able to do that and then move the ball toward the outer part of his hand, (while) being driven by the pinkie and ring finger, he’s able to generate meaningful side spin.
“So he’s pushing the ball to the side, which is creating the depth and less horsepower behind the pitch and giving him the velocity separation.”
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