Passan: Mariners’ Kirby ‘absolutely’ in the AL Cy Young Award race

Aug 15, 2023, 10:53 AM | Updated: 12:15 pm

Seattle Mariners George Kirby...

George Kirby of the Seattle Mariners pitches on May 15, 2023. (Paul Rutherford/Getty Images)

(Paul Rutherford/Getty Images)

2023 has been the year of the pitcher for the Seattle Mariners.

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The Mariners enter Tuesday two games back of the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League wild card race, and that’s thanks largely to the team’s pitching.

Seattle once again has had a great bullpen, but even with multiple rookies taking the ball every five games, the starting rotation has been key to the Mariners’ success.

Luis Castillo made the All-Star team in his first full season in Seattle, in which he was the Mariners’ opening day starter. But fellow All-Star George Kirby has been just as good, if not better.

During his weekly visit with Seattle Sports’ Brock and Salk, ESPN MLB insider Jeff Passan shared his thoughts on Kirby, including if he has a chance to do something no Mariners pitcher has done in over a decade.

Brock Huard asked Passan if he could “handicap” the American League Cy Young Award race.

“I mean, I can try it. Like, it’s not great,” Passan said. “And when I say it’s not great, I mean that there’s no clear favorite at this point.”

“In one camp, (Toronto’s) Kevin Gausman is the WAR leader. And in another camp, (New York’s) Gerrit Cole is the ERA leader. And in another camp, George Kirby is the guy who doesn’t walk anyone and has a great ERA and has a good WAR. He is in the mix, if that was sort of where you were going with this,” Passan added later.

Kirby, 25, had a stellar rookie season last year and has been even better in Year 2. After his most recent start, Kirby has a 3.11 ERA and 131 strikeouts to just 14 walks in 144 2/3 innings across 23 starts. Kirby leads all qualified MLB pitchers in WHIP, walks per nine innings and strikeout to walk rate.

“So George is in the race?” Huard asked.

Replied Passan, “Oh yeah. 100%. Absolutely.”

“He’s up there with innings – not quite at the Cole-level at this point – but a representative number of innings,” Passan said. Kirby is 13th in MLB in innings pitched and sixth in the American League.

Outside of putting up big numbers, Kirby also stands out to Passan for another reason.

“For me, outside of (Atlanta’s) Spencer Strider, George Kirby might be the most aesthetically-pleasing pitcher to watch in baseball right now,” Passan said. “What I mean by that is every pitcher has his own unique set of skills. And what appeals to me are the outlier skills. Spencer Strider’s outlier skill is that he can strike out absolutely anyone with a monster fastball and a frightening breaking ball. And his K per 9 represents that. George Kirby’s outlier skill is that he has some of the most exquisite command of the baseball I’ve ever seen. And there’s a difference between control and command. Control is the ability to throw the ball over the plate and not walk guys. Command is the ability to put the ball wherever you want it.”

Passan brought up a tool that some pitchers use, which is a portable strike zone that has nine different quadrants to represent different areas of the zone.

“I would love to see somebody do like a nine-pocket challenge with George Kirby and see if he can go 1-2-3 across the top row, 4-5-6 in the middle and 7-8-9 on the bottom in a row,” Passan said. “I bet he could. It would be like that video of Ichiro with the bats that are standing on their heads just knocking down all four in a row. George Kirby has got that except with the strike zone, which is a wild, wild talent to have. The nine innings scoreless that he threw this week against a very, very good Baltimore Orioles lineup was an exceptional thing to watch.”

Listen to Brock and Salk’s full interview with ESPN’s Jeff Passan at this link or in the audio player earlier in this story.

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