SHANNON DRAYER

Mariners Notebook: What’s next for George Kirby?

Feb 19, 2024, 3:33 PM | Updated: 3:33 pm

Seattle Mariners George Kirby...

George Kirby of the Seattle Mariners pitches against Houston in 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

By the numbers, Seattle Mariners All-Star pitcher George Kirby’s transition from the minors to the majors the past two years was seamless. Dig a little deeper and you can see the transition continues.

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“George obviously had an awesome season last year. There’s still things that he can improve upon and he’s locked in on that,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said Monday morning, spring training report day for the full squad in Peoria, Ariz.

For Kirby, who added a splitter last year and earned Cy Young Award votes at the end of the season, improvement can be looked at as fine-tuning. On the pitching side, it’s not a matter of his pitches or stuff. Rather, how he uses it. Experience gained last year had him taking a different look at how he attacked hitters.

“I am always going to pitch my strengths. I don’t care what they are good at,” he said. “Here’s my fastball, try to hit it. And I am going to beat you in the zone and you are not going to get a free base. My mentality is always going to be that, but I think that just doing the debriefs after the games last year and seeing what this guy was looking for here, kind of getting in the head of the hitter more than just my simple mentality of ‘screw you, hit the fastball.'”

His manager would like to see Kirby’s attack from time to time in an 0-2 or 1-2 count include a chase or poor contact, not something more in the zone that could get fouled off and increase the pitch count, but he knows that can’t be forced.

“He knows,” said Servais. “He knows there’s times in the game where it does call for a strikeout. Men in scoring position, guy on third. There’s other times, just get him out, you know? And if you’ve got the weapons to do that – he does certainly with the two fastballs, the breaking ball got so much better along with the addition of the split. He’s got real weapons.”

Another weapon is his intensity. The “here’s my fastball, try to hit it” mentality for Kirby comes with the downside of when they do hit it, however. Quite often he is the player that holds onto losses tighter than the victories. Not the easiest way to go.

“Probably more times than not,” Kirby admitted. “Honestly which sucks but that’s just kind of my standard. I always want to go seven innings, I want to strikeout 10 guys whoever it is, so I’m not pleased if I don’t have the line I have set up in my head. I’ve just got to be easier on myself. It’s a long game.”

Servais is strong in his belief that players need to be allowed to be who they are, and to that end, he doesn’t want Kirby to lose that intensity. It is a part of him as a competitor, but like his pitch usage, he sees some fine-tuning that could benefit Kirby.

“There’s a time, and I think he’s learning it’s your day to pitch,” he said. “Go be as intense, just be an animal. Be ready to go after them and compete. And George is that. I think there’s other times it’s hard to stay at that level every day. Otherwise it’ll just wear you out. When it’s the day after you pitched or on your side day, whatever, then you can kind of turn the volume down a little bit. And I think he’s learning what works for him.”

With or without tweaks, what Kirby has done the past two seasons has certainly worked for the Seattle Mariners. He has recorded a 1.14 ERA in four starts against the Astros and a 1.26 ERA in six starts versus the Rangers. With his postseason work in 2022 against the Astros and starts against both Texas teams down the stretch in ’23, Kirby has proven himself to be a big-game pitcher early in his career.

“I always like getting the ball in the biggest games. I feel like I always bring out my best when I get that opportunity,” he said. “Hopefully we can win the (AL) West this year.”

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If the M’s do, Kirby figures to be a large part of the team’s success. Servais emphasized that Kirby is in a great place, and it is clear there is a lot of excitement in the organization for Kirby’s third season. As he sets the bar high for himself, he sees no reason the team shouldn’t do the same.

“We all believe it,” he said. “We have got a good team this year and we are all excited. The clubhouse has been great. It will be a fun year.”

Notes

• Things are about to get very busy after position players reported Monday for physicals as the first full squad workout will be held Tuesday. Gates to the Mariners complex in Peoria will open at 9 a.m. local time with workouts usually beginning at 10.

• From the dings and dents department: Servais said that new reliever Gregory Santos, who has been slowed in camp by a lat issue, is making progress and is expected to start picking up his throwing program “soon.”

• Canaan Smith-Njigba, who was designated for assignment Saturday to clear room on the 40-man roster for Levi Stoudt, has been claimed by the Pirates. Smith-Njigba is the brother of Seattle Seahawks receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, while former M’s prospect Stoudt returns to the team after being sent to Cincinnati in the Luis Castillo trade in 2022.

More on Stoudt: Why Mariners’ latest addition is worth keeping an eye on

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