After gem, Kirby's workload decisions loom

August 7th, 2022

SEATTLE -- If Saturday’s gem was any indication as to where George Kirby stands in the Mariners’ rotation for their postseason push, the club is going to face difficult decisions in the coming days and weeks on how to approach his workload management.

On a pitch threshold for his third straight start, Kirby needed only 80 to get through six innings against the Angels, over which he surrendered six hits, struck out eight and walked zero to put Seattle’s struggling lineup on his shoulders in a tight 2-1 win in the matinee of a doubleheader at T-Mobile Park.

Ty France hit a two-run homer with two outs in the third that was the difference in ensuring that an impressive start wouldn’t go for naught for the second straight game.

Kirby’s lone blemish came in the second, when Mickey Moniak sliced an RBI single to right. Otherwise, he was mostly mowing the Halos down with two renditions of a dominant fastball: the elevated four-seamer, which accounted for six punchouts, and the new-look two-seamer, which netted the other two. Despite the pitch count, he racked up 14 swing-and-misses, way up from the four in a tough start in Houston last weekend.

“That new movement profile just works a lot,” Kirby said. “And like I said, it just gives hitters a different look. It’s more challenging to try and hit two fastballs versus one. Especially to lefties when I can really get [the two-seamer] in there, like as soon as I let go, they’re kind of just [looking off the plate] and it just kind of comes back in. So it's been a good pitch for me recently.”

Manager Scott Servais continues to marvel at Kirby’s ability to manipulate pitch grips to create new movements while still filling up the strike zone as good as anyone on Seattle’s staff -- and as a rookie, to boot. The addition of the two-seamer, which he added last month to better attack lefty hitters, is a prime example.

“He’s just scratching the surface of his ability and how he can move the ball. ... And when you have that kind of stuff with that type of feel, it usually leads to a great career,” Servais said.

Kirby, who was the club’s top pitching prospect entering the season, now has a 3.40 ERA and has been worth 1.3 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs. His 7.36 K/BB ratio after his outing vs. the Angels is second best in the Majors among pitchers with at least 50 IP. Kirby's K-BB% of 20.1% entering Saturday was tied for 17th-best among 140 starters with at least 60 innings pitched, and it will only rise after his Game 1 start.

Yet the number that the Mariners are most intentionally looking at is 106, the total innings he’s accumulated in 15 big league starts and six in the Minors, including a stint at Triple-A Tacoma last month.

“He has come back and he’s thrown the ball very well,” Servais said. “The velo is still there. The secondary stuff is there. He looks strong, and that’s exactly what we need out of him going forward. It’s going to be a challenge to make sure he has enough gas in the tank, but it’s something that we have our finger on the pulse of. We need to stay close to it, because we’re going to need him down the stretch.”

The club now faces the quandary of how to approach Kirby’s rotation spot the next turn on Friday in Arlington. The Mariners intentionally retained a six-man rotation to account for Saturday’s doubleheader after acquiring Luis Castillo. Yet doing so has also put their bullpen down an arm, so this formula likely won’t last.

“We’ve got a few days yet,” Servais said. “So I think you know how baseball works; you don't make those decisions until you have to.”

The uber-competitive Kirby has mostly taken the process in stride. But there’s obviously an itch in wanting to avoid more shutdowns -- but he’s cognizant that his health is the priority.

“It’s not easy,” Kirby said, “but at the end of the day, they're looking out for my health. I totally understand that. But yeah, it is tough to come out when you’ve got a couple more pitches to work with or get in a nice groove. But I totally understand that it’ll be worth it in the long run.”

And if they decide to reel his contributions in again, how will he handle that?

“Just approach every game the same,” Kirby said. “Just try to go as long as possible, and just give the team the best chance to win.”