SEATTLE -- George Kirby has long hinted at the knuckleball he metaphorically carries in his back pocket, and he picked a fitting time to unveil the unique pitch during the Mariners’ 2023 season finale on Sunday.
Kirby twirled the 73.2 mph offering to Rangers star Corey Seager, who hacked right over the top of it for strike one in an eventual punchout during the fourth inning of Seattle’s 1-0 win. It wasn’t just the pitch itself that drew attention but that he threw it shortly after the Red Sox announced that Tim Wakefield passed away due to brain cancer earlier Sunday. He was 57.
Wakefield possessed among the best knuckleballs in baseball history, one that he twirled for 19 seasons, including 17 with Boston. Kirby, who was born in 1998 in Rye, N.Y., a 20-mile drive from Yankee Stadium, paid tribute to Wakefield postgame.
“I loved watching that guy throw, even though he's a Red Sox player and I'm a born Yankee fan,” Kirby said. “But yeah, it was a great day to throw it and I'm glad Seager missed it and didn't take it deep. So, yeah that was fun.”
Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh, who grew up a Red Sox fan, called for the pitch. With Seattle eliminated from postseason contention the night prior, Kirby intended to give the knuckleball a shot in a game that didn’t have playoff implications.
“With the passing of Tim Wakefield today, who knows -- baseball is a weird game that way,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “I do believe in the baseball gods, and maybe that's why it came out today.”
Kirby is in just his second MLB season and earned his first All-Star selection this year. He’s thrived with his ability to manipulate the baseball. Last year, he added a two-seam fastball midseason that became a legitimate weapon, and in Spring Training, he added a splitter that he’s thrown more regularly.
Asked postgame about this unique skill following a start earlier this year, he smiled wryly and revealed that he can also throw a knuckleball.
“It's a really good pitch and it's one he may work in his repertoire,” Servais said coyly, indicating that it probably won’t be a regular occurrence. “No, George is George. He is gifted. He can do a lot of different things. … He also has an extremely devastating knuckleball. And it didn't surprise me that he threw it. The fact that he threw it to Corey Seager did surprise me a little bit.”
The knuckleball is so rare because of the challenges to harness it, but it can be just as challenging to hit when a pitcher can land it for strikes. Kirby’s on Sunday had a spin rate of 173 rpm, which, for context, is well below the 798 rpm average he has on his splitter, the most comparable such pitch within his arsenal. His four-seam fastball averages 2,209 rpm.
The knuckleball may be rare, but on Sunday, it was front and center as baseball said goodbye to one of its pioneers.