The Seattle Mariners have been one of the biggest stories of the second half in major league baseball. They have surged out of relative mediocrity and into playoff position, recently actually sitting atop the highly competitive AL West for a brief period.
Center fielder Julio Rodriguez is clearly their best individual player, but if you had to pick out a single facet of their club as the biggest reason for its success, it would be the durable, excellent front three of their starting rotation, manned by Luis Castillo, Logan Gilbert and George Kirby.
Kirby got plenty of attention for all of the wrong reasons this weekend after comments he made following Friday night’s 7-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. Kirby entered the 7th inning with a 4-2 lead and a pitch count of 90. 12 pitches later, he allowed a game-tying homer to Rene Pinto and was removed. After the game, he indicated that he wished he were lifted prior to the 7th, and that he’d be having a talk with someone about it after the game.
Now mind you, these were the words of a frustrated 25-year-old who had just allowed a key blow in the crucible of a pennant race. He was competing his you-know-what off out there.
But social media has been relentless ever since, labeling Kirby as weak-willed and worse, with former players calling him out as the poster child for the modern game, a proxy for their distrust of analytics and whatever else they can pin upon him.
They’ve chosen the wrong guy.
Baseball has changed in an awful lot of ways in the last decade. Ten years ago, I was winding down my time in the Seattle Mariners front office. I had a wide array of responsibilites there, running the full gamut from amateur and professional scouting to the adoption and usage of various types of analytics throughout the organization.
To many, analytics were perceived as a threat, but I did my best to bridge the gap between organizational employees of all types, learning from them as I did. Things never progressed to the extent I had hoped for a variety of reasons, but that’s beside the point. Bottom line – all teams scout, all teams use analytics, but the best at blending them together and getting everyone on the same page have the most success.
When I got to Seattle and first had a true hand in roster-building, my calculus began like this – how the hell do we cobble together 1450 innings of quality major league level pitching in any given season?
That was a really hard question back then, and it’s gotten materially more difficult today. In 2012, 88 pitchers logged 162 innings, enough to qualify for the ERA title. That was almost three per team, and getting 500 or more innings from three guys, regardless of the quality provided, was a heck of a head start on the way to 1450.
In 2014, 88 starters again qualified. Then the bottom fell out. From 2016 to 2017, the number of qualifiers plunged from 74 to 58 overnight. After a couple of seasons of flattening, the pandemic-shortened 2020 season saw a plunge to 40 qualifiers. The total ticked one notch lower to 39 in 2021 as pitchers still struggled to rebuild their endurance.
In a trend that seems to have escaped the notice of the get off of my lawn/anti-analytics crowd, the worm has turned a bit and the number of ERA qualifiers bounced up a bit to 45 in 2022, and currently stands at 50 with just three weeks remaining in the regular season.
There is a huge correlation between a team’s number of ERA qualifiers and their chances for participation in postseason play. In 2023, exactly one club – the Toronto Blue Jays – has four ERA qualifers, Chris Bassitt, Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman and Yusei Kikuchi. Through Sunday’s games, they rank 14th, 15th, 18th and 41st in the majors in innings pitched, and the team currently sits in the 2nd wild card spot, just ahead of Seattle.
The Mariners have “only” three ERA qualifiers at present, but Castillo (11th), Gilbert (19th) and Kirby (20th) all rank in the Top 20. And they haven’t simply been compiling innings – those innings have been of the high-quality variety.
Normally in this space, I dive into the weeds analytically and pull back a bunch of layers to get to the essence of a player’s true talent level. Going to save that for another day this time around.
Let’s take a look at the number of innings pitched per start for the top 20 pitchers in innings. Only 12 have averaged six innings per start. Two of the Mariners, Castillo and Kirby, are among that group, and the latter’s average is the highest of the three.
Only 10 of those 20 pitchers have completed a game this season. Two of the Mariners, Gilbert and Kirby, are among that subset.
Now let’s zoom in solely on Kirby. Most pitchers need an acclimation period when they arrive in the big leagues. They tend to get hit hard, or at least struggle with men on base and are vulnerable to the big inning at first. Not this guy.
George Kirby threw six shutout innings against the Rays in his first career start last summer and hasn’t looked back. He’s made 52 starts total, pitching 295 2/3 innings while unfurling a 3.44 ERA and a hard to believe 284/38 K/BB ratio. This season, his 151/16 K/BB over 165 2/3 innings is by far a major league best.
But after a weekend featuring first Kirby, and then the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole and Brewers’ Corbin Burnes being pulled after tossing seven and eight no-hit innings respectively, traditionalists are on the warpath after these guys.
No, they’re not Nolan Ryan, completing games for 20 years while logging mind-boggling pitch counts. Who is? But in an era where pitchers are being bred for peak velocity in showcases instead of pitchability in late stages of games, with bullpens full of overpowering flamethrowers, it is the Coles, Burneses and yes, Kirbys that we should be commending, not tearing down.
George Kirby is 25 years old, and said something that I’m sure he’d like to restate or take back entirely. Who among us wouldn’t like a few take-backs, that weren’t uttered in front of a microphone being broadcast to the sports world. Let’s all chill and appreciate the guy for what he is – one of the best young pitchers in baseball.