George Kirby: Self-Awareness as a Vice

Maybe the only thing that brings Joe and Jane Fan to a boil faster than a baseball player speaking honestly about an injury is a pitcher who admits he didn't do well with being kept in a game past his sell-by date for the day. George Kirby, second-year Mariners pitcher, may be learning the hard way.

After surrendering back-to-back first-inning runs to the Rays last Friday, Kirby pitched 5 more spotless innings. In the bottom of the seventh, he threw one pitch for an unassisted ground out to first base, a second pitch Jose Siri drilled for a double, then three pitches to René Pinto. The third was lined down the left field line and into the seats to tie the game at four.

Mariners manager Scott Servais lifted Kirby for Isaiah Campbell. Campbell walked Yandy Díaz, induced Brandon Lowe to force Díaz at second base, but then fed Harold Ramirez a pitch meaty enough to feed the left field seats. An eight-inning leadoff bomb off another Mariners reliever secured the 7-4 Rays win.

But Kirby faced the media postgame and admitted he wasn't exactly thrilled about pitching the seventh, which he entered having thrown 93 pitches or so already. "I didn't think I really could go any more," the boyish-looking right-hander said. "But it is what it is."

Come Saturday, Kirby apparently couldn't wait to walk that back, the faster the better: "Skip's always got to pry that ball out of my hands. Just super uncharacteristic of me as a player and who I am out on that mound. I love competing. Like I said, I just screwed up."

The social media jerk brigades turned out in force with the customary charges of gutless, backbone-challenged, you name it. So did a few former players, for that matter. There seemed little room for charity, little thought that Kirby might have spoken Friday out of frustration over surrendering a game-tying bomb, and even less thought that Kirby might actually have a little self-awareness going for him.

Kirby had already faced Pinto twice earlier in the game when they met in the bottom of the seventh. Pinto flied out in the second and lined out in the fifth. Including the close of business Friday, all batters facing Kirby for the third time around, lifetime thus far, have a meaty enough .814 OPS against him, including what are now twelve home runs in 46 such games in which they got that third chance.

The first time through a lineup, Kirby's batters have a .684 OPS against him, but the second time through they have a .602. Their batting average against him drops from .265 the first time to .221 the second. The third time they see him? They're two points below .300.

This is also a pitcher who kept the Astros in check in Game 3 of last year's division series. You might remember that game: the 18-inning marathon in which neither side could even sneak a run home, with Kirby starting for the Mariners and going 7 shutout innings, scattering 6 hits. With Jeremy Peña hitting Mariners reliever Penn Murfee's full-count meatball over the left center field fence for the game's only run and the eventual world champion Astros's trip to the American League Championship Series.

Kirby also made his first all-star team this season, and if he didn't quite pitch like one during his fourth-inning appearance (a leadoff double, a one-out RBI single), you could attribute that to all-star inexperience. On this season whole, including Friday night, Kirby leads the entire Show with a 9.44 strikeout-to-walk ratio and an 0.9 walks-per-nine rate, not to mention having a very respectable 3.31 fielding-independent pitching rate that suggests his 3.48 ERA means a little hard luck pitching in the bargain.

He pitched 131 major league innings last year and, after Friday, has pitched 165.2 innings this year. The most innings he'd pitched in the minors in any full season was 111.1 in 2019.

Backpedaling his Friday comments may indicate that someone told Kirby it wasn't such a great look to admit his true sell-by date for the game expired after six innings. The jerk brigades were only too happy to pile that message on, including dredging up the usual outliers who could and did go long and (figuratively, most of the time) threaten murder and mayhem if their managers even thought about lifting them early.

Allow me to reference a decade that ended with the average innings pitched per start being 6.4. Care to guess? The 2010s? The Aughts? The 1990s? Strike three. The decade I referenced was the 1950s. Now would you care to stop saying they were all "tougher" in the allegedly Good Old Days — the days when baseball people thought injuries were half in a player's head if not signs of quitting?

(Further ancient history: Paul Richards, once thought a genius when it came to pitching, also thought once that the way to fix pitcher injuries — especially among his once-vaunted and unconscionably overworked "Baby Birds" Orioles kids of the late 1950s/early 1960s — was to send them for ... tonsillectomies. True story.)

Hell if you do, hell if you don't. But I'm not going to be one of the ones telling Kirby he should have kept his big mouth shut Friday. A little more self-awareness such as his might actually mean longer and less physically-stressing careers for a lot of young pitchers. Not to mention better chances of postseason success, considering the Mariners lead the American League's wild card chase.

How often have pitchers who've insisted on "gutting it out" despite fatigue or sensing their best stuff's expired end up murdered on the mound and thus hurting their team as a reward for their "guts?" How often have fans, hanging the no-guts/no-backbone tags on pitchers who don't "gut it out" past their game's sell-by date, turned around and hung the no-brains/no-sense tags on managers who left their pitchers in one inning too many?

Ponder that foolishness before you join the fools who think Kirby needs a spine transplant.

Comments and Conversation

November 17, 2023


I think that in a situation when you have so little control over the outcomes - like if you’re at the end of your strength and mental game - then it’s REALLY galling to others when you make the choice NOT to give your last full measure and possibly overcome. It’s open to being read as self-indulgence, not self-care, which traditionally has to take second place to competing.

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