Mariners’ draft pick George Kirby. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Mariners’ draft pick George Kirby. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

‘He’s just George Kirby’: The lowdown on Seattle’s first-rounder

After a successful career at Elon, the right-hander comes to Everett with a soft-spoken personality

EVERETT—There was a saying around Elon’s campus this spring pertaining to the school’s hard-throwing ace: “That’s just George Kirby.”

That was one of Elon baseball coach Michael Kennedy’s go-to responses when people asked about the right-hander.

Kirby is quiet and his responses to questions are often brief, but his dry sense of humor and one-liners were crowd-pleasers in the Elon locker room. He’s confident, not cocky, and was a valued teammate for his passion for Elon and his down-to-earth personality.

And more than anything, he loves throwing strikes.

Kirby was born in Rye, New York, a town tucked in the southeast corner of Westchester County, about a 40-minute train ride from Manhattan. Baseball was always a major part of his life. He inherited his love for the game from his father, George, who played college baseball at Florida International.

It became clear at an early age that Kirby likely would follow in his father’s footsteps and play NCAA Division I baseball. Young George’ssummers were filled with showcase events run by the Perfect Game and East Coast Pro scouting services.

He committed to Elon, a private liberal arts university in Elon, North Carolina, when he was a sophomore in high school. Kirby was noticed early on by the Phoenix’s coaching staff and he developed a strong relationship with Kennedy.

But Kirby was far from an undiscovered gem. He already was a Top 200 prospect in the nation, according to Perfect Game. As his stock continued to rise in his final two years of high school, so did the opportunities to play at bigger schools, but Kirby decided to honor his commitment to Elon.

“After that, I could have gone anywhere I wanted to,” he said, “but I just stuck loyal to Elon and I just knew it would be a good fit for me.”

Kirby said he was drawn to the academics at Elon as well as the probability of immediate playing time. The New York Mets selected him in the 32nd round of the 2016 draft but he opted to join the Phoenix. He was named to the Colonial Athletic Association’s All-Rookie team after recording a 4.84 ERA in 16 appearances (five starts) as a freshman.

It was in the jump from his freshman to his sophomore season that Kirby emerged as a force on the mound. He continued to perfect his offspeed pitches — including a slider he added to his repertoire as a freshman — and he increased the speed of his fastball by four miles per hour.

“His offspeed stuff from day one needed work and the challenge from the start was his breaking ball wasn’t as good as he thought it was,”Kennedy said. “I thought (improving his offspeed) was a huge step for him in terms of being more advanced, especially with the velocity thathe has.”

With a fastball now in the mid-90 mph range, Kirby was 10-3 with a 2.89 ERA as a weekend starter for the Phoenix as a sophomore. Heearned second-team All-CAA honors.

He began to ascend draft boards after a successful campaign in the 2018 Cape Cod League, the premier summer collegiate baseball woodbat league, where Kirby compiled a 1.38 ERA and struck out 16.6 batters per nine innings for the Harwich Mariners — go figure.

As a junior, Kirby developed into one of the elite command pitchers in college baseball, leading all Division I with a 17.83/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. With that pinpoint command, along with a fastball that ticked up to 98 mph, he emerged as a first-round talent.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Kennedy said, “and there’s not many pitchers that can attack the zone like he can.”

Kirby’s obsession with attacking the strike zone got to the point where Kennedy and the rest of the Elon staff had to coerce him to occasionally nibble around the corners in order to get more strikeouts.

“He doesn’t like to walk people and he’d get mad if he walks a single guy,” Kennedy said. “We had to say, ‘Hey, it’s OK if you walk a guy. You can throw out of the zone every now and then. You throw too many strikes.’”

The Mariners, who have a “control-the-zone” edict throughout their organization, picked Kirby 20th overall, selecting a pitcher from a mid-major school in the first round for the second consecutive year. Seattle nabbed Logan Gilbert from Stetson in the 2018 draft.

Kirby’s demeanor on the mound is that of an artist: He’s cool, calm and collected as he paints the corners.

“You’re not going to find him biting his glove, screaming in his glove and some of the antics you see with some guys, that’s just not hisstyle,” Kennedy said. “He wants to get you out, there’s no doubt about that he’s very competitive, but he has a very calm demeanor abouthimself.

“You never know if he’s fired up, and you certainly don’t know if he’s down.”

Although a tough competitor on the mound, Kirby is humble off the diamond. “He doesn’t care to be in the limelight,” Kennedy said.

That’s something he’ll have to get used if his career progresses as expected.

“I’m very excited,” Kirby said of being in the Mariners’ organization. “It’s just a good fit. Got good pitching coaches. I’m happy to be there.”

That’s just George Kirby.

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