Elon University pitcher George Kirby was the Seattle Mariners’ first-round pick in the 2019 major-league draft. (Elon University photo)

Elon University pitcher George Kirby was the Seattle Mariners’ first-round pick in the 2019 major-league draft. (Elon University photo)

Mariners on top pick Kirby: ‘He fits everything we value’

The right-hander from Elon University led all of Division I with an 18-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

By Lauren Smith / The News Tribune

SEATTLE — George Kirby is a 6-foot-4, 205-pound starting pitcher with power, precision and a collection of secondary pitches that can keep hitters guessing. He hails from a small, private university on the East Coast, and is the highest draft pick his school has ever produced.

Sound familiar?

The profile of the Seattle Mariners’ first-round pick in the 2019 MLB draft has some striking similarities that of the player the club drafted with their opening pick last season in Logan Gilbert, who is already climbing through the farm system at an impressive pace.

With the success Gilbert has had in one season of professional baseball — he was recently promoted from low Class-A West Virginia to high Class-A Modesto — why wouldn’t the Mariners look to grab another pitcher who could one day work into the big-league club’s starting rotation with the No. 20 pick?

Mariners director of amateur scouting Scott Hunter said Kirby isn’t exactly Gilbert, but there were analytical comparisons.

“We’re obviously very excited to add a college pitcher that we felt was one of the top four or five arms in the country,” Hunter said. “He fits everything we value here. … Adding pitching last year with Logan Gilbert, George Kirby’s going to come in and add to that depth of our organization, which we’re trying to build on.”

Kirby, who just wrapped up his junior season at Elon University in North Carolina, posted an 8-2 record and 2.75 ERA, and limited opponents to a .221 batting average. Perhaps most impressively, he struck out 107 batters, and walked just six in 88 1/3 innings.

“It kind of punches you in the face when you look at it, and you actually have to ask if it’s real,” Hunter said of Kirby’s 18-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

It is real, and Kirby led all Division I pitchers in that category for most of his junior season. Kirby is a “true four-pitch mix guy,” Hunter said. He has a fastball that usually ranges from 92-98 mph, a slider that blends in well, and a curveball and changeup that have been go-to pitches early in the count.

That’s probably part of the reason Kirby had such an impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio. But, Kirby, who was watching the draft with family and friends in his hometown of Rye, New York, said a lot of that has to do with his weekly preparation.

He polishes his mechanics and works in the weight room and in the days before each start, he said, and that helped him develop such a strong presence in the strike zone.

“Something clicked for me and I was able to command the zone inside, outside, whenever I wanted to, and expand when I wanted to,” Kirby said. “It’s been a good season, and I think the work I do during the week just helped me be fluid on the mound and command well.”

Kirby displayed that control in the Cape Cod League last summer, too, capping his sophomore season by recording a 24-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 innings, though he pitched in relief.

“I think it helped me out a lot being able to pitch against those guys,” Kirby said. “I had to use all my pitches. Everyone that I pitched against challenged me. I was in a closing role which was pretty fun. Overall, the experience … I just got a lot of good advice and was able to compete against all of these good guys. It really helped me be the player I am right now.”

Hunter said he first heard Kirby’s name last fall, and the Mariners have stuck with him as a potential pick since.

“I said, ‘All right, where’s Elon?’ I haven’t been to Elon before,” Hunter said. “So, it was an exciting time for us to get, we think, a power arm that throws a ton of strikes and has some projection left in his body. Pretty similar to how we felt about Logan (who attended Stetson University in Florida).”

With his ability to control the strike zone — a message the Mariners consistently preach, and a quality they put a lot of value in with their pitchers — Hunter said Kirby is a perfect fit. That feeling is mutual. Kirby, who was attached to Seattle in some mock drafts, said he was “pumped” to hear his name called by the Mariners.

“I know they’re good with college pitchers, they develop them well,” Kirby said. “I know Logan Gilbert is doing well in the system right now, so I think I just fit really well in their program, and I couldn’t be happier with that pick.”

Kirby went 19-8 with a 3.34 ERA in 45 games (34 starts) in three seasons with Elon. As a prep, he was a standout at Rye High School, and ranked the No. 2 right-hander in New York by Perfect Game in 2016.

He was originally drafted by the New York Mets in the 32nd round out of high school in 2016, but did not sign.

“He’s been gradually getting better every year, and we think there’s more to come,” Hunter said.

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