Seattle Mariners pitcher George Kirby during a game against the Oakland Athletics on Sept. 20, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Seattle Mariners pitcher George Kirby during a game against the Oakland Athletics on Sept. 20, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Mariners’ strike-throwing machine Kirby hones his craft in solitude

George Kirby spent his offseason training without distractions — or a catcher — in his hometown.

PEORIA, Ariz. — “Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.”

It’s unlikely that George Kirby studied the teachings of Greek philosopher Aristotle and used him as a guide for his offseason throwing program to turn himself into a strike-throwing god.

But it’s in solitude where he hones the focus and intent to make a baseball go where he demands it to go with frightening consistency. It’s where he finds peace from the high expectations set by others and the impossible expectations he puts on himself.

Sometimes it’s best to do it alone.

On chilly winter days in his hometown of Rye, New York, which is a 40-minute train ride northeast of New York City, Kirby makes his way to a training facility to work out and conduct his offseason throwing program.

When it comes time to throw off a mound, he doesn’t search the facility for someone willing to put on the gear and catch him. He doesn’t call up one of his childhood buddies — you remember the boisterous group at his first MLB start — to squat behind the plate.

Why?

He doesn’t need a catcher to do his work. That’s just one more person to create noise or distraction.

Instead, Kirby grabs what pitchers call a “nine-pocket,” which is a nine-hole pitching net to serve as his catcher. The training tool is a rectangular frame on top of two adjustable legs. It’s supposed to represent the strike zone for a hitter. There are nine separate pockets/holes, three across the top, three across the middle and three across the bottom.

That is Kirby’s catcher when he throws off the mound.

“It’s not because I don’t have a catcher, I just prefer the nine-pocket,” he said. “I’ve been doing it now for the last four years in the offseason. I haven’t thrown to anybody before I come here (for spring training).”

The nine-pocket doesn’t move its intended target or shift back and forth to adjust its gear. Kirby doesn’t have to wait for the ball to be thrown back. He doesn’t hear comments — negative or positive — after every pitch. The only feedback is whether the ball goes into the intended pocket or not.

“I just like to be super-target oriented and then it just becomes muscle memory at that point,” he said. “I’m focused on hitting that square in the top left corner or the bottom right.”

There are days when he might not have someone to play catch with at the gym. He simply puts up an X behind the net and throws baseballs at the target. He is in control of every aspect.

“I just try to hit the X every time,” he said. “You’ve got to practice. People say don’t aim the ball. But I’m trying to throw to a certain spot. You have to practice it.”

For a pitcher obsessed with not just throwing strikes but consistently firing quality strikes, it’s an exercise in detail that only he really understands.

Kirby will often put in his headphones to drown out any other background noise and help him get lost in honing his craft. It’s not Billy Joel or yacht rock or even East Coast hip-hop. Nope, it’s pulsating electronic dance music.

“I listen to dubstep,” he said shyly. “I like the crazy stuff.”

Did Cal Raleigh know that Kirby doesn’t throw to a catcher in the offseason?

“No, but it doesn’t surprise me,” he said.

If a nine-pocket were set up on a given day this spring and Kirby was handed 10 baseballs, how many could he put in the middle-middle bull’s-eye?

“Probably seven or eight,” he said without the hint of a smile.

When it’s mentioned about the dart-throwing scene in the popular Apple TV series “Ted Lasso,” Kirby smirks. In the scene, Lasso must hit two triple-20 spots and a bull’s-eye to win on his final three attempts. While the scene centers on the moral of not being judgmental, it’s clear Kirby loves the accuracy and the story behind it — of Lasso playing darts every Sunday with his father as a kid to get so good.

Is Kirby good at darts, too?

“I’m OK,” he said.

But his constant work — either alone or with the Mariners — has made him better than OK at throwing baseballs. He’s usually triple-20 or bull’s-eye accurate.

In 2023, he fired 2,825 pitches with 2,002 being strikes in some capacity. He led all starting pitchers with a 69.5 first-pitch strike percentage. Per Statcast data, 56.6 percent of his pitches were within the strike zone, which was second best in all of MLB.

Kirby walked 2.5% of the batters he faced, the lowest among qualified pitchers in MLB. He also led MLB with a 9.05 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That number is the fourth best in American League history for qualified pitchers.

The accuracy didn’t lead to overwhelming results. In his second MLB season, he finished with a 10-10 record with a 3.35 ERA in 32 starts in 2024. In 190.2 innings, he struck out 172 batters and walked only 19.

For parts of the season, Kirby looked like a Cy Young contender. But there were also periods of struggles mixed in, particularly a rough four-start stretch in late August-September when the team was trying to hang on for the postseason. Kirby went 0-2 with a 6.00 ERA in those four outings, giving up 14 earned runs on 24 hits in 21 innings. He also had the regrettable comments about continuing to throw in the seventh inning in a loss to the Rays. The comments belied his normal irritation about being removed from games too soon.

“He put a lot of pressure on himself,” manager Scott Servais said. “It was every time out there, ‘I have to do better than I did last time.’ It’s a very high bar and it’s hard to do that every time out.”

Despite the CPA-next-door appearance, there is that “wild beast” inside Kirby when it comes to competition. He doesn’t tolerate failure. He loathes walks. He hates giving up runs from walks. And he despises losing games on days he pitches.

“I hold the losses over my head a lot more than other people,” he said. “So I think it’s just kind of getting over that, resetting the next day and focusing on the next start and not have other things in my head.”

Like most fierce competitors, the losses are hard to forget and the victories difficult to remember. Admittedly, he agonizes over defeat more than he celebrates victory.

“It’s probably more times than not, honestly, which sucks,” he said. “That’s just kind of my standard. I always want to go seven innings and strike out 10 guys or whatever it is. I’m not pleased if I don’t have like the game that I set up in my head.”

The Mariners don’t want to dampen that competitive streak. Kirby is a ball of anxious intensity on days he pitches. But they want him to him relax when he isn’t on the field.

“I think he’s learning it,” Servais said. “When it’s your day to pitch, go be intense, just be an animal. Go be ready to go after them and compete. And George does that. But it’s hard to stay at that level every day. It just wears you out. He’s learning what works for him. And everybody’s different.”

And Kirby isn’t going to be any different on the mound, whether he’s throwing to Raleigh with Jose Altuve in the box in a packed T-Mobile Park or to a nine-pocket net in a gym in his hometown.

“For me, I’m always gonna pitch to my strengths,” he said. “I don’t care what hitters are good at. Here’s my fastball, try to hit. I’m gonna locate in the zone and I’m gonna beat you in the zone. You’re not gonna get a free base. My mentality is always gonna be that way.”

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