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.
The profile of the Seattle Mariners’ first-round pick in the 2019 MLB Draft has some striking similarities to 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, of course, 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.
‘PREMIUM ON PITCHING’
The Mariners rounded out the first day of the draft Monday night by selecting two more college starting pitchers in the second and Competitive Balance B rounds. Tuesday, they drafted six more arms, bringing their total to nine pitchers in their first 11 picks.
“We did put a premium on pitching. ... We really need to be prepared to take a step ahead of every other organization and try to be prepared to make a jump on that market, and we did,” Hunter said.
With the No. 59 overall pick, Seattle snagged 21-year-old Brandon Williamson out of TCU (4-5, 4.19 ERA in 16 starts). He struck out 89 batters and walked 36 in 77 1/3 innings.
Hunter said the 6-6, 210 left-hander has a three-pitch mix — his fastball, which can reach the mid-90s and his slider might be his best offerings — and upside for a player from a cold-weather area, as a native of Welcome, Minn.
Williamson pitched two seasons at North Iowa Area Community College, finishing 12-5 with a 3.44 ERA. He was drafted by the Brewers in the 36th round last season, but didn’t sign. He has recovered well from surgery to repair the labrum in both hips, Hunter said.
At No. 76, with the CBB pick they gained — along with Edwin Encarnacion — from the Indians this season in exchange for Carlos Santana, the Mariners picked up right-hander Isaiah Campbell out of Arkansas.
The 21-year-old went 11-1 with a 2.27 ERA in 16 starts this season, and struck out 108 while walking 19 in 103 innings. His fastball can reach the mid-to-upper 90s, and his slider and splitter are his best secondary offerings.
Campbell was born in Portugal, and eventually graduated from Kansas’ Olathe South High School. He was ranked the No. 7 prospect in the state his senior year.
“Over the last two years I believe we’ve solidified the middle of our organization,” Hunter said. “We have a good crop of young players in Double-A and Triple-A in regards to Shed Long, Evan White, even Cal Raleigh, guys like that are starting to make a push. We did see a need obviously for pitching, and if everything fell evenly we were going to go that direction.”
The Mariners drafted four more pitchers who have been working as starters — two college pitchers, and two wrapping up their high school careers — during the second day of the draft Tuesday, as well as two relievers.
Seattle started with the starters, selecting right-hander Levi Stoudt from Lehigh (third round, No. 97 overall), right-hander Tim Elliott from Georgia (fourth, No. 126), right-hander Michael Limoncelli from New York’s Horseheads High School (sixth, No. 186) and left-hander Adam Macko from Alberta’s Vauxhaull High School (seventh, No. 216).
With their final two picks of the day, the Mariners drafted two closers in right-hander Ty Adcock from Elon (eighth, No. 246) and right-hander Kyle Hill from Baylor (10th, No. 306).
“This year we put the priority on restocking our pitching and creating some waves of talent like we’ve done with our position players over the last couple years,” Hunter said. “We just saw an opportunity with a thinner crop of high school and college hitters ... for us to jump the market and get some pitching.”
MARINERS DRAFT LOCAL
With their fifth-round pick (No. 156), the Mariners selected Bellingham High School product Austin Shenton.
The 21-year-old third baseman played two seasons at FIU, hitting .330 with 11 doubles, two triples, seven home runs and 47 RBIs his junior season. He led FIU in several offensive categories, and had the fifth-longest NCAA Division I hitting streak in the country this season at 22 games.
Hunter said selecting Shenton, who also played at Bellevue College before FIU, was “one of the nicest stories” the Mariners have had during the draft in the three seasons he’s been here, because of the local ties.
“The kid was in tears because he’s a lifelong Mariner fan,” Hunter said. “He went to FIU to get more baseball experience and get outside of his comfort zone, and he’s done extremely well.”
The Mariners selected one more position player Tuesday, picking Florida State shortstop Mike Salvatore in the ninth round at No. 276.