Kirby also has 105 strikeouts and has held batters to a .203 average this season, while going8-1, 2.07 for the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season champion Phoenix. Kirby ranks fifth nationally with a 0.83 WHIP, and he leads all of Division I with a ridiculous 17.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
"It's quite a floor, ain't it?" said Elon pitching coach Sean McGrath. "He's the best of both worlds. He's a command guy, kind of what you see from a mid-major Friday or Saturday guy who's a mid-to-upper-80s guy, and he's doing it at 95. And beyond that, he's doing it probably better than most ever do it."
The combination of plus fastball velocity, an ideal pitcher's frame at 6-foot-4, 201 pounds, and elite strike-throwing ability gives Kirby perhaps a better combination of a high floor and a high ceiling than any other pitcher in the 2019 draft class. In his final regular-season start Sunday against UNC Wilmington, Kirby came out of the chute sitting at 96 mph with his fastball and bumped 97. He pitched comfortably at 94-95 and touched 96 repeatedly over the first four innings, and he didn't throw a fastball below 93 mph in his five excellent innings of work, before Elon pulled him at the 79-pitch mark to get him a little extra rest heading into the conference tournament and hopefully the NCAA tournament. It was typical Kirby dominance: he allowed just one unearned run on two hits while striking out nine - and walking none, as usual.
For most college pitchers, learning to pound the strike zone is paramount. Kirby, however, has had to learn to expand the zone more often.
"He's really taken to being able to leave the zone, because the beginning portion of this year, he was so much in the zone that he was putting guys in swing mode," McGrath said. "Then he learned, 'OK, I can pitch a couple balls off or I can pitch a couple balls up, and they're probably still gonna offer.' And he commands it well enough that even if you do it 1-0 and 2-1, you're not afraid you're gonna go walk them, and it gets called more because he has the reputation."
Kirby showed good control as a sophomore too, going 10-3, 2.89 with a 96-27 K-BB mark in 90.1 innings. But he's gotten better across the board as a junior.
"One thing I've done a lot better this year is be able to command and limit the walks, which has helped me a lot. I expect to do this well every time I go out," Kirby said. "I think just the work I do during the week, trying to hone in my mechanics, I think that's helped me a lot. The pitch calling helps me a lot to expand, so I just try to hit those spots, keep it out of the zone. I didn't really change anything mechanically, I just tried to add more flow in my delivery. I changed the way I step back, I'm a little quicker to the plate now, which has helped me in the flow of the game, staying consistent. … It kind of just clicked."
Kirby took an important step forward last summer in the Cape Cod League, where he posted a 1.20 ERA in 11 relief appearances for Harwich. He said he enjoyed the closer role last summer, and he gained confidence from facing the best hitters in college baseball day-in and day-out. He also worked hard to improve his changeup and slider in the summer and throughout the fall.
Kirby's calling card remains that electric fastball, which served as the putaway pitch on eight of his nine strikeouts against UNCW. But he has refined his secondary stuff to the point that he now feels comfortable mixing with four quality pitches. His 85-86 mph straight changeup has been his best secondary pitch for most of his collegiate career, and he threw it with good arm speed against the Seahawks, helping him get ahead of hitters early in counts. He also excels at throwing his 78-80 mph curveball as a backdoor strike against lefties. It's not a hammer, but he has developed it to the point that he can get occasional swing-and-misses with it, as he did Sunday against Riley Zayicek, who struck out on the pitch.
"He's been able to go ahead and leave that thing short and believable, more often than he was last year," McGrath said. "Last year it was almost, how do you mix early to finish with fastball? Now we can give any assortment of pitches early in the AB and finish them whichever way we see fit late in the AB."
The biggest difference from last year is the development of Kirby's slider, an 82-85 mph offering that flashes solid-average. That's become an important weapon for him, as he has learned to throw it harder, with more intent, as he put it.
"We tried to add a slider last spring and it never really took shape. Some days he'd have it and would be able to throw a couple, and other days it just wouldn't be there," McGrath said. "And then this fall, a little bit this summer when he was up in the Cape, he was able to go ahead and fiddle around with grips and fiddle around with thoughts of what exactly he's looking to do with the slider, if he were to add one. Man, he's hammered away at it in bullpens and game plan, and it's taken shape. But he went from fastball-changeup with a show-me breaking ball, to now he can put people away with four different pitches."
Kirby and fellow junior righthander Kyle Brnovich form one of the best one-two pitching duos in college baseball, giving Elon a chance to beat any team in America in a weekend series. They have two very different styles - Brnovich pitches heavily off his devastating slider, one of the best in the country, while Kirby lives off that fastball - but they complement each other well. They also have a healthy competitive relationship; last year Kirby pitched on Friday and Brnovich went 8-2, 1.71 with 147 strikeouts in 105 innings as the Saturday starter. This year, Brnovich is 6-3, 3.81 on Fridays, and Kirby has been utterly dominant on Saturdays.
"We definitely push each other, but I'd say it's more individual, honestly," Kirby said. "We both have different styles of pitching, and we both worked on that during the week all the time, bullpens and everything. But we definitely do push each other a little bit, because Friday-Saturday, either of us could really have the Friday spot. So we're both competing with each other, and it's good to be competitive when you're good friends."
Kirby places great value in being a model teammate and helping Elon's young arms improve. He's soft-spoken and even-keeled, and he isn't afraid to offer teammates some insights.
"He's a guy's guy. Teammates love him. They know not to bother him too much on game day, but you won't to be able to tell, 'Oh, that's George Kirby.' He doesn't want to look any different than any of these other 33, 34 guys," McGrath said. "He's just one of the boys. The guys take to him. The other thing he's been really, really good at is he's been a great leader, whether it be allowing young guys to watch his bullpens and allowing them to take something from him, or he'll sit down with guys and talk about how he thinks about using his lower half, or his thoughts on certain pitches, where to execute, how to execute. He's done as much developing as I have with those freshman and sophomore arms, in terms of getting in touch with them and making sure in his catch play that he's a good example for others. He's diligent, and I think he's helped some buy-in, and other guys carry themselves pretty similarly."
"I'm just trying to share all the information I can give them," Kirby added. "A lot of times we struggle just hitting the zone, so I'll spot some things that guys are doing down there that I think have worked for me. I think having McGrath down there, we're both on the same page, so if I have something to say he'll let me say it, and he usually agrees with it. I think just giving my advice has helped them get a little more confidence on the mound, and I think it's shown. The past couple weeks the younger guys have gone out and done pretty well."
After going 19-5 in CAA play to run away with the regular-season title, Elon is now focused on winning the automatic bid that goes to the conference tournament champion, and getting the program back to regionals for the first time since 2013. With Kirby and Brnovich leading the way, and talented sophomore Jared Wetherbee rounding out the rotation with flame-thrower Ty Adcock anchoring the back of the bullpen, the Phoenix have the pitching firepower to make some serious noise in the postseason. And Elon's progression over the last three years has been very gratifying for Kirby, as you might imagine.
"Came here freshman year, we didn't do very well. Last year we got bumped out in the semis. So I'm just glad we're making progress every year," Kirby said. "We have a special group of guys, our pitching staff's really good, gave our guys a chance to win every time out there. You see we just dominated the CAA this year, so it was pretty fun to watch."
Kirby is awfully fun to watch, too.
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