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George Kirby’s rookie year puts him in elite company

Hip, hip! Jorge!

George Kirby on Seattle Mariners Photo Day Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

In 2022, George Kirby threw 130 innings with a FIP- of 77. If you’re not familiar with FIP-, the FIP part refers to Fielding Independent Pitching. As the name suggests, that accounts for all the pitching outcomes that are independent of fielding—the four true outcomes: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and home runs. Usually FIP uses some math to scale it to ERA, so it looks more familiar. For example, Justin Verlander’s 2022 FIP was 2.49. The “-” part, said as “minus,” means that it’s a rate stat. Like wRC+, it accounts for ballpark and puts everybody on a scale where 100 is league average, and each number above or below 100 represents 1% better or worse than average.

A FIP- of 77 means that George Kirby’s FIP was 23% below league average, but below in a good way. The Westchester Wizard was 23% better than league average at the things most within a pitcher’s control, the same as Luis Castillo. George Kirby may be adorable, but he’s also extremely dangerous. Like Baby Yoda.

Since 1977, the year of the Mariners’ inaugural season, just 34 pitchers have had a rookie season with at least 100 innings pitched and a FIP- better than 80 who went on to throw at least 1,000 career innings. In other words, it’s an accomplishment that happens less than once a year on average. So it turns out that George Kirby’s rookie year was really good. That’s the kind of analysis you expect from Lookout Landing, the best in the business™.

But I didn’t stop there. After some research on the worldwide web, I’ve discovered that this achievement has usually foretold overwhelming success. Of those 34 pitchers, ten eventually won a Cy Young award. Ten! So did Shane Bieber, who’s sitting on 703 career IP. This is a small sample, and as discussed below, Cy Young voting has evolved, so I’m not saying this means that George Kirby has a one-in-three shot at winning a Cy Young Award.

But I’m also not not saying that. Those 34 pitchers and Bieber have dominated the last half century of baseball. They account for 20 of the 92 Cy Young Awards in that period—more than a fifth—with another 13 second-place finishes and eight times in third. 25 of the 34 pitchers appeared on at least one Cy Young ballot. 15 appeared on a Cy Young ballot in at least three separate seasons. They’re also responsible for five of the nine Triple Crowns and have an MVP. For good measure, Dave Righetti also grabbed this group two Rolaids Reliever of the Year Awards.

Pitchers with 1,000 career IP who had a rookie year FIP- better than 80 over 100 IP

Name Rookie Year Rookie Year FIP-
Name Rookie Year Rookie Year FIP-
Ron Guidry* 1977 68
Bob Welch* 1978 79
Bill Gullickson 1980 76
Dave Righetti 1981 57
Fernando Valenzuela* 1981 72
Steve Bedrosian* 1982 78
Storm Davis 1982 79
Jose DeLeon 1983 66
Dwight Gooden* 1984 49
Roger Clemens* 1984 72
Orel Hershiser* 1984 77
Chris Bosio 1987 77
Tim Belcher 1988 74
Kevin Tapani 1990 79
Juan Guzman 1991 76
Frank Castillo 1991 78
Cal Eldred 1992 72
Pedro Martinez* 1993 78
Aaron Sele 1993 78
Shane Reynolds 1994 74
Hideo Nomo 1995 70
Kerry Wood 1998 72
Orlando Hernandez 1998 78
Tim Hudson 1999 71
Roy Oswalt 2001 64
Brandon Webb* 2003 74
Francisco Liriano 2006 59
Yovani Gallardo 2007 76
Yu Darvish 2012 77
Mike Fiers 2012 77
Gerrit Cole 2013 79
Jacob deGrom* 2014 72
Marcus Stroman 2014 74
Masahiro Tanaka 2014 78
*Denotes the pitcher eventually won a Cy Young Award Source: FanGraphs

The list of names there is really something. Roger Clemens. Pedro Martinez. Jacob deGrom. Gerrit Cole and Yu Darvish. Orel Hershieser and Dwight Gooden and Fernando Valenzuela, whose number the Dodgers are retiring this summer.

Go figure that among the pitchers who never even hit third place in Cy Young voting are all the pitchers I recognize as former Mariners, which happens to be just about the funniest collection of one-time Mariners I can imagine: Chris Bosio, Tim Belcher, Aaron Sele, and Yovani Gallardo.

Here’s a link to a Google sheet I made for you to compare these players.

Now here comes the to-be-sure paragraph. Cy Young Awards from the pre-sabermetric era aren’t that meaningful. It used to be that the leader in pitcher wins was the presumptive favorite. But I think if you look at the individual seasons that got these players their hardware, very few come up wanting. We’re talking about 1999 Pedro Martinez here. Still, even if you want to quibble about the Cy Young honors, these guys generally had outstanding careers. They averaged 3.5 fWAR per 200 IP for their careers, including their declines. Their average bWAR checks in at a similar 3.2. Their average career FIP- and ERA- are both 89. That’s like Logan Gilbert’s 2022 as the average year. Buddy, I’ll take it.

You might also nitpick about my 1,000 career-innings threshold.

Pitchers who throw 1,000 innings are good enough for their managers to give them 1,000 innings. It’s true. But, first of all, take a chill pill. This article isn’t a projection—we’re just having fun here. If you must, however, lowering the IP threshold doesn’t do that much. Only 24 more rookies have had a FIP- better than 80 over at least 100 innings. It doesn’t even double the number of pitchers. One of those 24 that doesn’t meet the 1,000-inning minimum is Jose Fernández, who was on his way to a Hall of Fame career before he tragically died in a boating accident in 2016. Eight others are active players. One of them, of course, is George Kirby. His active peers form quite a collection too—Buehler, Soroka, Strider. Spencer Strider’s 47 FIP- last year is, by the way, the 11th lowest FIP- of any player over at least 100 innings, rookie or not, since 1943, which is as far back as we have FIP-. In a sense, this is really a post about how amazing Spencer Strider is. But back to my point: the 1,000-inning threshold is less about cherry-picking and more about taking out guys who got injured.

Want to get even more excited? Kirby’s FIP- is only a regular season stat. So it doesn’t even take into account the walk-free performance he put on in ALDS Game 3 where our George was shooting Lennys in the head left and right. (I guess the Astros are the big-bodied dummies in this analogy, but maybe they’re better understood as Curley.)

Including the playoffs, which remember was the Blue Jays and Astros lineups, actually lowers Kirby’s FIP. George Kirby’s 2022 put him in elite company. So his 2023 season can’t start soon enough; call me Veruca Salt because I want it now!