It’s been a few years so you may not remember, but there was a time when MacKenzie Gore looked like he was going to be the sport’s next great lefty pitcher. In 2019, he was ranked the 5th best prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline, 2nd overall by FanGraphs. Both spots were the highest a lefty had been in years.
Then suddenly, things went off course. After the year without games due to the pandemic, what had previously been pristine pitch command and location evaporated and his walk rates skyrocketed.
He made his debut the next year and pitched well for a while before things went sideways with his velocity dipping before being shut down with forearm inflammation. After that, he was sent to Washington in the Juan Soto trade and he’d finish the season in AAA.
He made the Nationals’ opening day roster this year and started the season as the third man in their rotation. He’s been healthy most of the year and has shown flashes but still seems to be a pretty volatile pitcher.
Those flashes are what I want to focus on though. There’s a fantastic pitcher in there, all of the puzzle pieces are present. Let’s break down what he has to offer and how he can use it to take the next step.
Gore’s fastball is hard to put a singular adjective on. In a vacuum, it’s good. For a lefty starter, it’s one of the best that group has to offer. He throws it 95.0 MPH on average, peaking at 98.8 this year. This is already somewhat rare territory, with only six lefty starters throwing harder than him this season (minimum 10 starts, plus Cole Ragans).
Perhaps more importantly, Gore throws this pitch with above-average movement, the kind that can beat right-handed hitters. He averages 17.4” of IVB, and 4.3” of run, from a fairly generic 6’ high and 1.6’ off-center release point. Also worth noting, he stretches far down the mound and releases the ball with 7.1’ of extension, allowing it to play just a little bit faster.
This kind of hard, straight, rising fastball is capable of missing bats regularly, though Gore’s has done so at around an average rate this year. This is probably due to his overuse and general location with the pitch. We’ll touch more on that later. For now, know that it’s a good fastball and a strong base to build off of.
I’ve stated in previous pitch design breakdowns that throwing a really good curveball is difficult. Most curveballs can be used to steal strikes, but most also aren’t good enough to be used in high-leverage counts. This is a nice change of pace as I finally get to talk about one that is.
Gore’s curveball is pretty solid. What it lacks in elite depth (-7.1” IVB), it makes up for in power and straight 12-6 shape. He throws it reasonably hard, averaging 83.2 MPH, but what makes it the whiff pitch that it is is his spin manipulation.
Its average spin direction is 5:11, which is normal for a lefty curve. However, due to the observed movement direction averaging 6:19, it actually backs up a bit and averages 1.4” of break to the arm side.
This is a unique type of pitch that doesn’t have much in the way of options to compare it to. It’s not quite like a gyro breaker because it does have that downward movement being applied to it beyond just the effects of gravity. This is a really good pitch because of its weirdness, not despite it. It misses bats and it doesn’t get obliterated on contact. It’s a good secondary.
Pitch classification is weird sometimes. There are about a million different versions of sliders it seems like. Gore has two, we’ll get to the other later on. His main one is a somewhat strange cutter-like offering that comes in at 88.6 MPH. Its 5.7” of IVB and 2.5” glove-side break make it a pretty standard offering in terms of shape.
On that alone it’s a slightly above average pitch. What makes his a bit odd is that it only averages a 1970 RPM spin rate. Spin rate on its own with no context means very little with one exception. If a pitch’s spin rate is substantially higher or lower than what you’d expect from its movement profile, that can cause the pitch to play even better than its shape. The further you go in either direction the better.
For example, look at Robert Stephenson’s devastating new gyro cutter that routinely eclipses 3000 RPM and how well it’s performing. On the other end of the spectrum, look at Ian Hamilton and his bizarre changeup-slider hybrid that spins at just half that, 1514 RPM. Those two pitches have a similar movement profile but both perform better than other similar pitches that have a spin rate closer to what you would expect from a gyro breaking ball.
Gore’s slider isn’t an outlier to the extent of either of those, but averaging less than 2000 RPM on a slider/cutter-type pitch isn’t particularly common. I don’t think it makes a huge difference, but just enough of one to be worth mentioning.
All said, it’s a really good third offering, and the way it plays off of his curveball and fastball builds a great foundation for an up-and-down arsenal.
Why This Can Work
We’re going to shake things up a bit and talk about how the pitches play off of each other before we get to his last two pitches. To the uninitiated, a pitch mix that’s very straight with little horizontal movement in either direction might seem like it makes things easier for hitters.
In reality, it disguises the pitches as they’re coming to the plate because hitters can’t read what’s coming horizontally.
This way of pitching has worked wonders for guys like Dylan Cease and Tyler Glasnow. In his current form, this is how he attacks hitters. He’s thrown nearly 2500 pitches this season. Less than 100 of them weren’t one of the aforementioned three.
While I think he should reorganize his pitch selection and work the other offerings in more often, we’ll get into why that is with the pitches individually.
Another big thing Gore has in his favor is his arsenal is tailor-made to be deceptive even beyond the movement. He has an incredible combination of spin directions to make pitches even more difficult to read out of his hand. His fastball spins at 11:12, his slider spins just barely up the axis at 11:40, and his curveball creates a near-perfect mirror to the fastball at 5:11.
His lower spin activity on the curve does take away from it compared to some of the best at this, but what all of this boils down to is that his pitches don’t spin in a way that gives away anything to hitters either.
We’ve reached the part of Gore’s arsenal that is almost entirely prospective. He throws this changeup less than 3% of the time. 72 pitches isn’t exactly a large sample size but this pitch has shown some potential in that time. He cuts the velo well, throwing it 86.5 MPH, 9.5 MPH slower than his fastball.
While the shape is less than ideal in a vacuum with 11” of IVB and 14” of fade, it works in his arsenal. The velocity and horizontal separation are theoretically enough to draw a lot of whiffs. Gore is also smart enough to know not to throw this pitch to same-handed hitters.
Remember how his three main pitches are close to horizontally neutral? You’d think a changeup with more than three times as much movement on that axis as any of the other pitches would stick out like a sore thumb, right?
In practice, having a pitch in your back pocket that is so different from everything else you throw can be a valuable tool to baffle a hitter who isn’t expecting it. It takes a lot for a hitter to try to calibrate for a pitcher who gives nothing away with their pitches’ movement from side to side.
Suddenly throwing something more normal can often lead to a hitter not being ready to account for that type of movement.
This one is almost entirely speculative. He’s only thrown 14 of them and the shape has varied wildly, so there’s not much point in mentioning the average movement metrics. Some of them have looked really good and this is absolutely a pitch he should continue to pursue learning.
It could be a great pitch to get lefties flailing at thin air. It may not have crazy horizontal movement like some other sweepers but compared to the rest of his arsenal it’s a different look from everything else, which, again, is a good thing.
Putting The Pieces Together
So, we’ve looked at what he has to offer regarding his stuff. A five-pitch arsenal where everything is worth using isn’t particularly common. So what’s going wrong then? Why isn’t he dragging the lowly Nationals to relevance?
There are a few things he needs to work on, but the number one thing has to be his command. He leaves far too many fastballs center-cut and not above the zone which leads to them getting hit hard. He also misses with his curveball too often, either catching too much of the middle or not throwing it close enough to entice a swing.
I may be wrong about this, but I have a theory as to what’s fueling his command issues. You may have noticed this from the gifs or if you’ve watched him pitch before – Gore has a theatrical, busy-looking pitching motion. The turn, the high leg kick, the long stride down the mound. It’s a joy to watch. It’s also potentially what’s causing his issues locating the ball.
He’s been praised for the way he hides the ball behind his body and head with his delivery. Despite this, I think the amount of motion and moving parts is making it more difficult for him to repeat his mechanics consistently.
His release points vary quite a bit from pitch to pitch, and not in the obvious intentional way. He isn’t dropping down his arm slot to throw a sidewinding breaking ball like Rich Hill. He’s just not in the same position at release with his body from one pitch to the next. These discrepancies can cause the ball to not go where he wants it to.
For some pitchers, it’s hard to figure out what could be causing it. For Gore, I can’t help but notice the long swooping path his leg takes as he brings it down into his stride. The little step of continuous motion that precedes it in his delivery as well.
I think Gore would be a good candidate for pitching from the stretch full-time. Simplifying and shortening the way he gets into position to deliver the ball could lead to better results repeating it which would in turn hopefully fix his command issues.
This isn’t a guaranteed fix, of course, just something to consider. His stretch is much less complicated, it forgoes the big leg raise and looks far easier to replicate.
That’s the big issue addressed. Unfortunately, there’s another thing to look into. Gore throws his fastball way too much. There are very few pitches that call for usage as high as 59.5%, where Gore is at this season.
This fastball is not one of those pitches. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good pitch. That said, most fastballs aren’t worth throwing more than about 40% of the time. That’s the mark I’d like to see Gore reduce his fastball frequency to.
It won’t be an easy adjustment for a pitcher who has likely always worked off of his fastball and relied on it to get him out of trouble. However, it seems like a necessary step to move forward and grow as a player.
This should allow it to play better, more like the plus pitch it is. Hitters will have to respect his other pitches more and the fastball will garner more whiffs if hitters can’t sit on it.
I think a split of something along the lines of 40% fastball, 25% curve, 25% slider, and 10% changeup/sweeper depending on the handedness of the hitter could be a winning mix for him assuming he works on the latter two this offseason.
Enough with the negativity and talking about what he can fix though, MacKenzie Gore is a very talented pitcher with a bright future ahead. Overall, the best is yet to come for him.