Expectations are low for the 2023 Washington Nationals, which makes sense for a club coming off a 55-107 season. After all, the Nationals blew up their roster in a big way at the Trade Deadline last year, highlighted by the trade of superstar Juan Soto to San Diego.
One of the players the Nationals received in the trade was MacKenzie Gore, who has long been a top pitching prospect not just in the Padres system, but in all of baseball for years (at least according to Baseball America).
Gore did not pitch in 2022 with the Nationals after the trade due to left elbow inflammation. However, he did make 13 starts (and 16 appearances) overall with the Padres prior to being traded and posted a 4.50 ERA, 4.11 FIP, and 0.8 fWAR in 70 innings of work. He did generate a K-rate of 23.3% in his rookie debut with San Diego, but walks were also an issue, as he sported a walk rate of 12% and a K-BB ratio of 1.95.
So far this year, the 24-year-old left-handed starter has made three starts and has looked strong for the Nationals overall in 15 innings of work. He possesses a 3.00 ERA and 3.83 FIP, and he also is generating a K-rate of 28.6%, a 5.3% improvement from his mark in this category a season ago.
His first outing against Atlanta on April 2nd also demonstrated the potential Gore brings to this Washington rotation in both the short and long term.
In the Nationals’ 4-1 win, Gore not only went 5.1 IP and allowed one run on three hits, but he also struck out six batters to boot, including Atlanta first baseman Matt Olson for his first strikeout of the year.
MacKenzie Gore with a nasty first K as a National. pic.twitter.com/Suofsjltke
— MLB (@MLB) April 2, 2023
Breaking down his outings, National fans and fantasy baseball managers who roster Gore may point out that the lefty has had two strong outings (against Atlanta and Colorado), and one mediocre one. The mediocre one came in his most recent start against the Angels where he only went 3.2 IP and allowed two runs on four hits and four walks allowed.
Even though he did strike out six batters in less than four innings of work, the high number of walks in that outing, and for the year in general, is concerning, especially since Gore has been the strongest pitcher in the Nationals rotation thus far in 2023.
And thus, one has to ask this important question about Gore:
Does the former Padre have more left in the tank to produce a strong first full season at the MLB level?
Gore certainly has the potential to be an “ace” in Washington in the mold of perhaps Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, who held that role before him in DC.
That said, there are some areas of concern that the Nationals and Gore have to address before he is able to take the next step from “good starter” to “ace”.
Leaning on the Four-Seamer
Since debuting with San Diego in 2022, Gore has primarily utilized his four-seamer against MLB hitters to set the tone. And it makes sense why Gore has leaned on the pitch so heavily, especially when one takes a look at his CSW data in the table below:
Last season, Gore was much better at getting hitters to chase out of the strike zone and swing and miss on the pitch, which is demonstrated in his 24.1% O-Swing percentage and 9.1% Swinging Strike rate. He mostly generated swings and missed on elevated four-seamers up in the strike zone, as was the case in this swing and miss from Cleveland’s Owen Miller last season.
This year though, Gore has modified his command on the four-seamer to generate more called strikes with the pitch, even if it comes at an expense of chases and whiffs.
While his swinging strike rate is down 0.3%, and his O-Swing percentage is down 6.5 points, he has seen a 6.7% increase in called-strike percentage. This has helped boost his overall CSW rate from 25.3% in 2022 to a more impressive 31.8% so far in 2023.
What’s also encouraging about Gore’s increase in called-strike rate with his four-seamer is not just the sheer volume of called strikes he’s producing this year, but also where in the strike zone he is getting those called strikes.
Take a look at his called-strike pitch heatmap below (via Savant), and notice how Gore is hitting the edges of the strike zone with his four-seamer with regularity and avoiding those middle areas of the strike zone where hitters can do their most damage.
Here’s an example of Gore peppering the glove-side edge of the strike zone with a 93.5 MPH four-seamer to get a called strike against Colorado’s Ryan McMahon.
And it’s not just the control of the pitch that’s been impressive, but the overall quality of the pitch has seen some positive progress this year as well.
Let’s compare the PLV data from Gore’s pitch arsenal from this season and in 2022. The positive PLV improvement on the four-seamer is a big reason why Gore’s overall PLV is much higher in Washington than a season ago in San Diego.
Gore’s four-seamer has seen a 49-point improvement in PLV in 2023, and his four-seamer PLA has also improved from 4.15 in 2022 to 2.71 in 2023. On a PLV end, not only is the four-seamer Gore’s best pitch, but it also is 1.40 points better than his curveball, which is his next best pitch, according to PLV data.
Slider vs. Curve
Based on PLV data, Gore’s best secondary pitch in 2022 was his curveball, which he threw 18 percent of the time. The curve last year produced a 5.13 PLV, which translated into a PLA of 3.66.
Surprisingly, the curve was actually better than his four-seamer in 2022 on both a PLV and PLA end.
That said, Gore has tweaked his pitch arsenal in 2023, which can be seen in Gore’s pitch usage chart over the past two seasons, via Savant.
Gore has pretty much eliminated the changeup from his repertoire. In its place, he has increased the usage of his curve slightly (one percent increase), and his slider more considerably (four percent increase).
In the table below, take a look at what both secondary offerings from Gore have produced on a strike and whiff data end so far this season.
Even though he is throwing his slider more, his curveball is producing better results on a chase and whiff end. His curve is 15.3 points better than the slider on an O-Swing percentage end and is 8.4 points better on a swinging strike percentage end as well.
These two factors are a big reason why the CSW rate on the curve is 7.2 points better than his slider CSW rate.
While the curve is down 11 points in PLV from 2022, it is still 16 points better than the slider in this category. In terms of PLA, the curve is 52 points better as well.
Granted, the slider is a higher-velocity secondary option for Gore. On the flip side, as one can see in the clip compilation below, the curveball has a sharper drop, which can cause hitters like Ronald Acuña Jr. to chase out of the zone badly for the strikeout.
Gore’s slider to Austin Riley does get Riley to strike out on a check swing. However, it doesn’t produce a whole lot of spin or a ton of break, and it will be easier for hitters to recognize the pitch and lay off on it in future at-bats.
It will be interesting to see if Gore will continue to utilize the slider so frequently, or if he’ll begin to utilize the curveball more in his future starts as his primary secondary offering.
The data shows that the curve may be the more ideal secondary pitch, though both should still be utilized a fair amount in order to complement his four-seam fastball.
Batted Ball and Walk Concerns?
Gore has shown a lot of improvement with his three-pitch mix in 2023. However, he has struggled with giving up hard contact overall, even though it hasn’t hurt him too much thus far.
In fact, hard contact has been something Gore has been dealing with since about midway through his rookie campaign, as one can see in his rolling hard-hit rate chart below via Savant.
Gore’s BABIP has actually gone up from .312 in 2022 to .324 in 2023, so it’s not like Gore is benefitting from abnormal batted-ball luck by any means with those hard hits.
That said, he is sporting an 82.3% LOB rate this season, which is much higher than the 74.1% mark he posted in that category last year, which was closer to the league average. Thus, one has to wonder what might happen when those hard hits with runners correct themselves, which could result in a spike in Gore’s ERA.
In addition to the “loud” contact he has experienced on batted balls, the high number of walks Gore has allowed this season is also a concern.
Much like his hard-hit rate rolling chart, Gore’s walk rate rolling chart follows a similar trend, which can be seen below:
Gore has consistently been above the league average in walk rate not just throughout 2023, but also since about midway through his rookie campaign in San Diego.
His inability to limit free passes on the basepaths has not only produced a walk rate of 15.9% but also heavily contributed to a WHIP of 1.47. When looking at his percentiles via Pitcher List, those two categories are the lone two blemishes on his profile thus far.
It simply may be possible that walks may just be something that Nationals fans and fantasy managers who roster Gore have to deal with for now. On the positive end, he ranks in the 29th percentile in K-rate and 42nd percentile in CSW rate, so he can at least generate the whiffs necessary to make up for the walks.
Of course, that’s if hitters continue to chase, and those swings out of the zone could become fewer with more scouting and at-bats opposing hitters get against Gore throughout the course of the season.
According to Nick Pollack’s most recent edition of “The List”, Gore comes in at No. 71, ahead of Arizona’s Drey Jameson and the Mets’ Tylor Megill, but behind Houston’s José Urquidy.
Here’s a look at how all four pitchers compare to one another through Sunday’s games, via Fangraphs data.
Compared to the other three, Gore has the most strikeout upside of the bunch, and FIP seems to support his outlook the most of this group as well.
Furthermore, his BABIP is not only the highest of the group but also over 100 points higher than Megill and Jameson, who are two pitchers on the list who rank just behind Gore on Pollack’s “List”. The gap in ERA between him and the other three could look a lot different in a couple of weeks with some regression in BABIP among the four pitchers soon.
Granted, Gore’s walk rate numbers are concerning. And yet, the fact that Gore looks a whole lot better on a FIP end than Urquidy, Megill, and Jameson could be a boost of confidence for fantasy managers who roster Gore over these other options in their leagues.
Gore may not compete for as many wins as the other three, who are on competitive teams thus far (including the Diamondbacks who are surprisingly at the top of the NL West as of Sunday). That said, it seems like he will continue to be a help for fantasy teams in terms of the category of strikeouts.
Gore’s stock is rising as a pitcher, even if the Nationals aren’t as a team overall. And even though the Nationals will likely finish in the basement of the NL East once again, Gore could be a pitcher who could be a bright spot in a dark season for Washington fans, especially if he is able to iron out his control even a slight bit.
Furthermore, he can also be a key piece of any fantasy rotation going forward, and not just in 2023, but beyond as well. And that makes him an intriguing option for players in dynasty and keeper league formats.
Safe to say, there’s a lot more in store that fantasy managers can hope for from Gore this year.
Photo by Charles Brock/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)