How can Mackenzie Gore take the next step?

After his first full campaign featured high highs and low lows, MacKenzie Gore is looking to take that next step forward in his progression in 2024. What does that look like for Gore and how does he get there?

Washington Nationals v Toronto Blue Jays
Washington Nationals v Toronto Blue Jays / Cole Burston/GettyImages

Welcome to part two of my three part series where I breakdown the core four and discuss what each one of them can do to take the next step and also what we should be on the lookout for to see if the development is coming along. Last month, I broke down CJ Abrams and Keibert Ruiz, Today, it’s time to look at the pitchers. First up Mackenzie Gore: 

As you all know, Gore came over in the Juan Soto trade from the Padres in 2022 and after shoulder injuries caused him to miss most of the 2022 season, we had to wait for the 2023 season to see Gore in the curly W. In his first season with the team, Gore had a very up and down season. At times he was dominant and showed who he can be as a pitcher like he did in Kansas City striking out 10. At times he was consistently generating swings and misses at a fantastic rate. However, at other times he had a lot of hiccups.

When you look at Gore's arsenal, there is a lot to like. His fastball is actually one of the best fastballs for lefty pitchers in baseball. He averages 95 MPH and peaked at 98.8 last year (there are only six lefty starters throwing harder than him). He also gets above league average movement on his fastball; he averages 17.4” IVB and 4.3” of run. This is a hard, straight, rising fastball that can and has produced a lot of swings and misses (he had a 21.6% whiff%). Gore's curveball lacks elite depth (he has -7.1” IVB) but has incredible shape. He throws the curveball 83.2 MPH and has a spin direction of 5:11 and averages 1.4” of break to the arm side. The spin deception and backward break is very unique and can and will be a dangerous pitch for him as he grows (had a whopping 37.5% whiff%). Gore’s slider plays like a cutter where he averages 88.6 MPH and has 5.7” IVB and 2.5” of glove-side break which is average in shape.  Like his curveball, Gore's slider has insane spin. He averages 1970 RPM spin rate. This on its own doesn’t mean much, but his spin rate is noticeably higher than what you’d expect from its movement profile which gives him the possibility of a lot of swing and misses (37.5% whiff% rate this past season).

Those are the three main pitchers Gore throws, but he also has a change-up and a sweeper, although he did not throw them nearly enough to have any conclusive takeaways from their profiles. If Gore has a unique arsenal and had great swing and miss numbers, why did he have the issues that he did? First and foremost his biggest issue was command. He had a 9.8% walk rate this year, 2% above league average. The 9.8% walk rate, while above league average, isn’t terrible. Walks are fine in moderation, but as he continued to have command issues throughout the season, we saw him come into the heart of the zone a lot more and consistently miss over the heart of the plate.

The darker the red spot, the more often Gore was throwing in that zone. As you can see the darkest red spot for fastball is down the middle and up, his darkest spot for his curveball is quite literally right down the middle and the slider he was missing more in the zone than you want a pitcher to be. This lead to Gore’s run value on pitches not being too kind to him. He had a -3 RV on his fastball (down from 5 the previous year) a -5 RV on his curveball (down from 0) and a 2 RV on his slider (up from -6 from the previous year).

As noted above, you can see the pros and the cons of Gore. His pitch quality of 102.6 is 2% better than the league average, his chase% is 33% which is fantastic and he has a great non-BIP Skill at 110. But the issue is his damage suppression is at 96.9 (league average is 100). As his command wavered over the year, the quality of contact against him got greater and greater. Opponents hit .279 with a .503 slugging against his fastball. The season before that his slugging against his fastball was .351. He also had a whopping hard hit % of 46.6% off his fastball this year. In fact, his hard hit % was over 40% on his main 3 pitches. 

Again, when you look at the arsenal, see the IVB, you see his swing and miss %, you see his chase % you’d expect his ERA to be closer to 2.50 than it is to 5.00. What can be causing his fastball to miss consistently over the heart of the plate? What can be causing his curveball to not be low enough to entice a swing or causing his curveball to miss right down the middle? In an article by Pitcher List, a full breakdown of his delivery noticed inconsistencies.

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Gore has a busy pitching motion, he turns, has a high leg kick and a long stride down the mound. This delivery, while pretty, is hard to replicate. There is a lot of moving parts which is hard to consistently repeat. He also has a slight variation in his release points which can stem from inconsistent mechanics. Pitchers are all about timing and being at the same point in their delivery at the same time. The delivery being off even a centimeter can cause pitches to miss. How do you help with mechanical issues when you have a long delivery? One way, pitch out of the stretch full time. Pitching out of the stretch simplifies a pitchers mechanics, allows for more consistency and can help with command and pitch movement. Gore with runners on (when you are consistently out of the stretch) has a lower WHIP, lower ERA, consistent K% compared to when there are no runners on (when you pitch out of the windup). All are indications that he could succeed pitching out of the stretch full time. There is also a track record of success of pitchers who improved when they began pitching out of the stretch full time. Corbin Burnes began pitching out of the stretch full time in 2020 and he credits his success to this. Our very own Stephen Strasburg also saw improvements pitching out of the stretch exclusively. You can see his beautiful stretch delivery below.

Another thing Gore can work on is his pitch usage. This is an issue with the entire Nationals pitching staff. This pitching staff loves to spam their best pitch over and over and over. This honestly is fine, but it can and has led to being predictable and batters either not biting (like they no longer do on Corbin’s slider) or just waiting for that pitch and teeing off on it.

Gore has always worked off his fastball and used it to establish the zone and set up his other pitches. So this won’t be an easy adjustment but it is one that may be necessary. Adding in a higher rate for the off-speed pitches can help the fastball by making his arsenal less predictable and generating more of the swing and misses and lowering his hard contact rates. Mixing up your pitch selection forces hitters to respect your other pitches more and makes them not be able to sit on one pitch and key hole Gore to death. Keeping a hitter on his toes will greatly reduce the quality of contact pitchers are giving up and, in turn, help with run prevention.

The stuff is there for Gore and the ceiling for him being an ace is still very much achievable. The swing and miss potential he has shown cannot be ignored. The combination of the velocity and the movement is fantastic but the execution is what is not there yet. Seeing Gore improve his command and mix up his pitch sequence can have him pitch deeper into games where we can see his overall rate stats greatly improve. The blueprint for success is here for Gore; he has the stuff to be the pitcher that he was always touted to be. The question is, can this coaching staff, along with Gore, make the adjustments that are needed for him to be the ace this Nationals team drastically needs him to be.