MacKenzie Gore Is an Ace in the Making

Washington Nationals v San Diego Padres
Washington Nationals v San Diego Padres / Sean M. Haffey/GettyImages

MLB pitchers have never been as talented as they are now. Just about every pitcher is throwing close to triple digits and has the same strikeout rate as Nolan Ryan. Everyone is taking advantage of advancements in pitch design, upping their velocity and spin rate, and throwing at maximum effort all the time. It's the age of the strikeout, and teams want the best power pitchers.

Right now, MacKenzie Gore sits in the upper echelon of strikeout pitchers. Through three months and 16 starts, Gore is 7th in MLB in strikeout rate, with a 10.93 K/9. Gore trails only the Spencer Striders and Shohei Ohtanis of the league, and is miles ahead of teammate Josiah Gray who is in 47th place out of 66 qualified starters.

MacKenzie Gore is finding success in what is already his longest MLB season. He's allowed a couple too many walks and home runs to be an All-Star or Cy Young contender, but isn't too far off of that level. He's had a handful of poor starts but none that have been truly awful, and he's looked confident for an inexperienced pitcher in a frontline starter's role.

There is one key for Gore to succeed in his career: durability. Durability is above all else. It can allow Gore to get more experience and improve into an All-Star, it can help the Nationals build depth around him, and it can earn him a huge contract once he reaches free agency. Durability is never a guarantee, especially for young pitchers throwing as hard as Gore.

Very few starters can meet these two criteria: being reliable enough to qualify for the ERA title and having a strikeout rate over 10 K/9. Last season, only ten pitchers did that, and most of them got Cy Young votes. MacKenzie Gore may not be quite as good as those pitchers, but what he's already done is a terrific sign for his future. It's exceedingly difficult to find players who can do what Gore is doing right now, and the Nationals certainly haven't developed any pitchers who can replicate this performance.

The closest comparison for MacKenzie Gore is the pitcher who sits three spots above him in the K/9 leaderboard. Blake Snell, of Gore's former Padres club, is another hard-throwing lefty with a nasty slider and eye-popping strikeout numbers, at least on a rate basis. Snell is listed as one of Gore's similar pitchers based on velocity and movement on Baseball Savant, and it's clear why.

MacKenzie Gore vs. Blake Snell

Both pitchers work off a hard four-seamer with good spin and great extension. It's rare to find lefties with four-seamers that are so effective at the top of the zone, that pitch is the reason Snell was a Cy Young winner. Both pitchers throw a curveball and a slider off of the fastball and their repetoires generate an elite rate of whiffs. The one major difference is Snell's usage of a good changeup that he commands well. When facing lineups full of righties, Snell relies on his changeup, which is his 2nd most frequent pitch. Gore has thrown a few changeups, but it is hardly part of his typical pitch mix. That separates the two somewhat, but Gore is already seeing similar results in his first look at a full season. Looking at Snell's career, we can glimpse at what Gore's should look like if everything keeps going right.

Blake Snell was the Cy Young winner in 2018 because of his 1.89 ERA and 21-5 record, but he only was able to amass 180.2 innings over 31 starts. Snell's inability to pitch deep into games has been his trademark, often referred to as the ultimate "five-and-dive" pitcher. Part of Snell's low inning counts is the choice of his managers, but it has a lot to do with his style of pitching. Snell goes for the strikeout first, second, and third. He generates buckets of whiffs but also buckets of foul balls, deep counts, and plenty of walks as a result. His control is subpar, at least for a Cy Young winner, and while he doesn't give up many total hits, he will allow a high rate of hard-hit balls from time to time.

Snell has an extreme profile, as a result of turning the strikeout dial higher than it's supposed to go. Sometimes he looks like the best pitcher in the league, other times he reaches 100 pitches in the 4th inning. This is exactly what we've seen from MacKenzie Gore this season, maybe not quite as extreme, but he's as close to Snell as anybody else in the league. So far, Snell has been an ace, an All-Star, a playoff game starter and winner, and will probably get a giant contract in the offseason.

Blake Snells don't grow on trees. You can't really create that kind of pitcher no matter how hard you try. MacKenzie Gore happens to have a similar left arm and a similar riding fastball. To my eyes, he's the Nationals best pitcher right now, and he's the player with the most potential of anybody on the big league roster. If he stays healthy, he will probably be the best pitcher on the team next year and for several years after that. The team doesn't seem capable of developing pitchers with the elite fastball shape that Gore has, not to mention the plus breaking balls. There's a reason Gore was once ranked as the top pitching prospect in baseball, far higher than any other Nationals prospects in recent memory.

Gore's spot in the rotation is locked in. Josiah Gray is currently competing with Gore as the other best pitcher on the Nationals, but he has worse peripherals, a worse fastball, worse secondaries, and performs worse in strikeouts and walks. The team is unlikely to sign a free agent starter better than Gore in the next few years, and unless Paul Skenes comes to DC, it's all on Gore to become the team's true ace. It's on the organization to surround Gore with winning talent by any means necessary: through the draft, through free agency, with some inevitable deadline sell-offs, et cetera.

If it were up to me, I'd be offering Gore an extension as soon as possible, maybe after seeing if he can complete a full season with good health. He's in a tier of power pitchers that the Nationals have never really reached without having a #1 overall draft pick or a nine figure contract attached. Hopefully, we'll find ourselves back in the playoffs with Gore at the helm. If, like Snell before him, he's throwing a no-hitter through six innings at that point, hopefully we leave him in the game.