An Early Look at MacKenzie Gore’s Pitch Data

© Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

MacKenzie Gore is scheduled to make his third start of the season today. He’s been excellent, if low on stamina, in his first two starts: 10.1 innings, 10 strikeouts, four walks, and two earned runs. In a year of low offense and young pitching, this would be an unexceptional beginning – if he weren’t MacKenzie Gore, erstwhile top pitching prospect in baseball.

Lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen has written about Gore extensively. If you’re looking for a deep, nuanced look at all the mechanical changes that have sent Gore from can’t-miss to passed over in favor of Jake Arrieta, Eric has you covered. If you’re looking for some data-driven speculation based on his first two big league starts, on the other hand, boy do I have what you’re looking for.

Let’s start the same way Gore does: with his fastball, which he’s thrown 60% of the time in his first two starts. You don’t have to be a genius to understand why it’s effective. Here are the fastest lefty fastballs in baseball this year, minimum 100 thrown:

High-Velocity Lefties
Pitcher Velo (mph)
Jesús Luzardo 97.3
Shane McClanahan 96.8
Carlos Rodón 96.4
Aaron Ashby 95.4
MacKenzie Gore 95.4

Okay, sure, that’s great. The movement profile is excellent as well. Here are those same pitchers, with total drop including gravity and total horizontal movement on each four-seamer’s path to the plate, per Statcast:

High-Velocity Lefties
Pitcher Velo (mph) Drop (in.) Run (in.)
Jesús Luzardo 97.3 13.4 12.7
Shane McClanahan 96.8 11.9 10.9
Carlos Rodón 96.4 10.1 6.5
Aaron Ashby 95.4 16.1 8.3
MacKenzie Gore 95.4 12.7 5.3

Ashby lives with his sinker and rarely throws a four-seamer, so he’s a strange case, but Gore looks roughly like the rest of them. He doesn’t quite have Rodón’s backspin monster, but purely in terms of vertical movement, Gore excels. He’s getting less horizontal movement, sure, but his ball drops less on its path to the plate than Luzardo’s, and basically the same amount as McClanahan’s, despite being slower. That’s a recipe for missed bats at the top of the zone; despite unimpressive raw spin rates, Gore gets the most out of his pitch by getting nearly perfect backspin.

Fine, let’s throw one more data point on there: vertical approach angle. Gore releases the ball lower than these other southpaw fireballers, and induces more pure vertical break; that’s how his ball drops by so much less than you’d expect. Here are those same five pitchers by release point and VAA:

High-Velocity Lefties (VAA)
Pitcher Release Height (ft.) VAA (degrees)
Jesús Luzardo 5.99 -4.90
Shane McClanahan 6.26 -4.93
Carlos Rodón 6.67 -4.73
Aaron Ashby 6.42 -4.64
MacKenzie Gore 5.81 -4.40

Gore has a tremendous fastball, no two ways about it. When he’s locating at the top of the zone, hitters are at a double disadvantage: the pitch is faster than pretty much anything they see from the left side, and it’s also a dang optical illusion. When he locates his fastball in the upper third of the strike zone, it’s either a called or swinging strike 43% of the time.

There’s just one problem: Gore isn’t great about hitting the top of the zone. Here’s a location map of the 110 fastballs he’s thrown so far in the big leagues this year:

That’s just too much of the plate. There’s a cascading problem here, too. The lower Gore throws his fastball, the more negative the approach angle, particularly given that he releases the ball from a relatively high arm slot. Add that to the fact that his pitch is mostly deceptive vertically, and you get a 10% whiff rate when he throws the ball over the heart of the plate. That’s significantly below league average, despite his stuff playing well above average at the top of the zone.

Want an example? I took pitchers with similar induced horizontal and vertical break on their fastballs to get an idea of how much location matters for Gore. This time, I threw out velocity and handedness, because there’s just no other way of getting a similar cohort; his fastball doesn’t have close comps otherwise.

The five pitchers with VAA, horizontal movement, and vertical movement closest to Gore were better than league average up in the zone, whether you care about whiff rate or run value per 100 pitches. When they located over the heart of the plate, they were worse than average in whiff rate and roughly average in run value. Think Robbie Ray, if you want a single name to focus on: elite at the top of the zone, closer to ordinary down the middle. Visually, that top-of-the-zone part looks excellent:

If you’re looking for a culprit in Gore’s fastball inconsistency, you might think his mechanics have something to do with it. They probably do! There’s a reason the Padres held him down last year, and there’s a reason that Eric’s reports focus so much on it. But in terms of measuring those mechanics, there isn’t much to say. Gore has more deviation from his average release point than average – but not by an absurd amount. Walker Buehler, Liam Hendriks, and Sandy Alcantara all have release points that move around more than Gore’s so far. So does paragon of precision Zack Greinke. So do McClanahan, Luzardo, and Ray.

In other words, it’s too soon to tell on Gore’s fastball, but if he can keep locating it up in the zone, it’ll be a weapon. It’s been his best pitch so far, which is why he’s throwing it so often; the fact that it can still get better speaks to his potential.

From a pure movement standpoint, you might think Gore’s curveball was his best pitch. Talk about a knee buckler: it’s a pure 12-6 rainbow that drops 58 inches on its way to home plate, and comes out of his hand almost perfectly offset with his fastball. That’s a ton of movement, six inches more than average for similar-velocity curves. You don’t need to read Thomas Pynchon to appreciate gravity’s rainbow when Gore is on the mound:

Bad news, though. That’s the only swing and miss Gore has garnered with his curveball this season. Some of that is in Gore’s usage of the pitch – he loves it early in the count, and six of his 21 curves have gone for called strikes – but some of it is because he can’t locate the thing. A third of them have been down the heart of the plate. Another third have been too far out of the zone to induce swings, either in the “waste” zone as defined by Baseball Savant or in the “chase” zone before two strikes. He rarely uses the curve as an out pitch; he’s only thrown two in two-strike counts so far and undercooked both of them, leaving them above the zone.

In fact, more than half of his curves have been on the first pitch, which suggests to me that he doesn’t trust the pitch in later counts and wants to show it early so that he can change off of it late. Given his below-average command of the pitch, I can understand staying away from it, but from a long-term view of things, I think he’d be well served to figure it out. High-spin four-seamers and lollipop curves can play well together, but not when you almost never pair them.

When Gore wants to use a secondary to end an at-bat, he turns to his slider. He’s thrown exactly as many sliders as curveballs, and 15 of the 21 have been in two-strike counts. When he’s locating it well, it’s another excellent complement to his fastball. It looks similar out of his hand, then dips and bears in on righties:

When Gore is spotting it like that, the pitch gives me Clayton Kershaw vibes, and indeed Kershaw’s slider is among the top comps in Alex Chamberlain’s pitch similarity tool. Just like the best slider of our generation, Gore’s version looks good paired with a four-seamer and is more of a hard slider or hybrid cutter than a big horizontal number. Unlike Kershaw, though, Gore locates it inconsistently, attacking the fringes of the zone at a far-below-average rate in a small sample so far. Opponents are only swinging at 25% of his out-of-zone sliders; he’s mostly been either in the zone or far outside, an awkward combination.

As a perhaps-inevitable conclusion, the pitch-level data tell a similar story that scouting looks have told so far. Gore’s pure stuff is great. All three of his main pitches look excellent – scouts also like his changeup, but he’s only thrown nine in the big leagues, so I’m not analyzing it today. He also benefits from his delivery; that leg kick and arm action give hitters less chance of picking up the ball early. But despite his many gifts, he’s not missing many bats, and he’s walking 10% of the batters he faces.

Could MacKenzie Gore be awesome? Of course he could. The fact that he was the best pitching prospect in baseball two years ago could have told you that. His early major league returns, however, suggest that he doesn’t have the command to get by yet. I do like his approach – given how scattershot he’s been with his secondaries, leaning on a good fastball seems like a smart approach to me. But that won’t work forever, and even though he’s arrived in the majors, it’s plain to me that Gore is still a work in progress.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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9 months ago

Wow a guy who has made two big league starts is a work in progress. Revolutionary takeaway.

9 months ago

What’s your next article going to be about Patrick?

9 months ago
Reply to  johnnygoette

About how dumb it is to try to draw any conclusions from two big-league starts

Smiling Politely
9 months ago

So you came to FanGraphs, clicked on a projection article, read the early statement “If you’re looking for some data-driven speculation based on his first two big league starts, on the other hand, boy do I have what you’re looking for,” and then decided *you* were the victim?

9 months ago

Who said I’m a victim, asshole? I’m just stating writing an article like this and ending with the conclusion “guy who has made two starts is still a work in progress” is kind of asinine. By the way Gore shoved tonight with 10 ks so I’m not mad at all.

9 months ago

Someone sounds fussy, it must be past your bedtime.

9 months ago

Explaining that you’re “not mad at all” when no one claimed you were mad is extremely convincing, my guy.

9 months ago
Reply to  raregokus

Come for the baseball articles, say for the hot take comments.

9 months ago
Reply to  PDR297

You guys are so fragile. God forbid someone not like an article.

Bruce Schwindtmember
9 months ago

No one cares if you liked an article or not. It was your whining and bad attitude that was noted and disparaged.

Last edited 9 months ago by Doppelganger
9 months ago
Reply to  Bruce Schwindt

cry more Brucey

Willians Astu-stu-studillomember
9 months ago

I don’t like it, but I have to admit, well trolled.

9 months ago

Yeah its not about not liking the article. You’re whining about it being a 2 start speculative piece, when the article literally says if you’re not lot looking for speculation this won’t be the article for you. Yet you decided to keep reading knowing the outcome. My take is you skimmed through it and didn’t see the OPs warning, and now you can’t just take your L.