Sunday Notes: MacKenzie Gore is a Power Pitcher Who Doesn’t Hunt Punchouts

MacKenzie Gore struck me as a straightforward sort when I talked to him in San Diego Padres camp last Sunday. Polite but not loquacious, the 21-year-old southpaw perfunctorily answered each of my inquiries about his repertoire and approach. This is something he’s used to doing. As baseball’s top pitching prospect, Gore gets more than his fair share of media attention.

I didn’t walk into the conversation expecting to glean a boatload of fresh insight. I’m familiar with the scouting reports — all glowing — and as a FanGraphs reader you likely are as well. Even so, an opportunity to hear directly from the horse’s mouth wasn’t something I wanted to pass up.

A look at some numbers before we get to his words. In 20 starts last year between high-A Lake Elsinore (this in the hitter-friendly Cal League) and Double-A Amarillo, Gore logged a 1.69 ERA and won nine of 11 decisions. Moreover — this is the eye-popping part — he had 135 strikeouts, and allowed just 56 hits, in 101 innings.

“I’m a guy who attacks the zone with his fastball,” Gore told me. “I’m going out there looking to throw a lot of innings, so I’m trying to get people out early. I’m trying to throw the least amount of pitches possible.”

Fair enough. But given his explosive fastball and multiple plus secondaries, Gore is clearly blessed with the ability to overmatch. Is he ever on the mound hunting strikeouts?

“Only when I need them,” the Whiteville, North Carolina native claimed. “There are times in a game where you need punchouts — say there’s a guy on third — and you might want to bump it up a little bit to get one. But punchouts take at least three pitches.”

Gore nonetheless didn’t deny that he profiles as a power pitcher. He accepts the tag, albeit with the qualifier that it’s still necessary to execute. As for his ability to blow hitters away, he recognizes that extension and late life are big parts of the equation. While his four-seamer is firm, Gore isn’t pumping the type of gas that lights up radar guns. As effective as it is, his heater generally sits 93-95.

The explosive ride Gore gets on his fastball is made even better by the lefty’s efforts to not live at the letters and above.

“I’m a guy who pitches to all quadrants of the zone,” Gore explained. “My fastball plays well up, but I like to pitch down. I think to pitch up, you have to be able to pitch down. And you have to stay out of the middle of the plate. The middle is bad.”

Asked what he considers his second-best pitch, Gore initially expressed that was a tough question. After a few seconds of reflection, he allowed that it’s probably either his changeup or his curveball. The former is a circle that he holds with his “two end fingers; the middle finger is pretty much off the ball,” while the latter is a pitch that has evolved ever so slightly. He’s basically just gotten his thumb out of the way, “so it doesn’t pop out.”

Gore also throws a slider, and while it’s arguably his fourth-best pitch, he doesn’t hesitate to throw it in the aforementioned punch-out moments.

“I don’t know that any one of my off-speeds is a whole lot better than the others,” said Gore. “If I need a strikeout, I can go to any of them. It just depends on the situation and the count.”

Those what-to-throw decisions are based primarily on feel, paired with the trust he has in his catchers. Pitching analytics are something he respects, but Trevor Bauer he’s not.

“I don’t really pay a whole lot of attention to that.” Gore admitted. “It’s information you can use — it’s part of pitching— but I’m not huge on it, or anything. I’m a pretty simple guy. I just try to go out there and execute. When I’m on the mound… where the mitt is, that’s where I want to throw the ball. I try not to overthink things.”

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Andrew Vaughn proved a tough nut to crack when I spoke to him in White Sox camp a week ago Friday. I’d been told the 2019 first-rounder is often sparse with his responses — this despite being deemed “a good guy” by Chicago beat writers — and that’s what I encountered in the waning minutes of that day’s clubhouse hours.

“I’m just trying to get a pitch to hit,” Vaughn told me. “I’m seeing the fastball and adjusting off-speed, and trying to use the whole field. I stay really simple. I try to dumb it down and stay to my approach.”

Which brings us to Otter. If you’re a reporter reading this, you’re probably familiar with the audio-to-text transcription product by that name. You likely also know that it’s at once invaluable and bizarrely imperfect. The following Otter interpretation of a Vaughn-spoken sentence nearly caused me to spit out my coffee:

I’m just trying to get a picture back up the middle of Sunday’s oatmeal.”

Vaughn isn’t big into hitting analytics. The erstwhile California Golden Bear considers himself “a feel guy; I like to feel my swing, feel what I’ve got going.” And while his ability to impact baseballs is unquestioned — Eric Longenhagen wrote that Vaughn had “the best present hit/power combo in the 2019 draft” — Vaughn doesn’t necessarily consider his stroke to be of the launch-angle variety. To him, it’s just a swing.

“I think everybody’s swing has a little natural loft,” the high-ceilinged slugger said with a shrug. “You’re meeting a ball that’s not on a flat plane — it’s coming downhill — so I guess you could say there’s a little angle to it. But really, I’m just trying to square up the baseball. Like I said, I try to keep it simple. Too much is too much.”

Vaughn put up a 1.183 OPS in three collegiate seasons, and slashed .278/.384/.449 between three levels in his first taste of professional competition. He’ll head into the season ranked No. 37 on our 2020 Top 100 Prospects list.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Fernando Valenzuela went 3 for 4 against Ferguson Jenkins.

Ferguson Jenkins went 3 for 4 against Milt Pappas.

Milt Pappas went 4 for 9 against Don Sutton.

Don Sutton went 2 for 4 against Lynn McGlothen.

Lynn McGlothen went 2 for 3 against Steve Carlton.

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Last Sunday’s column led with Nick Madrigal, whom the White Sox drafted fourth overall in 2018 out of Oregon State University. Not included in the piece were the high-OBP infielder’s thoughts on the mental side of hitting.

“If you’re going up there feeling good, you’re probably going to go pretty good,” Madrigal told me. “Everybody at this level has a pretty good swing, so what separates most people is the mental side of hitting. Not enough people work on that. Everyone works on mechanics, but not necessarily on their approach — the whole mental side — when they step in the box. I think the best players in the game have the mental side down. Knowing what they’re looking for, and what pitches they can hit well, is what makes them great.”

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Doubling up on the mental side of the game, Red Sox infielder Michael Chavis shared similar thoughts when I spoke to him at the end of last season.

“I think the mental aspect of hitting is more important than the physical part,” Chavis said. “Once you get to this point — even at the higher levels of the minor leagues — you have a pretty good idea of your swing, and what you’re trying to do in the box. That becomes more consistent. The tougher part is the mental, the day-to-day aspect. If you have a bad day, can you bounce back the next day?

“Teammates definitely help, but at the end of the day it’s something you have do on your own. Your teammates aren’t going to be able to break you out of a slump. Your teammates aren’t going to be able to keep you positive every single day. Those are things you need to take upon yourself.”

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NEWS ITEMS

Ted Cox, who played for four teams from 1977-1981, died earlier this week at age 65. A first-round pick by the Red Sox in 1973, Cox logged hits in each of his first six MLB plate appearances. He was traded to the Cleveland Indians as part of the deal that brought Dennis Eckersley to Boston in March 1978.

Don Pavletich, who caught for the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, and Boston Sox in a career that spanned the 1957-1971 seasons, died last week at age 81. Pavletich debuted as an 18-year-old and recorded his first hit five years later.

Rachael McDaniel, Emily Walden, and Meredith Willis have been announced as the winners of the 2020 SABR Analytics Conference Research Awards. Their award-winning articles can be found here.

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Last Sunday’s column included Craig Counsell offered his opinion of the new two-way-player rule. It wasn’t a positive one. When I asked the Milwaukee Brewers manager if the rule makes sense, the first words out of his mouth were, “It makes very little sense.”

San Diego Padres manager Joyce Tingler isn’t a fan of the rule either. Asked about it last weekend, Tingler opined that MLB has “set an extremely high bar on the definition of the two-way player.” He added that players with that skill set are unique, and baseball should want to showcase it. Moreover, he feels it’s short-sighted.

“We’re talking about growing the game,” Tingler said. “I think it’s important for youth players to be able to pitch, and to play a position. Any time we can give them an example — one that’s on TV — I think that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”

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A personal anecdote, prompted by a Twitter thread making the rounds:

I grew up in a very small town. Prior to a high school game, an older man who had once been scouted by the Cardinals, then turned to drink after World War II, asked me to a hit a home run for him. I went deep in the first inning — one of three I hit all year. To say he was pleased would be an understatement. In the years that followed, he staggered over to remind me of the serendipitous feat multiple times.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At The Athletic (not behind their paywall), the inimitable Jayson Stark shared how it was just a normal spring — until it wasn’t.

Sports Illustrated’s Emma Baccellieri took a deep dive into MLB’s history of combatting illness.

The managers of the Yokohama BayStars and Hanshin Tigers recently weighed in on the decision to delay the start of the NPB season. Jason Coskrey has the story at The Japan Times.

Five female baseball broadcasters — Jill Gearin, Kirsten Karbach, Melanie Newman, Maura Sheridan, and Emma Tiedemann — recently spoke at a benefit for the Association for Women in Sports Media. Josh Jackson talked to them for MiLB.com.

Over at Purple Row, Adam Peterson wrote about how Rockies fans have a little more to complain about with team ownership.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

With Thursday’s announced delay, the 2020 MLB season will begin no earlier than April 9. In 1940, Bob Feller threw season-opener no-hitter on April 16.

The Philadelphia Phillies had a record of 13-5 when the spring training schedule was put on hold. Bookending the standings were the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were slogging along at 3-14.

Ryan O’Hearn was leading all players with a 1.252 OPS. The Kansas City Royals first baseman had 12 hits, five of them home runs, in 35 at bats.

Pitching standouts included Boston Red Sox right-hander Ryan Weber, who had allowed neither an earned run, nor a walk, in nine innings. Weber had 11 strikeouts.

Javier Baez had 28 walks and 156 strikeouts last year. Wade Boggs had 125 walks and 34 strikeouts in 1988.

The Atlanta Braves traded Joe Torre to the St. Cardinals in exchange for Orlando Cepeda on March 17, 1969. Torre had a 132 wRC+ in his five years with the Cardinals, and was the NL MVP in 1971.

The Los Angeles Dodgers signed Juan Marichal to a free-agent contract on this date in 1975.

Wally Schang caught in six World Series, for three different teams, between 1913-1923. A .287/.362/.404 hitter in 111 postseason plate appearances, Schang finished his career with 41 WAR, ranking him right above Thurman Munson on the catcher leaderboard.

Hall of Fame catcher Buck Ewing had 20 triples in 1884. He had four seasons with 15 triples, and four seasons with 13 triples.

Sun Daly, Egyptian Healy, Sadie McMahon, Crazy Schmit, Cub Stricker and Piggy Ward all played for the 1892 Baltimore Orioles.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: MacKenzie Gore is a Power Pitcher Who Doesn’t Hunt Punchouts by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Wally Schang put up 41 career WAR despite topping 500 plate appearances in a season once. Very underrated.