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How MacKenzie Gore Improved as a Pitcher in Wake Forest’s Pitching Lab

How MacKenzie Gore Improved as a Pitcher in Wake Forest’s Pitching Lab

Mike McFerran initially noticed that Wake Forest University’s pitchers were a little underwhelmed. MacKenzie Gore was the big man on campus, so to speak, as he spent last offseason training with McFerran, then the school’s director of player development and pitching lab coordinator. And many of the Wake Forest pitchers couldn’t believe they were sharing a field with a Major Leaguer.

But McFerran said those college pitchers eventually realized Gore was just like them. He wasn’t MacKenzie Gore, the former top prospect now on the mound at Nationals Park, a key part of the Washington Nationals rotation. He was MacKenzie Gore, a pitcher determined to expand his knowledge of himself and the game. He hung around all day and talked to pitchers about what they were throwing. He watched bullpen sessions and asked coaches questions about what he saw.

“He’s —” McFerran said, pausing. “I don’t know if savant is the right word, but he just loves pitching. He’s obsessed with it. He really wants to be a master of his craft. And everything we did at Wake was the perfect place to be, because he could absorb so much information.”

To become the pitcher he knows he can be, Gore had to learn who he was. So he went back to college. This was not traditional study work. And it wasn’t at East Carolina, where Gore committed before being drafted third overall by San Diego in 2017. Instead, Gore spent the offseason working with McFerran, now pitching coordinator for the Oakland Athletics, at the pitching lab at Wake Forest, one of the premier offseason training facilities for MLB pitchers. What did he study? Himself.

“It was like, ‘Where’s my stuff playing?'” Gore said. “‘Why was I successful when I was successful last year?’ That’s what we talked about and we dove into it.”

By many people’s standards, Gore had a solid first full MLB season, finishing with a 7-10 record and a 4.42 ERA. But Gore’s internal expectations are higher than most.

Gore’s “elite drive to improve,” as McFerran described it, paved the way for his impressive 2024 campaign. He has a 3.60 ERA through 16 starts, though his 3.13 FIP (fielding independent pitching) suggests he’s had some bad luck on defense. His velocity has improved this year, thanks to tweaked mechanics. He’s dropped his home runs per nine innings from 1.78 to 0.74 while striking out more batters per nine innings.

Gore’s education with McFerran began with a dive into the lefty’s numbers — and there was a lot to like. Gore had four different pitches with pitch shapes that attacked all parts of the zone. He threw plenty of strikes and had elite extension, ranking in the 94th percentile among major leaguers in 2023.

But a closer look at Gore’s fielding explained why he gave up so many hits last season. More than 60 percent of the hits Gore allowed came on fastballs. Seventeen of the 27 home runs Gore gave up last season were on fastballs, and 16 of those were to righties. Fourteen of those home runs against righties came in 0-0, 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 counts. Gore also threw most of his curveballs to righties and didn’t throw his changeup enough. In short, he was too predictable.

Nationals pitching coach Jim Hickey felt that Gore was sometimes indecisive when it came to pitch selection. Gore was confident in his pitches, but didn’t know how to use them all at once.

“It’s not like he’s got three or four pitches and he’s leaning on two and one of them is a show pitch,” Hickey said. “They’re all weapons that can strike out batters. … I think he’s got that in his head a little bit more. If I’m going to get in this particular situation, this is exactly how I’m going to get out of it — or at least try to get out of it.”

From there, Gore worked with McFerran to make adjustments. Gore’s fastball has always been elite due to its low release height and high-quality backspin. But McFerran emphasized that Gore needs to throw his fastball at the top of the strike zone — and also throw it less often.

Instead, McFerran wanted Gore to open his full toolbox. He wanted Gore to throw his changeup more because it had a spin rate and movement that set him apart. That pitch ended up in a part of the strike zone that the batters were not taking into account. Its use has increased from 2.9 percent last year to 9.7 percent this year. Gore also throws his curveball more to lefties.

“I just think he has a lot more control over the at-bats overall,” said Nationals closer Kyle Finnegan, who said Gore is getting more swings and misses in the zone. “For him, it should be execution over selection. I don’t think the pitch matters as much as the execution. So as long as he’s confident in what he’s throwing and executes it, it’ll go well more often than not because his stuff is so be good.”

Gore also made physical adjustments on the mound. He previously sat on the rubber on the far right. Now he’s closer to the center, a change that helps in a number of ways. His throws are harder to decipher, and McFerran noted that centering himself allowed Gore’s extension to get as close to the plate as possible.

“He’s potentially one of the elite of the elite,” McFerran said. “He’s got such good stuff that if he can make every field look the same, he’s going to overpower guys.”

Moving to the middle of the mound also helps Gore with the mechanics of his throw, which he has adjusted in the offseason. Gore said he leaned too much toward first base in 2023. This year it is more upright. McFerran also said Gore has adjusted his mechanics slightly to create more distance between his upper body and his plant leg, allowing him to throw harder.

Gore said no pitcher wants to experience the growing pains he experienced a season ago. But he also believes his struggles gave him the opportunity to learn. He’s starting to reap the benefits now — and there’s still more to learn.

“We want it to happen right away, but that’s just part of it,” Gore said. “I expect a lot from myself and I didn’t feel like I was playing what I was capable of. And I still don’t. But we’re definitely better than we were before.”