Peoria, Ariz. – Most teenage pitching phenoms fit a certain mold.
They were always the biggest kids in the game. They throw really hard and have a pitch other than a fastball that may eventually emerge. But until then, it’s nothing but gas.
MacKenzie Gore, who just turned 19 in late February, is different. San Diego’s selection with the third overall pick in the 2017 draft doesn’t just have big velocity. While he owns a mid-90s fastball, he can also drop a changeup and spin a breaking ball as well as anyone in the organization.
“Growing up, I wasn’t a big guy, so I had to learn how to pitch,” Gore said on one of the last days of Spring Training. “I couldn’t blow fastballs by people so that was always my philosophy. Learn how to pitch and the velocity will come.”
A growth spurt between his sophomore and junior year gave him the size to generate power. Coming into his senior year, Gore had risen to 38th on Baseball America’s draft rankings. That was before he went 11-0 with a 0.19 ERA and struck out 158 batters in 74.1 innings. He led his North Carolina team to the 1A championship for the third time in four years.
“Our area scout, Nick Brannon, went in early, saw him throw before the season and really liked what he saw and said he’d really taken a jump both strength-wise and velocity-wise,” Padres Scouting Director Mark Conner told us after the draft.
While Hunter Greene, who Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins profiled memorably, may have had the bigger tools, Gore may have a better combination of ceiling and floor.
“For all the publicity that Hunter Greene gets for being extremely athletic and a great two-way guy, MacKenzie Gore is right there with him,” said MLBPipeline.com’s Jim Callis after the draft.
“He was going to attend East Carolina as a two-way player. If he had come out as a position player, he would have been no later than a third-round pick in center field.”
Gore, who was also an outstanding student with a 4.07 GPA, hit .480 his senior year with an .880 slugging percentage and, by most accounts, was a very good outfielder.
“Greene was clocked throwing 102 mph, but Gore had a much deeper repertoire,” said Callis. “He has a plus curveball that is better than any breaking ball that Hunter Greene has and his slider is already flashing plus, which is probably already better than whatever slider Greene comes up with down the road. Gore has a plus changeup that is also more advanced than Greene’s.”
Gore made his professional debut in mid-July last year and was everything the team could have expected. He overmatched the AZL with a 1.27 ERA in 21.1 innings, striking out 34 against only seven walks.
“It was good, I liked getting my feet wet in pro ball,” Gore said. “I had some success and adversity. I think I got better, which is what I’m always trying to do.”
One of the first things anyone notices about him is his unusually high leg kick, which generates power and deception.
“It really just came naturally. I’ve always been very focused on repeating my delivery and just stayed with it,” Gore said. “The most important thing about it is that it helps me command my pitches because I can repeat it.
“You have to be able to repeat your delivery if you want to pitch.”
“I thought with every start, he showed his athleticism and command,” said Sam Geaney, the Padres’ Director of Player Development, in it interview with him last fall.
“This was our first look at him as a development staff, and he was the premium athlete that our scouting department told us about. He commanded four pitches and all of the stuff about his intelligence and makeup was true.”
The only thing MacKenzie didn’t like was the heat of Phoenix in July.
“No,” laughed Gore, “not really a fan, but it was ok.”
In his last few outings this spring, his fastball was sitting 92-95, and reportedly touched 98. His changeup seemed to drop straight down, and his curve and slider have picked up from last year.
“The biggest thing I tried doing in the offseason was just to get stronger so I could be prepared for the length of the season,” said Gore, who added ten pounds from his pre-draft weight of 185 on his six-foot-three frame.
“I agree with Sam [Geaney] that his athleticism is the most impressive thing I saw with MacKenzie,” said J.J. Cooper of Baseball America who also saw Gore on his trip to Arizona for Spring Training.
“When you see a true athlete like him that can command that many pitches it’s impressive. I think he’s gotten better since the draft, but we’re going to see that play out this summer when he starts to face better competition.”
The Padres will probably hold Gore back from starting the year in Fort Wayne on opening day, as they did last year with teenage pitchers Reggie Lawson and Mason Thompson, to keep his innings under control. But as MLB Pipeline’s Mike Rosenbaum told our Kevin Charity the other day, he could end the year with Double-A San Antonio.
Despite his talent and athleticism, what may stand out most about Gore, who has a relaxed persona and speaks with a soft North Carolina drawl, is the type of competitor he becomes when he takes the mound with a seemingly laser-like focus.
“Off the field, I’m very laid back, but when I get between the lines I’m a different guy.”