Nats’ MacKenzie Gore sees room for improvement after 2023 season

Asked how he would assess his 2023 season — in which he stayed healthy until finger blisters derailed him in August — MacKenzie Gore offered a pretty blunt answer.

“Better than last year but still not great,” the Washington Nationals left-hander said. “So frustrating in that part. But it was better than last year.”

Why was this season frustrating?

“Just not pitching to what I’m capable of. So.”

Gore’s routine has slowed in the final days of Washington’s season. He has been on the injured list since Sept. 9, so the pre-start bullpen sessions and work between outings are gone. Manager Dave Martinez said he’s still doing strength work, but now the 24-year-old has more time to spend walking around the clubhouse, asking his teammates about fantasy football trades. He called the change of pace “definitely different.”

It’s important to provide context on Gore’s first full major league season, which he finished with a 4.42 ERA in 27 starts. He made it through the year without an arm injury, perhaps the most important development. Gore arrived in Washington as part of the Juan Soto trade but did not make a start for the Nationals in 2022. He was on the injured list, dealing with elbow inflammation, when the San Diego Padres shipped him out. Gore had four rehab starts at Class AAA Rochester but didn’t make his Nationals debut until 2023.

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Before the season began, Washington established an innings limit for Gore. He ended up throwing 136⅓, by far his most as a professional. At times he dazzled, but he was inconsistent.

“That’s probably one of the most important things after coming off of an elbow thing,” Gore said. “I wanted to pitch better as a whole, but at the end of the day, I did make 27 starts, career high in innings. And sometimes you got to lay that foundation down before you really start getting going. So we got that done, which was very important.”

Gore hopes to clean up his delivery in the offseason. He said if he polishes up that aspect of his game, others will improve as well. His high leg kick and long stride help him deceive batters, but he must be consistent with them to find success.

“The delivery can be a lot of moving parts and all that — and that can be good, and that can be a detriment as well,” Nationals pitching coach Jim Hickey said. “It’s great when it’s going good because it’s a rhythm and it’s mindless almost. But when you’re searching for that release point, all these moving parts and having to sync them up, it can be a little bit of a hindrance. So for him personally, it is a case of him being out there more often, trusting his stuff and just repeating the delivery — which he’s capable of doing, absolutely, and he has on a number of occasions. He’s a guy that can be a top-of-the-rotation guy for another 10 years or so.”

Gore’s potential is tied to the movement of his pitches. His fastball gets in on the hitter’s hands quickly because of his extension toward the plate. And Gore got hitters to swing and miss on 37.9 percent of his curveballs and 37.5 percent of his sliders. Even his change-up, which he deployed more often in the season’s second half, got whiffs on 38.2 percent of batters’ swings.

But Gore walked 3.8 hitters per nine innings, an area in which he must improve. He was at his best when he got ahead in the count. When he fell behind, it led to walks or poorly located pitches, which led to hard contact. Hitters barreled up his pitches — the advanced stat classification used to describe hard contact — 12.1 percent of the time, the fourth-highest mark in the majors. And he allowed 27 home runs, which was tied for the 13th most in the majors entering Monday but was just third worst on the Nationals, trailing Trevor Williams’s 34 and Patrick Corbin’s 32.

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Hickey said Gore doesn’t need to alter his arsenal. His focus should be on getting ahead in the count to set himself up for success and keep hitters off balance.

“I think just repetition,” Hickey said. “He really hasn’t pitched a ton of innings. … And of course he’s a young guy. But I also think a lot of that has to do with just the confidence that you can beat guys in the strike zone, and I think he definitely realizes that now. I don’t think you’re going to see a big kind of adjustment period with him like you did at the beginning of this year. … I think you’re going to see him in the strike zone a heck of a lot more.”

Note: Rookie right-hander Jake Irvin said he had been feeling discomfort in his right ankle for a few outings but wanted to push through it for the late-season learning opportunities. But after his latest start Thursday, he was placed on the 15-day IL the following day with right ankle tendinitis, ending his season. The 26-year-old, who was promoted in early May, had a 4.61 ERA in 24 starts.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be put in this position,” he said Sunday, “but the work’s not done.”

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