When the Padres selected high school pitcher MacKenzie Gore with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 Draft, they knew they were getting a special talent. In just his second full season, the 20-year-old left-hander began to realize his potential, turning in a dominant campaign across two levels en route to MLB Pipeline’s Pitcher of the Year honors.
Gore, MLB Pipeline’s No. 3 overall prospect, was plagued by blister issues and logged a little more than 60 innings at Class A Fort Wayne in his first full season. Fully healthy this year, the Padres’ top prospect flashed his front-of-the-rotation ceiling at both Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore and Double-A Amarillo, posting a Minor League-best 1.69 ERA (100 IP min.) with 135 strikeouts and 28 walks in 101 innings (20 starts).
He also led the Minors in WHIP (0.83), ranked second in opponent average (.164), third in strikeout-to-walk rate (28.3 percent) and fifth in strikeout rate (35.7 percent).
“MacKenzie wasn’t quite himself last year, pitching with one hand tied behind his back, so to speak, so to really see him healthy from the beginning of the season to the end really allowed his stuff to shine through,” said Padres farm director Sam Geaney.
“Seeing the athleticism and the delivery; seeing the stuff that was coming out of his hand on a nightly basis; seeing how he went about his work between starts … I think it all contributed to the success he had on the mound.”
Given annually to the top pitching prospect in baseball, the Pitcher of the Year award is voted on by the MLB Pipeline staff. Players must have spent at least half the season in the Minor Leagues to be considered.
Gore wasn’t the only Minor League hurler to be considered for the award.
Joe Ryan (Rays’ No. 16), a seventh-round pick in the 2018 Draft out of Division II Cal State Stanislaus, had a remarkable breakout campaign while ascending from Class A Bowling Green to Double-A Montgomery. Among Minor League pitchers who threw at least 100 innings, the 23-year-old righty ranked among the best with his 1.96 ERA (fifth), 0.84 WHIP (second) and 183 strikeouts (second) in 123 2/3 innings. Additionally, Ryan also ranked among the best with a 32.4 percent strike-to-walk rate (first), a 38 percent strikeout rate (second) and .172 BAA (seventh).
Tarik Skubal (Tigers’ No. 4), much like Ryan, established himself as one of the 2018 Draft’s biggest steals (ninth round) by posting a 2.42 ERA and reaching Double-A, where he racked up 82 strikeouts in just 42 1/3 innings. The 22-year-old left-hander finished third in strikeouts (179) and sixth in K/9 (13.13) after posting double-digit strikeouts in seven of his final nine regular-season starts.
Zac Gallen (D-backs) has spent the better part of the past three months in the big leagues (2.50 ERA, 10.8 K/9 in 13 starts) and lost his prospect status shortly after Arizona acquired him from Miami at the Trade Deadline. But before that the 24-year-old righty compiled a 1.77 ERA with Triple-A New Orleans, while recording 112/17 K/BB, 0.71 WHIP and 112/17 K/BB in 91 1/3 innings.
Nate Pearson (Blue Jays’ No. 1) had his 2018 season wiped out by injury but returned to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, where the 2017 first-round showed electric stuff. It was a preview of what was to come in 2019, as the 22-year-old righty erupted to record a 2.30 ERA with 119 strikeouts in 101 2/3 innings while climbing from Class A Advanced Dunedin to Triple-A Buffalo. He finished among the Minor League leaders in both 0.89 WHIP (third) and .176 BAA (eighth).
Cristian Javier (Astros’ No. 10) furthered his reputation as one of the toughest pitchers to hit while tossing 113 2/3 frames between Class A Advanced Fayetteville and Double-A Corpus Christi. The 22-year-old righty appeared all over the Minor League leaderboard, ranking among the best with a 1.74 ERA (second), a .130 BAA (first) and 13.46 K/9 (second).
Gore was named the 2017 Gatorade National Player of the Year after he went 11-0 with a 0.19 ERA and a 158/5 K/BB in 74 1/3 innings as a Whiteville (N.C.) HS senior. He signed with the Padres for $6.7 million that June, and he immediately flashed his potential during his pro debut and again the following year, despite the blister issue.
Assigned to Lake Elsinore this season after a strong showing in spring camp, Gore didn’t allow a run in his first two starts for the Storm and gave up more than one run only once during his 15 starts in the California League. He racked up a career-high 11 strikeouts (in just 4 1/3 innings) on April 29 and fanned at least nine batters in 10 different starts, including each of his final three turns. In his final start for the Storm, Gore allowed three hits over a career-high seven innings. Altogether, the southpaw posted a 1.02 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and 110/20 K/BB over 79 1/3 innings in the notoriously hitter-friendly circuit.
Making his Sod Poodles debut on July 13 -- after he had represented the Padres in the prestigious SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game -- Gore allowed just two hits over 5 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out four. Gore’s next start was the worst of his career (4 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 4 BB, 3 K), but he bounced back with another scoreless performance in his next turn and made one more start for Amarillo in early August before the Padres announced that they were shutting down Gore for the remainder of the regular season.
But with the Sod Poodles ticketed for the Texas League playoffs, Gore returned to the mound once more before the season’s end to record all five of his outs via the strikeout in an abbreviated, 1 1/3-inning start on Aug. 27.
Now, according to Geaney, the club is shutting down Gore in earnest.
“He’s totally done and not going to pitch in the postseason at this point,” he said. “We were very pleased with the workload in terms of innings -- he got over 100 innings, so we think he has a very solid base heading into 2020.”
Gore was more effective against right-handed hitters (.156/.220/.265) than he was lefties (.194/.273/.254) and shut down opposing offenses with runners on base (.160/.235/.230).
Meanwhile, Gore backed up his impressive numbers with stuff that’s as good as any young hurler’s in the game.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder pitches at 93-96 mph and can touch 97, throwing his fastball with late life that makes it play at a higher effective velocity. He throws a pair of breaking balls in a mid-70s curve, a plus pitch and true swing-and-miss offering, and a hard slider in the low 80s. He rounds out his arsenal with a tumbling changeup that has plus potential, and everything he throws plays up due to his big, athletic leg kick and because he gets good extension toward the plate.
“Oftentimes those who saw him this season would see a different way that MacKenzie was able to dominate on a given night,” Geaney noted. “Frequently he had a fastball with big carry, which is his signature, but it was cool to see his slider be his out pitch one night, his curveball another night, and another night it be his changeup.
“But the nights that were really impressive were the nights he had multiple secondary weapons. As he learns to harness and find all of those elite, plus secondary pitches is when he’s really going to open up a further level of dominance.”
Even after his breakout 2019 season, the consensus among evaluators both inside and outside of the organization is that Gore is only scratching the surface of his true potential.
“What’s really exciting is there’s more to come from MacKenzie as next year approaches, and we think this guy has a chance to be very good for a long time,” said Geaney.
“He has very high standards for himself, and we have high expectations for him that are very closely rivaled by his expectations. We think his work ethic and how he approaches his craft is going to lead to a lot of success in the future.”
Gore, like many young pitchers, still has gains to make in his overall development, and there are many variables that ultimately will dictate when the precocious southpaw arrives in the Majors. However, Gore showed in 2019 that he has all the ingredients needed to continue down an accelerated path towards becoming an impact pitcher at the highest level.
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.