1 of these aces will be the '21 strikeout king

March 5th, 2021

Winning a strikeout title is the mark of a truly dominant ace. Just look at the list of names who've led their league in strikeouts in recent seasons: Jacob deGrom, Shane Bieber, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw … it's a who's who of pitching.

But there can be only one MLB strikeout king. Who will take the overall crown this season? Let's make some predictions.

MLB.com enlisted five writers to pick 10 pitchers to lead the Major Leagues in strikeouts in 2021 -- the same thing we did for the MLB home run race earlier this week -- with each making one pick from the American League and one pick from the National League.

Here are the picks.


Shane Bieber -- RHP, Indians
2019 total: 259 / '20 total: 122

If you’re looking for the potential 2021 strikeout leader, the guy who just led the Majors isn’t a bad place to start. Bieber struck out at least eight batters in all 12 of his starts in 2020, reaching double figures in eight of them, and finished with 122 K’s and a 1.63 ERA in 77 1/3 innings en route to the AL Cy Young Award.

Bieber is able to get above-average movement on each of his five pitches -- including his curveball and slider, which have similar velocity and spin direction but much different break. The righty was the only pitcher in the Majors last season to record a whiff rate of 50% or better on three different pitch types (min. 25 swings per pitch type), and that didn’t even include his four-seam fastball, which he used to collect 43 strikeouts. Overall, Bieber generated a 40.7% whiff rate, tying him with deGrom for the highest among MLB starters. With his ability to miss bats, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him make a run at 300 K’s in 2021.

-- Thomas Harrigan

Gerrit Cole -- RHP, Yankees
2019 total: 326 / '20 total: 94

Sure, Cole wasn’t quite as dominant in Yankees pinstripes as he was the year prior with the Astros, but even he will be hard-pressed to equal that 2019 Houston level. Cole’s worst season since he was in Pittsburgh still saw him strike out nearly one-third of the batters he faced, and he actually improved upon the whiff rates on his wipeout slider and hammer curveball. His Bronx fastball had a little more run than rise when compared with his Houston heat, and he got into trouble when he missed the top of the zone. But the vitals -- the velocity and the spin -- were still very much there.

If Cole can make even minor tweaks to that fastball, look out. Even if he doesn’t, his baseline easily feels like 240-275 K’s. I’m certainly not going out on a limb here, but Cole is too sure a thing to pass up with the No. 2 pick.

-- Matt Kelly

Lucas Giolito -- RHP, White Sox
2019 total: 228 / '20 total: 97

Giolito’s 97 strikeouts in 2020 were fourth in the Majors behind only Bieber, deGrom and Bauer. In other words, the elite territory. Those strikeouts were spread between his four-seamer (48), changeup (34) and slider (15). All three of those pitches have been great for Giolito since his turnaround began in 2019 -- even the slider, where he had fewer strikeouts in ‘20, boasted a 52.6% whiff rate.

When he threw his no-hitter in 2020, Giolito set a White Sox record for strikeouts in a no-no, with 13. Since the start of 2019, only five pitchers have a higher strikeout rate than Giolito’s 32.7%, with the names ahead of him now being consistently in the "lead the Majors in strikeouts" conversation: Cole, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, deGrom and Bieber. With high expectations for the White Sox in 2021, Giolito will get a chance to lead the team like a true, multi-time postseason team ace, and leading the Majors in strikeouts seems likely to come with that -- whether this year, or another season soon.

-- Sarah Langs

Tyler Glasnow -- RHP, Rays
2019 total: 76 / '20 total: 91

Glasnow won't throw the most innings in the AL -- we've all seen how the Rays deploy their stable of pitchers -- but it won't matter. He's going to strike out the world. Glasnow's 100 mph fastball and 3,000 rpm curveball are such a dynamic 1-2 punch that he basically doesn't even need to throw anything else. (But that's not stopping him from working on a new slider/cutter right now anyway.)

A prototypical power pitcher, Glasnow is just explosive -- the 6-foot-8 right-hander releases the ball closer to the plate than anyone else, which makes picking up his pitches, and then trying to actually hit them, even more of a fool's errand. From 2018-20, Glasnow's K/9 increased from 11 to 11.3 to 14.3; his strikeout rate increased from 29.1% to 33% to 38.2%. He'll make the most out of his volume and post a gaudy strikeout total in 2021.

-- David Adler

Lance Lynn -- RHP, White Sox
2019 total: 246 / '20 total: 89

This is a counting category, so with the top tier of the AL’s strikeout-rate pitchers off the board at this spot, it only makes sense to go with a pitcher who can be counted on to, well, pitch. A lot. To that end, Lynn has thrown 292 1/3 regular-season frames since the start of the 2019 season -- that’s the most in MLB in that span. And the 6-foot-5 righty also is sporting a strong (if not quite elite) 27.5 percent strikeout rate since then, which is 16th-highest among qualified starters. It’s not like the fastball-heavy Lynn is purely a volume pick.

That said, the strategy here is to grab guaranteed innings and figure the strikeouts will follow. Remember: The return to a 162-game slate after last year’s shortened season likely will impact many pitchers’ health and performance across the board. Under these unique circumstances, the 33-year-old Lynn -- motivated by both his first season with the contending White Sox and his oncoming free agency -- might be the best bet in baseball to approach 200 innings.

-- Jason Catania


Jacob deGrom -- RHP, Mets
2019 total: 255 / '20 total: 104


OK, if you’re looking for slightly more in-depth analysis, there’s the fact that deGrom -- arguably the best pitcher in baseball the past three seasons -- trails only Cole and Bieber (see above for both) with 359 regular-season strikeouts since 2019. If strikeout rate is more your bag, the Mets ace’s 33.5 percent mark is right with Max Scherzer’s 33.9 percent figure for the NL’s highest in that time (among qualifiers).

Prefer just pure stuff? Well, then you can’t top the 32-year-old deGrom’s ridiculous 98.6 mph average four-seam fastball … or his 92.5 mph average slider with its 44.6 percent whiff rate … or his 91.4 mph average changeup that comes with a 42.9 percent whiff rate … or well, you get the picture. The dude has an overall whiff percentage in the 98th percentile, and it’s not hard to see why.

-- Jason Catania

Luis Castillo -- RHP, Reds
2019 total: 226 / '20 total: 89

Castillo has one of the best pitch combos in the game with his fastball and changeup. He releases them with a nearly identical spin axis, and the pitch trajectories mirror each other, but the fastballs come in at 98 mph and the changeups come in at 88 mph. That combo is the key to Castillo averaging close to 11 K's per nine innings over the last two seasons while striking out close to 30% of the batters he's faced.

On his changeup alone, Castillo racked up 207 strikeouts from 2019-20 -- over 100 more than the next-closest pitcher, Kyle Hendricks, who had 106. Look for the 28-year-old to step up as the Reds' ace after Trevor Bauer's departure and post huge strikeout numbers this year.

-- David Adler

Yu Darvish -- RHP, Padres
2019 total: 229 / '20 total: 93

Whenever you have a chance to take the pitcher who quite literally has the highest strikeout-per-nine rate in Major League history, you do it. That’s right, Darvish’s 11.1 career strikeouts per nine are the highest ever, with a minimum of 1,000 innings pitched. Of course, that’s a rate stat, and Darvish is an active player, so it’s subject to change, but it’s been the case for a bit now.

In typical fashion, Darvish had at least seven strikeouts on six different pitch types last year. That vast arsenal is a huge part of what makes him so good, and the variance keeps hitters off balance. Consider this: four of those pitches had a whiff rate greater than 30%, meaning that just about a third of swings on that pitch, if not more, were misses. Good luck, hitters.

-- Sarah Langs

Max Scherzer -- RHP, Nationals
2019 total: 243 / '20 total: 92

In what might have been his worst season since former President Obama's second term (3.74 ERA -- his worst since 2012 -- and a career-worst 1.38 WHIP), Scherzer still sported a very Max-esque 31% strikeout rate. His fastball velocity stayed consistent, and all five of his pitches featured whiff rates of at least 25% (including that nasty slider at 51%, nearly identical to ‘19), so he still missed plenty of bats. Scherzer’s pedigree as a former “best pitcher on Earth” makes me confident that he’ll bounce back after a more typical offseason, but regardless, give me the guy who’s punched out at least 30% of hitters in each of the last six campaigns.

-- Matt Kelly

Trevor Bauer -- RHP, Dodgers
2019 total: 253 / '20 total: 100

Three pitchers tallied 100-plus strikeouts during the pandemic-shortened season: Bieber, deGrom and Bauer, who won the NL Cy Young Award after posting a 1.73 ERA with 100 K’s in 73 innings for the Reds. On the heels of that exceptional performance, the right-hander signed a three-year, $102 million deal with the Dodgers in February.

While he wasn’t nearly as successful in 2019 (4.48 ERA), he still churned out 253 K’s, and he had 221 the year before despite missing six weeks with a stress fracture in his right leg. His total of 574 strikeouts since the beginning of 2018 is fifth highest in the Majors. The righty has one of the deepest arsenals in the game, and his pitches move a lot. Bauer had the most added rise with his four-seamer, the most added drop with his curveball, the fourth-most added break with his slider and the 12th-most added break with his cutter last season.

The biggest hindrance to Bauer’s chances of wearing the strikeout crown might be his new team. Due to their depth and philosophy, the Dodgers haven’t had a pitcher throw more than 182 2/3 innings since Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke both topped 220 in 2015. But Bauer’s impressive stuff can’t be ignored, especially at the very end of our draft.

-- Thomas Harrigan