There are few things in baseball more awe-inspiring than watching a starting pitcher completely overwhelm the opposition. The batters, try as they might, flail helplessly at pitch after pitch. There is simply no answer for the overpowering force on the mound.
Those types of pitchers are good candidates to lead the Majors in strikeouts. Who will be atop that leaderboard at the end of this season? Here are five names to keep in mind, as chosen by five MLB.com writers.
Spencer Strider, Braves
Key stat: 38.3% strikeout rate
Considering Strider has thrown just 134 innings in the big leagues, there are certainly safer picks to lead MLB in K’s this year. But the righty may not need a hefty workload to outrank the field in 2023. After all, he just became the fastest pitcher in AL/NL history to reach the 200-strikeout plateau in a single season, doing so in 130 innings, and his 38.3% strikeout rate was nearly five percentage points higher than that of any other pitcher who threw at least 130 frames in 2022. That included a 38.1% K rate as a starter.
Strider is effectively a two-pitch pitcher, but when your two offerings are this good, why mess around with a third? He had 120 K’s with his four-seam fastball alone last year, finding consistent success riding the top of the zone while averaging over 98 mph with the pitch. And while the four-seamer is his bread and butter, his slider is arguably even more impressive. The righty recorded a strikeout exactly half the time when he ended a plate appearance with his slider, and the pitch generated a 52.2% whiff rate, the second highest of any pitch type in MLB (min. 300 swings).
Even though he spent nearly two months in the bullpen last year and missed the final two weeks of the regular season with an oblique injury, Strider still almost cracked MLB’s top 10 in strikeouts. He’s poised to soar all the way to the top of the leaderboard this season.
-- Thomas Harrigan
Gerrit Cole, Yankees
Key stat: 32% or better strikeout rate in five consecutive seasons
Even when he’s not at his best, Cole remains one of the game’s premier strikeout pitchers.
He claimed his second strikeout title last year despite small declines in his swinging-strike and K/9 rates. However, he finished no worse than sixth in each statistic. A 32.4% strikeout clip was a five-year low for the Yankees’ ace but still good enough to rank third among qualified starters. Only Hall of Famer Randy Johnson has recorded more seasons with such a lofty strikeout percentage. Like the Big Unit, Cole leans on his high-velocity fastball and high-whiff slider to sit down opposing hitters.
Cole can afford these rate dips and still reign as baseball’s strikeout king because no one can match his recent durability. Consider that 25 pitchers threw at least 181 innings last year, and only five from that group reached that mark in 2021 as well. Cole is obviously a member of that quintet, but he topped 181 innings in each of the past four full seasons, putting him in a class by himself. Cole exceeded 200 innings each year except in 2021*, when he logged 181 1/3 frames.
*Cole finished only five K’s off the MLB lead that season and likely would have won another strikeout title if not for a two-week stint on the COVID-19 injured list.
Pitchers such as Strider post otherworldly rate stats. Workhorses such as Sandy Alcantara may toss more innings. But no hurler has a better blend of swing-and-miss stuff and dependable volume than Cole. He should be primed for another big year as he heads into his age-32 campaign.
-- Brian Murphy
Carlos Rodón, Yankees
Key stat: 33.9% strikeout rate since 2021
No pitcher has thrown at least 200 innings since the start of ’21 and struck out a higher percentage of batters he’s faced than Rodón. The pitcher he’s just ahead of on that list? New teammate Cole, selected just ahead with the second pick in this draft. Nothing wrong with a little healthy competition, especially when the end result is more opposing batters struck out and more success on the mound for the Yankees’ staff as a whole.
Rodón got 135 strikeouts on his four-seamer in ’22, tied with Cole, on his four-seamer, for the most by a pitcher on a single pitch type. Rodón also had 93 K’s on his slider, making him the only pitcher with at least 90 strikeouts on multiple pitch types in 2022. In fact, he’s done that in each of the last two seasons, with his only other companion on that list being 2021 Robbie Ray (also four-seamer and slider).
With two key strikeout pitches, the Yankees’ new co-ace is set to be the second Bronx hurler to lead MLB in strikeouts in as many years.
-- Sarah Langs
Dylan Cease, White Sox
Key stat: 33.9% whiff rate since 2021
Perhaps the only thing preventing Cease from having already won a strikeout crown is his control issues. He’s made 32 starts in each of the past two seasons, but he's pitched only 165 2/3 innings and 184 innings, respectively – an average of fewer than six innings per start. He led the AL with 34 walks during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and though he lowered his walk rate from 13.3% in ’20 to 10.4% in ’22, he still handed out an MLB-high 78 free passes last season.
All of those walks lead to shortened outings for Cease, who still managed to finish seventh across the Majors in strikeouts in 2021 and fifth in ’22. That’s because when he commands the zone, he’s tough to hit. His 33.9% whiff rate over the past two seasons is the second best among qualified starters during that stretch, trailing only Corbin Burnes (35.8%). If Cease can improve on his walk rate by even the slightest margin and get closer to 200 innings, then 250 strikeouts – and an MLB strikeout title – is certainly within reach.
-- Paul Casella
Corbin Burnes, Brewers
Key stat: 477 strikeouts since start of 2021 season, 2nd in MLB
Since becoming a full-time starter in 2021, Burnes has racked up the strikeouts -- only Cole has more punchouts over that span -- 500 to Burnes’ 477. And the two had virtually the same strikeout percentage in that period, the best among qualified starters -- 32.9 percent for Cole and 32.8 percent for Burnes.
There was some skepticism entering last season about whether Burnes would hold up over a full season under a starter’s workload after making 28 starts the prior year and pitching 167 innings. He answered the bell, throwing 202 frames with a 2.94 ERA. Now, he’ll look to prove the doubters wrong again in 2023.
With so many weapons at his disposal when he gets ahead of hitters, it’s no wonder he’s been near the very top in strikeouts the past two seasons. His overall whiff rate of 35.2 percent ranked in the 95th percentile among qualified starters in 2022, and his slider, changeup and curveball all had whiff rates between 45 and 50 percent. He was mostly an equal-opportunity distributor of putaway pitches, though he preferred the curve (27.9 percent) and the slider (27.5 percent) the most.
Expect more of the same from Burnes in 2023 as he continues to quietly be one of the best starting pitchers in baseball.
-- Manny Randhawa