Max Scherzer is as close to a Hall of Fame lock as anyone currently playing, and he inked another huge bullet point on his Cooperstown resume Sunday when he became the 19th AL/NL pitcher in the 3,000-strikeout club. Scherzer joined Verlander as the second active pitcher on that list, and who knows, maybe Scherzer and Verlander will enter the Hall’s Plaque Gallery at the same time in an ace-packed class for the ages.
There’s plenty of time between now and then, and the 3K strikeout club could soon grow even larger. As we did with the 500-homer club when Miguel Cabrera joined it in August, here is a look at the pitchers who could follow Scherzer as the next 3,000-strikeout member -- with a prediction on whether they will get there or not.
All stats entering Sunday
Veterans with a shot
Zack Greinke, Astros
Career K: 2,799
Career K/9 rate: 8.1
You might not have guessed that Greinke was next on the active K list, but he’s perhaps a season or two away from 3,000 (he tallied 187 in 2019 and 199 in ‘18). It should be noted that Greinke is averaging just 6.2 K/9 this year, his lowest rate since pitching in a completely different strikeout environment back in 2005.
Prediction: He’ll get there. Greinke has had no trouble staying healthy into his late 30s. He is a free agent after this season, but he made valuable contributions to last year’s American League Championship Series-bound Astros and has pitched well again in 2021, so he shouldn’t have trouble finding work (if he wants to keep pitching).
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Career K: 2,653
Career K/9: 9.8
Health is by far a bigger roadblock on Kershaw’s path to 3,000 than skill; he was averaging 10.7 K/9 before his forearm troubles cropped up in July (the Dodgers believe he’s very close to returning). Even during some of his “struggles” from 2017-19, Kershaw never dipped below 8.6 K/9. Kershaw, like Greinke and Scherzer, is a pending free agent this winter (yes, all three of them hitting the market at once is wild), and he’ll have over 2,400 innings (not counting nearly 200 more in the postseason) on his golden left arm when he does.
Prediction: Pencil him in. There’s no way the Dodgers lose Kershaw, right? And if Kershaw remains a Dodger with so many stars around him (and, somehow, the Dodgers’ payroll flexibility going forward will allow them to keep adding more stars), why wouldn’t he keep pitching as long as he can? Kershaw hasn’t even dipped close to a league-average level when healthy, and he’s earned the right to keep pitching until he decides to hang ‘em up. Three thousand strikeouts makes his Hall of Fame resume even more robust.
Career K: 2,560
Career K/9: 8.5
It looked for a hot minute as if Hamels, Scherzer, Kershaw and David Price could all be part of the same pitching staff. Then, Hamels’ arm didn’t respond well to bullpen sessions, and Los Angeles placed him on the 60-day injured list to end his 2021 comeback before it began.
Prediction: Hamels will fall short. He has more regular-season innings on his arm than Kershaw, he's four years older and he has thrown precisely 3 1/3 innings since the end of 2019. His strikeout rate hovered around league average even when he was healthy back then, and it’s hard to imagine it would get better if he’s able to return.
Jon Lester, Cardinals
Career K: 2,467
Career K/9: 8.2
Lester is hanging on as a starter with something between a 4.00 and 5.00 ERA, and he'll likely pitch on one-year contracts from here on out. His 13.6% strikeout rate is the lowest among all pitchers with 100 innings this season.
Prediction: Lester should get some serious Hall of Fame looks thanks to his postseason heroics, but 3,000 strikeouts won’t be part of his case.
Chris Sale, Red Sox
Career K: 2,037
Career K/9: 11.1
This is the most fascinating case on the list. On one hand, Sale topped Baseball-Reference’s all-time career K/9 leaderboard until last week, when Robbie Ray reached the 1,000-inning threshold and jumped to the top. On the other, he’s just returning from a year off due to Tommy John surgery. On one hand, Sale is one of only 15 AL/NL pitchers to rack up 2,000 strikeouts through his age-30 season. On the other, only seven of the other 14 made it to 3,000. This club is small for a reason!
Prediction: It will be close, but Sale makes it. Pitchers seem to bounce back from Tommy John better than they used to, and Sale is in a stable situation, under contract with Boston through at least 2024. The blistering pace he’s set to this point gives him more wiggle room.
Likely too late
David Price (2,037 strikeouts), Adam Wainwright (1,993), Madison Bumgarner (1,936), Stephen Strasburg (1,718)
Price’s health is starting to become a major concern, and he’s in more of a starter-reliever hybrid role now with the Dodgers. The 40-year-old Wainwright is bucking Father Time, but again, he’s 40. Bumgarner has seen his strikeout rate plummet with Arizona. Strasburg’s injury history has left him short on time.
Keep an eye on ...
Gerrit Cole, Yankees
Career K: 1,647
Career K/9: 10.4
Cole wasn’t a 3,000-K pick when he was a Pirate, but he’s obviously making up for lost time in a hurry. The pandemic-shortened 2020 season -- a prime age-29 campaign for Cole, following 276- and 326-strikeout years -- might actually loom large in Cole’s chase. Signed with the Yankees through at least ‘28, Cole has the runway to make a serious push in his 30s. (Cole’s former UCLA teammate Trevor Bauer is also just 30 years old and has 1,416 strikeouts, but it’s unclear when he’ll pitch again.)
Prediction: Cole was near the center of all the headlines surrounding this summer’s “sticky stuff” crackdown, but he hasn’t missed a beat in the K’s department. Barring health (a recent hamstring scare seemed more precautionary than serious), there’s no reason right now to think Cole can’t get there.
Jacob deGrom, Mets
Career K: 1,505
Career K/9: 10.7
We just saw deGrom rival Pedro Martinez for the most dominant pitching in recent memory, but then we also saw the health risks of a pitcher averaging triple digits with every fastball (and low- to mid-90s velocity with every slider and changeup). He’s had a 3,000-strikeout pace ever since he debuted in 2014, but Minor League injuries, including Tommy John surgery, also kept him from debuting until he was nearly 26.
Prediction: It’s just too dicey as to whether deGrom can stay healthy into his late 30s, and his career probably got off to too late a start. deGrom has already built a compelling Hall of Fame case, but if he gets in, he’ll likely do so without the traditional win or strikeout totals.
Further down the road
José Berríos (age 27, 830 strikeouts), Germán Márquez (26, 807), Lucas Giolito (27, 675) and Shane Bieber (26, 629) could all surpass 1,000 strikeouts before their 30th birthdays, giving them at least an outside shot if they go crazy in their second decades. … Walker Buehler (27, 609) has the wide-ranging arsenal to be a strikeout artist throughout his career. … Jack Flaherty (25, 563) is still racking up K’s, despite some steps backward from 2019. … Freddy Peralta (25, 430) lost valuable young innings in a relief role but is flourishing now as a starter. … Julio Urías (25, 407) got a useful head start by debuting at age 19. ... Sandy Alcantara (26, 408) has some of deGrom’s high-velo characteristics (and looked deGrom-esque in striking out 14 Mets recently), but he would need to make up ground in a hurry.