5 favorites and 5 dark horses to lead the way in K's

February 21st, 2024

A Cy Young Award winner might be the best pitcher in baseball, but the one who takes home the MLB strikeout crown is probably the nastiest.

These are the pitchers who could do it in 2024.

Here are five of the top candidates to lead the Major Leagues in strikeouts this season -- and five dark horses -- as picked by a panel of MLB.com experts.


1. , RHP, Braves
2023 K’s: 281 (1st in MLB)

There are favorites, and then there’s Spencer Strider and strikeouts. Given how consistently he has missed bats in his time as a big league starter, this was an easy No. 1 pick. In 2023, Strider became the first Braves pitcher to lead the Majors in strikeouts since John Smoltz in 1996. If he does it again, he would join Warren Spahn in 1950-52 and Tommy Bond in 1877-78 as the only Braves pitchers to do so in multiple years, let alone consecutive ones.
-- Sarah Langs

2. , RHP, Yankees
2023 K’s: 222 (5th in MLB)

Cole finally won his first career Cy Young Award last year, but his 27% strikeout rate was also a six-year low. His four-seamer was the most valuable pitch in baseball, but it did lose 1.2 mph from its 97.8 mph average in 2022. And at age 33, Cole might soon enter the decline phase of his career. So why is he a favorite here? Because the two-time MLB strikeout king is still the game’s most reliable pitcher when it comes to racking up the K’s. Cole’s 1,418 strikeouts since the start of 2018 are 200 more than anyone else, and he has averaged 265 K’s over the last five full seasons.
-- Brian Murphy

3. , RHP, Orioles
2023 K’s: 200 (16th in MLB)

The Orioles got Burnes to be the ace who leads them to a division title repeat, and for good reason: Burnes is Baltimore's best starter since Mike Mussina -- and he's more of a strikeout artist than Mussina was. Burnes is one of five pitchers with 200-plus K's in each of the last three seasons, along with Cole, Aaron Nola, Kevin Gausman and Dylan Cease. And of that group, he and Cease are the only pitchers still in their 20s. Burnes has one league strikeout title (he led the NL with 243 in 2022), and he should be among the MLB leaders for a long time yet.
-- David Adler

4. , RHP, Twins
2023 K’s: 234 (3rd in MLB)

López put together a full-fledged breakout campaign in his first season with the Twins. He stayed healthy enough to make 32 starts for the second year in a row, and the results were phenomenal. López joined the sweeper revolution, and the pitch helped take his repertoire to another level -- along with gaining roughly 1 mph or more across the board. He can now attack hitters with four different offerings -- four-seamer, sweeper, changeup, curveball -- that all had whiff rates above 28% and notched at least 39 strikeouts. Heading into his age-28 season, López is at the peak of his powers, and may have the combination of durability and stuff to nab his first K crown.
-- Andrew Simon

5. , RHP, Blue Jays
2023 K’s: 237 (2nd in MLB)

With three straight seasons of over 200 strikeouts, Gausman has come into his own. His 669 K’s since the start of 2021 -- including last year’s career-high 237 -- rank third in MLB, behind only Cole (722) and Burnes (677). Gausman also has proven incredibly durable, with six seasons of 30-plus starts since 2016. All of that, along with a devastating splitter that has accounted for 393 K’s across the past three years -- the most by any pitcher on any one pitch type in that span -- makes the 33-year-old a strong candidate to rack up the most strikeouts in ’24.
-- Jason Catania


What is a dark horse, exactly? Your mileage may vary, but for this exercise, we considered anyone who did not strike out 200-plus batters in any season from 2021-23. That ruled out a group of 29 pitchers.

1. , RHP, Reds
2023 K’s: 152

Greene has a 30.7% strikeout rate in his career, and averaged 98.3 mph on his four-seamer last season. If he can remain healthy, a K rate like that gets him into the echelon of pitchers who rack up 200-plus strikeout seasons year after year. Since his MLB career began in 2022, Greene has 54 strikeouts at 100-plus mph, three times as many as any other starter in that span. In fact, that is one more 100 mph K than any other starter in the pitch-tracking era (since 2008), ahead of Jacob deGrom.
-- Sarah Langs

2. , RHP, Dodgers
2023 K’s: 162

Strider’s 186 2/3 innings pitched in 2023 were the fewest ever by a Major League strikeout leader over a full season. That’s 66 2/3 more frames than Glasnow’s single-season best, which he set last last year. But if he can add onto that in his debut with the Dodgers, the right-hander is a premier strikeout artist. Glasnow owns a 35% strikeout rate since 2019 -- third-best among starters with at least 1,000 batters faced -- and his 12.2 K/9 last year tied with Greene for second in the big leagues (min. 100 innings), behind only Strider's 13.6. Armed with a high-90s fastball, a low-90s slider and a curveball that’s registered an absurd 66% K rate since '19, Glasnow’s power stuff and balanced usage make him a worthy dark horse.
-- Brian Murphy

3. , RHP, Orioles
2023 K’s: 129

If not one Oriole, how about another? Burnes will be the leader of the O's staff, but Rodriguez could be a breakout star. He's just 24, and he's a top prospect (No. 7 overall last year) who figured things out down the stretch as a rookie, putting up a 2.58 ERA and 73 K's in his 13 starts in the second half of 2023. Rodriguez's stuff is good enough for the strikeouts to come: He has a power fastball that averages over 97 mph, and two swing-and-miss secondary pitches in his changeup and slider. Projections see Rodriguez pushing toward 200 K's in 2024, and he's talented enough to exceed those.
-- David Adler

4. , RHP, Marlins
2023 K’s: 108

By far the biggest question here is innings. The Marlins managed Pérez carefully last year in his age-20 season, holding him to 91 1/3 innings in the Majors and 128 total. That number should jump this year, but will it go high enough for a league-leading strikeout total? That might be unlikely. But Pérez’s stuff is nasty enough that he merits mention anyway. This is a pitcher who threw in the upper 90s as a rookie, with three secondary pitches (slider, curveball, changeup) that ran whiff rates of 46% or higher. Pérez ranked in the 93rd percentile of MLB in whiff rate and 85th in strikeout rate -- and he’s only going to get better.
-- Andrew Simon

5. , LHP, Tigers
2023 K’s: 102

Arguably no pitcher this offseason has gone from as under-the-radar to hyped up as Skubal. The 27-year-old has always had big stuff, but he’s now among the game's hardest-throwing southpaws, averaging 96 mph on his fastballs. Skubal’s also ramped up his changeup usage (24.5% in 2023), which is his offering with the highest whiff rate (50.6%).

If the 6-foot-3 left-hander can overcome injury issues that have plagued him (2017 Tommy John surgery in college, 2022 flexor tendon surgery) and double his innings total from last year (80 1/3), Skubal could flirt with 200 K's and enter the mix of league leaders.
-- Jason Catania