MLB’s 30 Best Strikeout Pitchers, Ranked
Groundout. Flyout. Lineout. Popout. Strikeout. All of these have the same result — an out — but only one of them generates oohs and ahhs. That would be the strikeout, aka the whiff, aka the “K.” There have been more than 2.3 million strikeouts (and counting) in baseball history, and we’re going to relive every single one. OK, we’re not going to do that, but we will highlight the best pitchers at throwing strikeouts.
This isn’t necessarily a counting list of the pitchers with the most strikeouts, as context is taken into account. An unhittable closer who racks up K’s won’t accumulate nearly the number of strikeouts as a token starter who logs lots of innings. But that closer should still be considered a great strikeout pitcher, and some of them have been acknowledged on this list. Pitchers who had brief but dynamic runs generating lots of strikeouts are also considered as well as guys with lengthy careers who provided more quantity than quality.
Thus, there are many different ways in which a pitcher can make this list. But who is your favorite strikeout pitcher of all time?
30. Tim Lincecum
Career: 10 seasons (2007-16)
Teams: San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Angels
Championships: 3 (2010, 2012, 2014)
Stats: 1,736 K; 110 W; 3.74 ERA
Bottom Line: Tim Lincecum
Lincecum’s funky delivery told you that he was only here for a good time, not a long time. His run was brief, as his arm simply went out after just five seasons. He had 24.4 WAR through his first five years and -4.5 WAR over his last five years, but the first half of his career was something remarkable.
He led the NL in strikeouts three straight years and won Cy Young awards in two of those years. Lincecum had a two-hit, 14-strikeout complete game gem in his first-ever postseason start and then had a 10-strikeout game later that year in the World Series.
Wise Words From Tim Lincecum
"People out there said I was too small. It's those kinds of moments that pushed me to be where I'm at right now."
29. Sam McDowell
Career: 15 seasons (1961-75)
Teams: Cleveland Indians, San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates
Stats: 2,453 K; 141 W; 3.17 ERA
Bottom Line: Sam McDowell
Nicknamed “Sudden Sam” because of his smooth delivery, McDowell was a hard-throwing lefty who baffled batters in the 1960s. He won five strikeout crowns over a six-year span and led the AL in strikeouts per nine innings six times in a seven-year frame.
McDowell’s run was brief since his last good season came at 28, and he then had personal struggles with alcohol and his family deserting him. However, he was eventually able to rebound, get his degree in sports psychology and won a World Series ring in 1993 while working with the Blue Jays.
Wise Words From Sam McDowell
"It's no fun throwing fastballs to guys who can't hit them. The real challenge is getting them out on the stuff they can hit."
28. Dizzy Dean
Career: 12 seasons (1930, 1932-41, 1947)
Teams: St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Browns
Championships: 1 (1934)
Stats: 1,163 K; 150 W; 3.02 ERA
Bottom Line: Dizzy Dean
Born Jay Dean, “Dizzy” got his nickname when an opposing manager referred to him as a “dizzy kid” while on the mound. The origin of his nickname would have been much cooler if he threw a dizzyball, but Dean did have a powerful fastball that often left batters dizzy. He led the NL in strikeouts four times by the age of 25 but then suffered a broken toe that changed his pitching mechanics.
Dean changed his delivery to avoid landing on the toe, and that caused his fastball velocity to dip. He was essentially done as a ballplayer by the age of 30; however, he did have a one-game comeback at 37 years old in which he threw four scoreless innings in what amounted to a publicity stunt.
Wise Words From Dizzy Dean
"It ain't bragging if you can do it."
27. Johan Santana
Career: 12 seasons (2000-10, 2012)
Teams: Minnesota Twins, New York Mets
Stats: 1,988 K; 139 W; 3.20 ERA
Bottom Line: Johan Santana
On a Hall of Fame trajectory until shoulder troubles did him in, Santana led the AL in three straight years from 2004-06. Those were among five straight years in which he struck out over 200 batters, as he was the game’s premier pitcher during this time. During this five-year stretch, he won three ERA titles, won two Cy Young awards and finished in the top five of Cy Young voting the other three years.
The Venezuelan southpaw threw the Mets only no-hitter in franchise history in 2012, but Santana would pitch in only 10 more games in his career afterwards due to injuries.
Wise Words From Johan Santana
"There are times when one play makes the whole difference, one call makes the whole difference. And tonight it was that call."
26. Hideo Nomo
Career: 12 seasons (1995-2005, 2008)
Teams: Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, Kansas City Royals
Stats: 1,918 K; 123 W; 4.24 ERA
Bottom Line: Hideo Nomo
Nomo was one of the first players from Japan to play in MLB, and he opened the door for many Japanese players to follow. He had a unique, tornado-style windup in which he turned his back to the batter, and it was just as successful in MLB as it was when he cultivated it in the Japanese leagues.
Nomo made his MLB debut as a 26-year-old and became an instant star. He led the NL in strikeouts (236), started the All-Star Game and won Rookie of the Year. Afterwards, hitters would catch on to his delivery and he never achieved the same success, but Nomo would lead the league in strikeouts once more with the 2001 Red Sox.
Wise Words From Hideo Nomo
"People in the U.S. like good baseball, whether you're on the home team or not."
25. Warren Spahn
Career: 21 seasons (1942, 1946-65)
Teams: Boston/Milwaukee Braves, New York Mets, San Francisco Giants
Championships: 1 (1957)
Stats: 2,583 K; 363 W; 3.09 ERA
Bottom Line: Warren Spahn
Spahn was a workhorse of a pitcher who led the league in complete games nine times and in wins eight times. He was more finesse than power and described his analytical approach on the mound as, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing."
Spahn’s 363 wins are the most ever by a lefty, and he could have reached 400 if his career wasn’t interrupted by military service. Spahn lost three full years during World War II, but he also may have not pitched until 44 had he had three additional years of wear and tear.
Wise Words From Warren Spahn
"A pitcher needs two pitches, one they're looking for and one to cross them up."
24. Fernando Valenzuela
Career: 17 seasons (1980-91, 1993-97)
Teams: Los Angeles Dodgers, California Angels, Baltimore Orioles, Philadelphia Phillies, San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals
Championships: 1 (1981)
Stats: 2,074 K; 173 W; 3.54 ERA
Bottom Line: Fernando Valenzuela
Before there was Tebowmania or Linsanity, there was Fernandomania in Los Angeles during the early 1980s. The Mexican southpaw with the funky windup took MLB by storm in 1981 on the way to winning the Cy Young, the Rookie of the Year award and a World Series with the Dodgers.
What made Valenzuela so difficult to hit, apart from his unusual delivery, was a screwball pitch that was foreign to many batters. Valenzuela learned while in the minors in 1980, and his success with it fast-tracked him to the Big Leagues. He led the NL with 180 strikeouts in 1981 despite a player’s strike wiping out nearly 40 percent of the season.
Wise Words From Fernando Valenzuela
“To keep going in baseball, you have to learn all the time. I love to play. When I can't get outs, I'll stop.”
23. Yu Darvish
Career: 9 seasons (2012-14, 2016-present)
Teams: Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres
Stats: 1,500 K; 78 W; 3.39 ERA
Bottom Line: Yu Darvish
After winning three strikeout titles in Japan, Darvish came to the United States where he won an MLB strikeout title in just his second season. He’s proven not to be just one of the pre-eminent strikeout pitchers of his era but of all time. Darvish averages 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings, which is the best ratio in MLB history with a minimum of 1,000 innings pitched. Not Nolan Ryan. Not Randy Johnson. Not anyone has averaged more strikeouts than Darvish.
Unfortunately, Darvish hasn’t received the credit he likely deserves because of poor postseason performances, as that ratio drops to a pedestrian 8.5 in the playoffs where he also sports a 5.18 ERA.
Wise Words From Yu Darvish
"There were a small number of voices that said, 'Darvish only cares about strikeouts.' Although I may have had strikeouts in my mind, fans, team, teammates and team staff were always my top priority."
22. Kerry Wood
Career: 14 seasons (1998, 2000-12)
Teams: Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees
Stats: 1,582 K; 86 W; 3.67 ERA
Bottom Line: Kerry Wood
Many baseball historians consider the best-pitched game in MLB history to be, not a perfect game, but Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece in 1998. The 20-year-old rookie threw a no-hitter in the contest and tied the MLB record for most strikeouts in a single game. Wood’s performance garnered a game score of 105, which is the highest ever for a pitcher in a nine-inning game.
Wood would go on to have an injury-plagued career that included 14 stints on the disabled list, but he also made All-Star Games as both a starter and a reliever.
Wise Words From Kerry Wood
"I'm just a normal kid who lives to play baseball. I'm living my dream."
21. Tom Seaver
Career: 20 seasons (1967-86)
Teams: New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox
Championships: 1 (1969)
Stats: 3,640 K; 311 W; 2.86 ERA
Bottom Line: Tom Seaver
Only two pitchers in MLB history have 300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts and a career ERA under 3.00: Walter Johnson and Tom Seaver. Terrific Tom once set an MLB record by striking out 10 batters in a row, and he even was praised by one of baseball’s all-time greats. Hank Aaron once said that Seaver was the toughest pitcher he ever faced as the one-time home run king hit just .205 in 78 at-bats versus Seaver.
A three-time Cy Young winner, Seaver led the league in strikeouts five times in his career and ranked third on the all-time strikeouts list at the time of his retirement.
Wise Words From Tom Seaver
"I would like to be a great artist. I would quit pitching if I could paint like Monet or Rousseau. But I can't. What I can do is pitch, and I can do that very well."
20. Walter Johnson
Career: 21 seasons (1907-27)
Teams: Washington Senators
Championships: 1 (1924)
Stats: 3,509 K; 417 W; 2.17 ERA
Bottom Line: Walter Johnson
With 12 strikeout titles, Johnson is the all-time leader in that category with one more than Nolan Ryan. He won his first at 22 years old and his last at 36 and successfully bridged MLB from the dead-ball era (before 1920) to the live-ball era (1920-present).
To show how different these two eras were, Johnson struck out 313 batters in 1910 to win a strikeout crown. In 1923, he would also win a strikeout title but needed just 130 K’s to lead the league. Johnson’s 417 wins rank second all-time while his 110 shutouts is the most ever and is unlikely to ever be broken.
Wise Words From Walter Johnson
"You can't hit what you can't see."
19. Dwight Gooden
Career: 16 seasons (1984-94, 1996-2000)
Teams: New York Mets, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Rays
Championships: 3 (1986, 1996, 2000)
Stats: 2,293 K; 194 W; 3.51 ERA
Bottom Line: Dwight Gooden
No pitcher in the last 80 years had more strikeouts than Doc Gooden did before the age of 20. He burst on the scene as a 19-year-old and led the NL with 276 strikeouts in 1984. He threw 268 K’s the next year en route to winning the Cy Young and looked to be well on his way to earning a plaque in Cooperstown.
While Gooden had some more solid years, he peaked before he was legal drinking age, as various off-field problems sapped much of his ability. Still though, Dr. K, as he was known, was one of the most scintillating pitchers of his era and a sight to behold.
Wise Words From Dwight Gooden
"I figured that pitchers had a better chance of getting drafted than fielders, so I decided I should be a pitcher. But I never expected to be picked in the first round. I wasn't even sure I'd get picked at all."
18. Craig Kimbrel
Career: 12 seasons (2010-present)
Teams: Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs
Championships: 1 (2018)
Stats: 978 K; 368 SV; 2.09 ERA
Bottom Line: Craig Kimbrel
Baseball has been around since 1871, so any time something happens for the first time, it’s pretty remarkable. Well, something remarkable happened during the 2012 season when Kimbrel became the first pitcher to strike out at least half of the batters he faced. Of the 231 batters he faced that season, 116 went down via strikeout compared to 115 not being struck out. He nearly accomplished the feat again five years later but struck out just 49.6 percent of the batters he faced.
Kimbrel has solidified himself as one of the elite closers of all time and is on pace to become the all-time saves leader. He has nearly 100 more saves than current leader, Mariano Rivera, had at the same age.
Hilarious Words About Craig Kimbrel
"When Craig Kimbrel bowls, he only bowls strikes." — An anonymous meme we can't stop laughing about
17. J.R. Richard
Career: 10 seasons (1971-80)
Teams: Houston Astros
Stats: 1,493 K; 107 W; 3.15 ERA
Bottom Line: J.R. Richard
The 6-foot-8 Richard had over 200 college basketball scholarship offers but elected to stick on the diamond. It was obviously the right decision, as he became an overpowering strikeout pitcher in the late ’70s. He struck out over 300 batters in back-to-back years in 1978 and 1979, becoming just the third pitcher of the modern era to do so.
However, his career would end the next year at the age of 30 when he suffered three separate strokes. That robbed Astros fans of seeing Richard and Nolan Ryan team up for an extended stretch, as Ryan had just joined the team that season.
Wise Words From J.R. Richard
In response to a question about when he will start throwing his slider in his attempt at a comeback: "How soon do you think it is? Time will tell me. When it's autumn, the leaves fall. When the time comes, I'll know it."
16. Bert Blyleven
Career: 22 seasons (1970-190, 1992)
Teams: Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians, California Angels
Championships: 2 (1979, 1987)
Stats: 3,701 K; 287 W; 3.31 ERA
Bottom Line: Bert Blyleven
One of a dozen MLB players to hail from the Netherlands, the Frying Dutchman had about as lowkey a Hall of Fame career as one could have. He never won a Cy Young, never led the league in wins or ERA and appeared in just two All-Star Games.
Instead, what got Blyleven enshrined into Cooperstown was his remarkable longevity, as he was just the third pitcher to win a game in his teens and in his 40s. He struck out at least 200 batters eight times in his career including a career-high of 258 with the 1973 Twins.
Wise Words From Bert Blyleven
"It enrages me to see only certain players singled out for the Hall of Fame because they were born with a God-given specialty. When I take my kids to the Baseball Hall of Fame, I want them to experience the full array of talents that make the game what it is today, not just the larger-than-life freaks of nature. I want them to know that you don't have to be the biggest or the strongest to reach your goals, and that hard work and perseverance are also rewarded."
15. Dazzy Vance
Career: 16 seasons (1915, 1918, 1922-35)
Teams: Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds
Championships: 1 (1934)
Stats: 2,045 K; 197 W; 3.24 ERA
Bottom Line: Dazzy Vance
For seven straight years in the 1920s, only one man’s name topped the NL leaderboard for most strikeouts: Charles Arthur “Dazzy” Vance. He earned the nickname for his dazzling fastball he displayed as a youth, and Vance spent much of his youth in the minors. He didn’t become a majors regular until he was 31 years old, as just 18 of his 2,045 career strikeouts came in his 20s.
In 1924, Vance became just the sixth player in history to throw an immaculate inning, which involves striking out all three batters in an inning on just nine pitches. In over 100 years of MLB, there have only been 104 immaculate innings pitched to date.
Wise Words From Dazzy Vance
"My arm came back just as quickly as it went sore on me in 1915. I awoke one morning and learned I could throw without pain again."
14. Lefty Grove
Career: 17 seasons (1925-41)
Teams: Philadelphia Athletics, Boston Red Sox
Championships: 2 (1929-30)
Stats: 2,266 K; 300 W; 3.06 ERA
Bottom Line: Lefty Grove
It may not be cool as Roberto Clemente finishing his career with exactly 3,000 hits, but Lefty Grove is one of two pitchers to finish his career with exactly 300 wins. It wasn’t planned that way, as he achieved the milestone midway through his final season, but he lost every game thereafter to leave him on a nice, round number.
For just as great as Grove was at striking out batters, he was equally bad at avoiding strikeouts when in the batter’s box. In a 1933 game, he became the first player ever to strike out five times in a game, but he made up for it on the mound that game by notching a complete game win over the Yankees.
Wise Words From Lefty Grove
"Quit now? They'll have to cut the uniform off me. I'm going out for another 300. They couldn't be any harder to get than the first 300."
13. Aroldis Chapman
Career: 12 seasons (2010-present)
Teams: Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs
Championships: 1 (2016)
Stats: 954 K; 292 SV; 2.27 ERA
Bottom Line: Aroldis Chapman
Nicknamed the “Cuban Missile,” Chapman defected from Cuba to become one of MLB’s most feared closers. He holds the record for most consecutive relief appearances with a strikeout (49) in a streak that lasted nearly a calendar year.
But what Chapman is best known for is being arguably the most powerful pitcher in MLB history. He has set numerous marks for fastest pitches, and in 2015, he threw the 62 fastest pitches of the entire season! His fastest ever, according to PITCHf/x, is 105.1 miles per hour, which he’s thrown multiple times in his career.
Wise Words From Aroldis Chapman
"To all the young MLB players, never give up on your goals. You can reach any destiny you desire."
12. Sandy Koufax
Career: 12 seasons (1955-66)
Teams: Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers
Championships: 3 (1959, 1963, 1965)
Stats: 2,396 K; 165 W; 2.76 ERA
Bottom Line: Sandy Koufax
Koufax retired at 30 years old because of recurring arm issues, and it’s a shame because he was at his peak when he walked away. Over the last four years of his career, he won four ERA titles, three strikeout crowns, led the league in wins thrice, won three Cy Young awards, two World Series championships and was an MVP.
Doing all that earned Koufax the nickname “The Left Arm of God.” With 2,396 career strikeouts versus 2,324.1 IP, Koufax is one of a handful of starting pitchers to retire with more strikeouts than innings pitched.
Wise Words From Sandy Koufax
"Pitching is the art of instilling fear."
11. Curt Schilling
Career: 20 seasons (1988-2007)
Teams: Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Boston Red Sox
Championships: 3 (2001, 2004, 2007)
Stats: 3,116 K; 216 W; 3.46 ERA
Bottom Line: Curt Schilling
Schilling was a good pitcher in his Phillies days and twice topped 300 strikeouts. But he became a great pitcher with the Diamondbacks and found the Fountain of Youth in his mid-30s. He also had abnormal control for a power pitcher, as he didn’t issue lots of walks and led the league in strikeouts-to-walks ratios five times in his career.
Schilling was also one of the most clutch pitchers of all time, posting an 11-2 postseason record and a 2.23 ERA.
Wise Words From Curt Schilling
“My father left me with a saying that I've carried my entire life and tried to pass on to our kids: 'Tough times don't last, tough people do.'”
10. Max Scherzer
Career: 14 seasons (2008-present)
Teams: Arizona Diamondbacks, Detroit Tigers, Washington Nationals
Championships: 1 (2019)
Stats: 2,896 K; 181 W; 3.18 ERA
Bottom Line: Max Scherzer
Mad Max keeps chugging along and is giving a serious run to Clayton Kershaw for the best pitcher of this era. He’s struck out 20 batters in a game, thrown two no-hitters, struck out 300 batters in a season, won three Cy Youngs and reached 2,000 career strikeouts faster than all but two pitchers in the history of baseball.
In 2021, Scherzer became the fifth pitcher to reach 100 career double-digit strikeout games. He’s also just the fifth pitcher to throw two immaculate innings.
Wise Words From Max Scherzer
"You either get better or you get worse. Those are the only two options."
9. Chris Sale
Career: 10 seasons (2010-present)
Teams: Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox
Championships: 1 (2018)
Stats: 2,007 K; 109 W; 3.03 ERA
Bottom Line: Chris Sale
With his long, lanky physique and southpaw delivery, Sale is the current pitcher that most resembles Randy Johnson on the mound. His results are Johnson-esque as well, as Sale, Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Nolan Ryan are the only pitchers to strike out 200 batters over the first 20 starts of a season.
But unlike Johnson, Sale has great control as well and issues very few walks. In fact, his 5.37 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the best in MLB history (min. 1000 IP). He’s achieved that not just with a fastball that can touch 100 miles per hour, but also with a devastating slider that induces swings-and-misses 43 percent of the time he throws the pitch.
Wise Words From Chris Sale
“I don’t like losing, I hate losing. Not good at losing. I hate it."
8. Steve Carlton
Career: 24 seasons (1965-88)
Teams: St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins
Championships: 2 (1967, 1980)
Stats: 4,136 K; 329 W; 3.22 ERA
Bottom Line: Steve Carlton
From 1982-84, Carlton, along with Nolan Ryan and Gaylord Perry all traded places atop the career strikeout list. There were 19 lead changes among the three for the record, and Carlton held the lead after the 1983 season. Ryan would later surpass him before Carlton overtook the lead for the last time late in the 1984 season.
A big reason why Carlton was able to briefly hold MLB’s all-time strikeouts mark was because of his legendary slider. Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, who hit 475 career home runs, had this to say about Carlton’s slider: “Hitting Steve Carlton's slider is like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”
Wise Words From Steve Carlton
"You've gotta find a way to get out of your own way, so you can progress in life."
7. Bob Feller
Career: 18 seasons (1936-41, 1945-56)
Teams: Cleveland Indians
Championships: 1 (1948)
Stats: 2,581 K; 266 W; 3.25 ERA
Bottom Line: Bob Feller
Feller would have easily surpassed both 3,000 strikeouts and 300 career wins if his baseball career hadn’t been interrupted by military service. He made his MLB debut at just 17 years old and led the AL in strikeouts by age 19. But he lost over 3.5 years of his career in his mid-20s due to serving in World War II for which he would be awarded eight battle stars. When he returned, he picked up right where he left off and led the AL in strikeouts in each of his first three full seasons back.
Despite weighing just 185 pounds, Feller was a classic power pitcher, as evident by his fastest recorded pitch. During a 1946 game, Feller was clocked at 107.6 miles per hour, which happens to be the second-fastest pitch ever recorded.
Wise Words About Bob Feller
"I don't think anyone is ever going to throw a ball faster than he does," said fellow baseball player Joe DiMaggio of Feller.
6. Pedro Martinez
Career: 18 seasons (1992-2009)
Teams: Los Angeles Dodgers, Montreal Expos, Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies
Championships: 1 (2004)
Stats: 3,154 K; 219 W; 2.93 ERA
Bottom Line: Pedro Martinez
Because he was so dominant, people forget that Martinez weighed a buck-75 when soaking wet. He produced great power in his pitches and simply overwhelmed hitters in the batter’s box. Martinez struck out 597 batters in a two-year span that included two Cy Young awards.
His most magnificent performance came in the 1999 All-Star Game, which took place in front of the home crowd at Fenway Park. Martinez struck out five of the six batters he faced, including four MVP winners plus Mark McGwire. He was named the game’s MVP and was the first pitcher to strike out the side to start an All-Star Game.
Wise Words From Pedro Martinez
"I believe that if you're healthy, you're capable of doing everything."
5. Justin Verlander
Career: 16 seasons (2005-present)
Teams: Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros
Championships: 1 (2017)
Stats: 3,013 K; 226 W; 3.33 ERA
Bottom Line: Justin Verlander
The active leader in strikeouts, Verlander first led the league in strikeouts at age 26 and then accomplished the feat nearly a decade later at 35. He had three more strikeout crowns in between and overcame a mid-career stretch that had many questioning if he had anything left.
But he became rejuvenated in Houston and set a career-high in strikeouts at 36 years old. Just like Tom Brady, Verlander said he wants to keep playing until his mid-40s, and if he can overcome his latest setback — Tommy John Surgery — then he has a shot at reaching 4,000 career strikeouts.
Wise Words From Justin Verlander
"When I came into baseball, I had one goal for my career — the Hall of Fame."
4. Roger Clemens
Career: 24 seasons (1984-2007)
Teams: Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, Houston Astros
Championships: 2 (1999-2000)
Stats: 4,672 K; 354 W; 3.12 ERA
Bottom Line: Roger Clemens
Clemens was nicknamed “The Rocket” for a reason, making a statement very early in his career. As a 23-year-old in 1986, he became the first pitcher to strike out 20 batters in a nine-inning game. Afterwards, Sports Illustrated featured him on its cover under the headline, “Lord of the K’s.”
Clemens led the AL in strikeouts five times in his career between the ages of 25 and 35. While he almost assuredly used PEDs during the latter stages of his career, so were many of the hitters he was striking out at the time.
Wise Words From Roger Clemens
"Everybody kind of perceives me as being angry. It's not anger, it's motivation."
3. Billy Wagner
Career: 16 seasons (1995-2010)
Teams: Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Atlanta Braves
Stats: 1,196 K; 422 SV; 2.31 ERA
Bottom Line: Billy Wagner
At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Wagner didn’t look like a flamethrower, but he could bring the heat. In fact, his 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings are the most in MLB history for any pitcher with at least 800 innings. Wagner was a dominant closer for a decade-and-a-half, and his 422 career saves are the second most by a southpaw.
He’s someone who could have easily pitched longer if he wanted to, as in his last season, he set a new career-low in ERA. Wagner has Hall of Fame credentials, and recent voting results indicate he’ll get to Cooperstown one day.
Wise Words From Billy Wagner
"Coaches and ownership are just like the fans on the street. They can always do it better, and they would always have done it differently when it doesn't work out."
2. Randy Johnson
Career: 22 seasons (1988-2009)
Teams: Montreal Expos, Seattle Mariners, Houston Astros, Arizona Diamondbacks, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants
Championships: 1 (2001)
Stats: 4,875 K; 303 W; 3.29 ERA
Bottom Line: Randy Johnson
Standing 6-foot-10 and throwing over 100 miles per hour, there was perhaps no more intimidating presence on the mound than The Big Unit. He won nine strikeout titles and seemed to get better with age. Johnson was at his peak in his mid-to-late 30s with his hometown Arizona Diamondbacks, as he struck out at least 300 batters every year from 1999-2002. In fact, the four highest single-season strikeout totals for Johnson’s career came during this stretch, which also included four straight Cy Young awards.
The most memorable pitch of Johnson isn’t even counted as a pitch because the ball was intercepted before it reached home plate. During a 2001 Spring Training game, a Johnson fastball struck a dove with the bird falling to the ground and dying amid a sea of feathers.
Wise Words From Randy Johnson
"I learned a lot from not having success and realizing when you do have success, how hard it is to maintain it and what you have to do to maintain it."
1. Nolan Ryan
Career: 27 seasons (1966, 1968-93)
Teams: New York Mets, California Angels, Houston Astros, Texas Rangers
Championships: 1 (1969)
Stats: 5,714 K; 324 W; 3.19 ERA
Bottom Line: Nolan Ryan
When it comes to great strikeout pitchers, no one can match the quantity or quality of Ryan’s career. He won an astounding 11 strikeout titles, including his first at 25 years old and his last at 43. Ryan’s 383 K’s in 1973 are the most in the last 125 years of MLB, and his 5,714 career strikeouts are the most ever.
Ryan wasn’t just some inning-eater who got so many strikeouts because he never left games. He led the league in strikeouts-per-nine-innings 12 times during his Hall of Fame career. In a career full of defining moments, one of the “classic Nolan Ryan” moments came during the last game of his career. He threw his arm out in his last game and tore a ligament, but the then-46-year-old still wanted to keep pitching. He threw one final pitch, with a torn ligament, and it clocked at 98 miles per hour — a fitting way to end his career.
Wise Words From Nolan Ryan
"Enjoying success requires the ability to adapt. Only by being open to change will you have a true opportunity to get the most from your talent."