Does anyone ring 'em up better than Gerrit Cole? Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Ranking Gerrit Cole and MLB's Top 10 Strikeout Artists

Zachary D. Rymer

It's the ninth inning. Our team has a one-run lead and there are two outs, but the bases are loaded and the other team's best hitter is coming up. We need a strikeout.

If we could bring in any active pitcher to get it, who would it be?

This was the scenario we envisioned as we set about ranking the top 10 strikeout artists in MLB today. And by "today," we don't mean just the 2023 season. We considered all pitchers, be they starter or reliever, who have some kind of claim to strikeout fame within recent history.

In determining which is the best at his craft, we considered what kind of stuff they work with, how well they command the ball and whether they have any relevant weaknesses.

10. RHP Max Scherzer, New York Mets

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Claim to Strikeout Fame: Leads active pitchers with 3,232 career Ks.

The Case for Him

Well, this is only the best strikeout pitcher of all-time we're talking about.

This might sound hyperbolic given that Scherzer's 3,224 strikeouts only lead active pitchers and not, you know, everyone who's ever pitched. Scherzer's career 29.4 strikeout rate, on the other hand, is the best of all-time. Take that, Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson.

You have to be able to miss bats to put up a strikeout rate like that. And Scherzer, of course, does. His 6,435 swings and misses in the 16-year pitch tracking era are close to 900 more than any other pitcher.

The Case Against Him

Alas, we're not in the 2010s anymore. Scherzer is a 38-year-old pitcher who has looked like, well, a 38-year-old pitcher in 2023.

His velocity? Down. His swinging strike rate? Down. His swinging strike rate? Naturally, also down.

9. LHP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Claim to Strikeout Fame: Leads active MLB left-handers with 2,882 career Ks.

The Case for Him

Clayton Kershaw, meanwhile, is still going strong in 2023. Better than strong, even, as his 29.4 strikeout percentage tops even his career rate of 27.7 percent.

As for how he's still doing it even at the age of 35, it helps to have a slider and curveball that would be first-ballot entries in the Pitch Hall of Fame if it were a thing.

Thanks to those two offerings, Kershaw leads all pitchers in swings and misses on breaking balls both for the entire pitch tracking era and just 2023.

The Case Against Him

Kershaw may still be able to snap off some dandy breaking pitches, but the days of him blowing his fastball past hitters are over.

The 13.2 whiff percentage he has on his heater this year? That's the second-worst of his career after only last season.

8. RHP Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies

Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Claim to Strikeout Fame: Leads MLB with 321 looking Ks since 2018.

The Case for Him

Swings and misses? Psh. Who needs 'em when you can make batters watch a pitch go by like the proverbial house on the side of the road?

Nobody does this better than Aaron Nola, and it's largely because he is to painting corners what Bob Ross was to painting happy little landscapes. Like so:

Though not the only reason, this is a big one why only Nola and one other pitcher punched out over 10 batters per nine innings annually between 2019 and 2022.

The Case Against Him

He may only be 29 years old, but the regression monster has found Nola much like it has Scherzer in 2023. Many of his stats are down, including his strikeout rate.

Besides, the ideal strikeout artist is one who can overpower guys in a pinch. That's not Nola's bag, as he's never so much as climbed into the 80th percentile for whiff rate.

7. LHP Josh Hader, San Diego Padres

Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Claim to Strikeout Fame: Leads MLB relievers with 595 Ks since 2017.

The Case for Him

Now, Josh Hader. There's a guy who can overpower hitters, and there's nothing complicated about how he goes about it.

His fastball (which plays like a four-seamer but is technically a sinker) has never accounted for less than 65 percent of his pitches, but even knowing that it's coming is no help to opposing hitters. The whiff rate against his fastball has never gone lower than 30 percent.

Hader's slider also does its job. As in, give hitters such a different look that they can be twice as likely to whiff on it relative to his fastball.

The Case Against Him

Even in the best of times, Hader's fastball can be weirdly hittable for an ostensibly unhittable pitch. Since 2017, he's given up as many home runs on sinkers as Corey Kluber.

And since Hader's fastball velocity is way down in 2023, one wonders about the sustainability of its steady performance so far.

6. RHP Alexis Díaz, Cincinnati Reds

AP Photo/Aaron Doster

Claim to Strikeout Fame: Leads MLB relievers (min. 15 games) with a 49.4 K% in 2023.

The Case for Him

Edwin Díaz would have been a shoo-in for this list but, alas, his season ended when he tore up his knee at the World Baseball Classic.

Luckily, there's a whole 'nother Díaz brother who's arguably the best strikeout artist in MLB right now. After punching out 32.5 percent of the batters he faced as a rookie in 2022, Alexis Díaz's leap to his current strikeout rate is among the biggest in the league.

The 26-year-old pretty much embodies the phrase "closer-caliber stuff." His fastball touches the high 90s and half the swings on his slider come up empty.

The Case Against Him

The younger Díaz has made all of 80 major league appearances, so some brake-pumpage is in order here.

Plus, he's not so tough when he doesn't have the platoon advantage. Whereas right-handers strike out 41.4 percent of the time against him, left-handers fare better at 31.5 percent.

5. RHP Félix Bautista, Baltimore Orioles

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Claim to Strikeout Fame: Leads MLB relievers (min. 50 G) with 141 K since 2022.

The Case for Him

To be fair, Félix Bautista only has 90 career appearances in his own right. But the strikeouts have obviously been there in this span, and never more so than in 2023.

He's averaging 18.3 strikeouts per nine innings, or more than two per inning. You can do that when you have a splitter gets whiffs on darn near 60 percent of the swings against it.

Having a fastball that touches 102 mph? Yeah, that also helps.

The Case Against Him

A big part of getting strikeouts is throwing strikes. And as much as Bautista can handle that for the most part, he's also prone to throwing wide ones. He's walked 17 batters in 26 innings just this year.

Furthermore, sometimes that splitter can hang. Just ask Aaron Judge.

4. RHP Jacob deGrom, Texas Rangers

Bailey Orr/Texas Rangers/Getty Images

Claim to Strikeout Fame: Leads MLB (min. 800 IP) with 34.0 K% since 2017.

The Case for Him

What if Jacob deGrom isn't just the best strikeout pitcher among his contemporaries? What if he's the best all-time?

Because his career 31.0 strikeout rate reigns supreme with the bar set at 1,000 innings, it's a makeable case. He wasn't missing a beat before he landed on the injured list in April, as he had struck out 39.1 percent of the batters he had faced.

How did deGrom do it? Oh, you know. The usual. Rarely throws his fastball under 98 mph and his slider basically refuses to have a whiff rate under 50 percent anymore.

The Case Against Him

Let's just say that in a situation where a strikeout is needed, the last thing you want to be worrying about is your pitcher's arm falling off.

This is not a wholly unreasonable concern with deGrom. Just since July 2021, he's missed 226 days with arm and shoulder injuries.

3. RHP Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Claim to Strikeout Fame: Leads MLB with 1,275 Ks since 2018.

The Case for Him

Ever since he escaped the oppressive clutches of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2018, strikeouts have been Gerrit Cole's whole thing.

It's not just that he has more strikeouts than any pitcher since then, but how many more he has. The next-closest guy is Scherzer and he's nearly 200 strikeouts south of Cole's total.

As easy as it is to focus on Cole's devastating fastball as the primary explanation for all this, we find it hard to pick a favorite out of his pitch mix. There's even a nerd-tastic metric called Stuff+ that confirms that what he throws really is better than everyone else by a sizable margin.

The Case Against Him

You wouldn't know it from the 2.93 ERA he's rocking so far, but Cole's dominance has taken a turn for the worse in 2023.

To repeat a familiar refrain: his velocity is down and his strikeout rate is following suit, to a point where he's suffered one of the biggest drops of any pitcher.

2. RHP Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Claim to Strikeout Fame: Leads MLB (min. 200 IP) with 33.7 K% since 2022.

The Case for Him

Here's our opening argument for Shohei Ohtani:

And with that, we rest our case.

In all seriousness, the strikeout rate up there speaks for itself and nobody should need to be told that it's built on a foundation of electric stuff. Namely: a fastball that touches 101 mph, baseball's best sweeper and a splitter that still bamboozles lefties.

The Case Against Him

Oh, and Ohtani is about an equally effective strikeout artist against both lefties and righties and he's thrived under pressure with a 31.8 strikeout percentage in high leverage over the last two seasons.

Which is to say there isn't much of a case against him, really.

1. RHP Spencer Strider, Atlanta

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

Claim to Strikeout Fame: Leads MLB with 106 Ks in 2023.

The Case for Him

Spencer Strider only has 197.2 innings in the big leagues, yet he's already up to 308 career strikeouts. And right now, he's trying to become the first starting pitcher to ever finish a full season with a strikeout rate over 40 percent.

Simply from these figures, one can deduce that Strider must have good stuff. And the fact check there is a resounding "true."

Notably, Strider leads all pitchers in whiffs on four-seam fastballs and is a close second to Kershaw to whiffs on sliders. Even his little-used changeup is getting whiffs more than half the time batters swing at it.

The Case Against Him

If we were still in 2022, this is where we would cite Strider's subdued 32.9 strikeout rate against left-handed batters. But here in 2023, he's punching out lefties at a 42.5 percent clip.

With that problem solved, there can be no doubt that he strikes 'em out better than anyone.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.


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