Throughout MLB history, we've marveled at strikeout artists like Bob Gibson and Randy Johnson who get extraordinary results. How high do they belong on an all-time list of effective and untouchable pitchers?
Those two adjectives aren't synonymous in baseball. Consider Greg Maddux, Jim Palmer and Cy Young, all of whom adopted finesse styles and intentionally induced contact.
Plainly ranking the sport's legends by strikeout ability—or SO/9 (strikeouts per nine innings)—would be inappropriate. The league average has gradually increased over the past three decades, as this table from Baseball-Reference.com shows. There are particularly sizable differences between current rates and those from the beginning of the 20th century.
To prevent this steady trend from influencing the top 10, we'll compare pitchers to others from their respective eras.
That means choosing statistical qualifications that establish somebody as a "strikeout pitcher." For past and present starters, the minimum requirements will be 1,000 innings pitched with a career SO/9 that was/is at least 20 percent better than the MLB average. Any relievers above 400 innings will be eligible for inclusion. However, because they exert more effort with each pitch (shorter outings, no reason to pace), they should be held to the higher standard of 25 percent separation from their peers.
Let's discuss more prominent snubs, then unveil the 10 esteemed and overpowering individuals.
Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel have distinguished themselves as a couple of Major League Baseball's most dynamic pitchers. Utilizing ridiculously high strikeout rates, they seldom allow baserunners, much less blown saves.
But we haven't seen nearly enough of these young closers to include them in any "all-time greatest" discussions.
Yu Darvish, Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg headline the list of active, inexperienced starting pitchers with the weapons to make any batter whiff. Let's wait a few years before deciding their places in baseball history. Though Clayton Kershaw is well established after consecutive All-Star campaigns, as of April 28, he falls just short of the 1,000 total innings required to prove legitimacy.
Pitchers, unfortunately, have always been susceptible to serious injuries. The promising careers of Mark Prior and Herb Score, for example, were derailed too soon.
Meanwhile, Mariano Rivera and CC Sabathia have dominated the majors for many years. They are arguably the most consistent pitchers of the new millennium among all relievers and starters, respectively.
However, neither meet our "strikeout pitcher" criteria. In the lefty's case, impressive strikeout frequencies since 2006 aren't enough to affect his career average, which is weighed down by the his first several seasons. And though the Sandman is undoubtedly the greatest closer we've ever seen, his lifetime SO/9 of 8.26 is only 22.2 percent better than the rest of the league in that span. Broken bats have always been his calling card, not whiffs.
Warren Spahn, the winningest southpaw in MLB history, doesn't get his own slide despite leading the National League in K's four times. Those totals were influenced by his tremendous workload rather than his strikeout ability. Spahn's SO/9 number was actually very pedestrian. Ditto for Pete Alexander. He produced three seasons of 10-plus WAR, but didn't depend on strikeouts, either.
Now that the exclusions of these individuals have been explained, please refrain from campaigning for them in the comments section.
Accomplished and active aces
Felix Hernandez (Seattle Mariners) and Justin Verlander (Detroit Tigers) received record-breaking contract extensions. That's because their durability and nasty repertoires are conducive for long-term success. The opportunity for these right-handers to crack this top 10 hinges on them sustaining outstanding strikeout rates through the end of the decade.
Johan Santana (New York Mets) hasn't been a serious Cy Young Award candidate since 2008. Plus, a balky shoulder may prevent him from ever pitching in the big leagues again. He was on the first-ballot Hall of Famer track until the injury bug bit.
The baseball world has underrated Billy Wagner, largely because he struggled in the postseason. But he thrived for five different franchises. Of all MLB relievers with at least 400 innings pitched, only Rob Dibble and Carlos Marmol had superior career strikeout rates (via FanGraphs). Brad Lidge owned an identical one, but lacked Wagner's effectiveness.
On the other hand, Curt Schilling and John Smoltz were nearly unbeatable in October (and great in all other months, too). Their brilliance on the mound seems especially impressive in hindsight as we learn more about the turn-of-the-century ubiquity of performance-enhancing drugs.
Others from the "Divisional Era"
Sure, Nolan Ryan is baseball's all-time strikeout king and yes, his 324 victories rank 14th in league history. Though he was overpowering for parts of four decades, we must recognize that his stats were distorted by compilation. Ryan epitomized the phrase "strikeout pitcher" yet never realized his full potential due to command issues.
Tom Seaver began his major league life with a glorious decade atop the New York Mets rotation. However, he changed following a 1977 trade. Had "Tom Terrific" retired earlier (before resorting to a pitch-to-contact approach), he might have been more than an honorable mention.
Shutdown closers Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage were integral members on multiple championship-winning teams. Along with Wagner, they came closest to getting bullpen representation into the top 10. Alas, the quality of their careers wasn't quite on par with those who made the cut.
While fighting for the United States in World War II, Bob Feller spent nearly four full seasons away from professional baseball. He dominated immediately before and after that tour of duty, so his resume likely would've been better had he reached maturity during peacetime.
Red Ruffing and Dazzy Vance arrived in the majors years earlier and peaked in their thirties. Both eventually made it to Cooperstown.
From 1925-1935, Vance was MLB's active leader in career SO/9...until Dizzy Dean unseated him. He once won NL MVP and finished runner-up for the award two other times.
MLB team: New York Giants.
Career SO/9: 4.20.
Career WAR as pitcher: 67.8.
We will forever remember Carl Hubbell for his exhibition feat rather than his regular-season excellence.
Hubbell started the 1934 All-Star Game against a loaded American League lineup, perhaps the deepest the sport has ever seen. Nonetheless, he recorded consecutive strikeouts of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin.
The southpaw spent about five years as a genuine superstar. Before and after his prime, Hubbell actually had seasons where his strikeout rate dropped below the league average.
All in all, though, he enjoyed a special career.
MLB teams: Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Montreal Expos, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies.
Career SO/9: 10.04.
Career WAR as pitcher: 86.0.
Sadly, PITCHf/x didn't debut until the 2006 playoffs. Otherwise, there would be statistical evidence to support the claim that Pedro Martinez possessed the best changeup in baseball history.
Unlike most high-strikeout guys, he learned to spot all his pitches at a very early age. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is the third-best ever, according to Baseball-Reference.com (min. 1000 IP).
If not for Roger Clemens, this Dominican icon would have received four straight American League Cy Young Awards.
MLB team: Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals.
Career SO/9: 7.13.
Career WAR as pitcher: 84.1.
The quintessential, top-of-the-rotation workhorse, Steve Carlton never wanted to leave a game. Only Gaylord Perry and Phil Niekro logged more innings during the 1970s (via FanGraphs), and neither of them could rival his strikeout rate.
Future Hall of Famers like Lou Brock, Tony Perez and Willie Stargell were hard-pressed to make contact against Carlton. They combined for 81 strikeouts in 332 plate appearances.
Carlton had several more superb seasons after his Phillies won the 1980 World Series. However, he probably should have retired in 1984. The ensuing journeyman phase really put a damper on his career (16-37, 5.21 ERA, 5.5 SO/9 from 1985-1988).
MLB teams: St. Louis Cardinals.
Career SO/9: 7.22.
Career WAR as pitcher: 81.9.
Bob Gibson was too filthy for his own good. His 268 strikeouts and 1.12 earned run average in 1968 convinced MLB officials to lower the pitcher's mound to give batters a chance.
It didn't matter: Hoot continued to intimidate and embarrass his opposition. Baseball-Reference.com valued his 1969 season at 10.4 WAR. Two years later, he threw a no-hitter.
Anecdotes say more about Gibson's presence and ability than numbers ever could. Dusty Baker and Hank Aaron once had this hilarious exchange about the right-hander:
(Hank Aaron told me) 'Don't dig in against Bob Gibson, he'll knock you down. He'd knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him. Don't stare at him, don't smile at him, don't talk to him. He doesn't like it. If you happen to hit a home run, don't run too slow, don't run too fast. If you happen to want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first. And if he hits you, don't charge the mound, because he's a Gold Glove boxer.' I'm like, 'Damn, what about my 17-game hitting streak?' That was the night it ended.
MLB teams: Arizona Diamondbacks, Montreal Expos, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners.
Career SO/9: 10.62.
Career WAR as pitcher: 104.3.
Anybody who feared Bob Gibson wouldn't dare step up to the plate to face Randy Johnson. The lanky lefty—often referred to as the "Big Unit"—stood 6'10" tall and could dial up his fastball to 100 miles per hour. The pitch was lethal (literally), but it wasn't even his best.
Johnson's slider ultimately elevated him from adequacy to greatness. Its velocity and sharp movement sent managers scrambling to rearrange their lineups with as few left-handed batters as possible. Over the course of his 22-year MLB career, Johnson only had the platoon advantage 12.3 percent of the time (via Baseball-Reference.com).
Six of his single-season strikeout totals rank among the top 50 all time. He also has nine performances in the top 75.
As that stat suggests, Johnson was perennially unhittable once he finally figured out how to pitch. He was still going strong at age 40 when he completed a perfect game. Not surprisingly, he recorded 13 strikeouts that night.
MLB teams: Cincinnati Reds, New York Giants.
Career SO/9: 4.70.
Career WAR as pitcher: 95.3.
Christy Mathewson pitched exclusively during the dead-ball era, when practically everything was put in play. That's why context is so important. While his 6.6 SO/9 in 1903 wouldn't raise eyebrows today, it certainly did at the time considering the league average was merely 3.6 SO/9.
He maintained a 0.97 earned run average in the postseason. Four of those 11 starts were complete-game shutouts.
"Mathewson was the greatest pitcher who ever lived," in the opinion of longtime major league manager Connie Mack. "He had knowledge, judgment, perfect control and form. It was wonderful to watch him pitch when he wasn't pitching against you."
MLB teams: Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays.
Career SO/9: 8.55.
Career WAR as pitcher: 139.4.
We might never see concrete evidence of Roger Clemens' PED use or details about how often and how much he juiced. So let's set the controversy aside for a few paragraphs and praise one of history's most dominant athletes.
The Rocket took home seven Cy Young Awards, whereas nobody else has more than four. He finished 14 separate seasons with at least 5.0 WAR. He recorded double-digit strikeouts in 110 of his starts and punched out 20 batters on April 29, 1986. That's still an MLB record.
Doesn't Clemens deserve credit for tweaking his game plan through the years? With the exception of his final campaign, the right-hander always kept his strikeout rate significantly higher than the league average.
Clemens was human, as evidenced by his ordinariness in 1993, 1995 and 1999. With that said, he spent the vast majority of his career in a league of his own.
MLB teams: Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Athletics.
Career SO/9: 5.17.
Career WAR as pitcher: 109.9.
An instant sensation, Lefty Grove led the American League in strikeouts in 1925. Not only was that his rookie season—he made most of his appearances out of the bullpen!
And he wasn't just a flash in the pan. Grove toyed with AL batters for the rest of the decade and the entire 1930s. He routinely earned All-Star selections during an era when the rosters were still reasonably sized.
In a career split between the Red Sox and A's, Grove was incredibly steady. Producing 40-plus WAR for multiple teams is a distinction he shares with Pete Alexander.
MLB team: Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers.
Career SO/9: 9.28.
Career WAR as pitcher: 53.2.
Sandy Koufax's career arc was not unusual. Plenty of his highly-touted left-handed predecessors—as well as pitchers in the years since—have been rushed to the big leagues. They initially lack control, but learn to locate in time to produce (before their bodies break down).
Everything clicked for Koufax in 1961. He built off of it with no-hitters in each of the four seasons that followed, always ranking No. 1 in the Senior Circuit in WHIP.
The three-time world champion had a curveball that batters could "hear" and a fierce mentality. Neither of those assets, unfortunately, could cure him of arthritis. The post-game swelling and discoloration in his arm became unbearable, leading to his retirement in 1966.
MLB team: Washington Senators.
Career SO/9: 5.34.
Career WAR as pitcher: 152.3.
Records were meant to be broken...except for Walter Johnson's. With today's competitive balance, it's virtually impossible to be effective enough for the lengthy period necessary to even get within shouting distance of any of his numbers.
No one has matched his streak of eight consecutive NL strikeout titles. His total of 110 shutouts is also seemingly unattainable.
Johnson used a peculiar side-arm release, which was surely easiest to execute from the wind-up. Mowing down the opposition ensured fewer baserunners and less pitching from the stretch.
Strikeouts have been all the rage in 2013, but no active individual incites helplessness in a batter's heart like "The Big Train" once did.