The strikeout is one of the most exciting plays in baseball, and these 50 pitchers are better at it than anybody in the history of the game.
However, piling up K's isn't just about throwing hard (although the ability to hit triple digits on the radar gun certainly helps); it's about attacking hitters with your best stuff and challenging them to hit it. It's about being a fearless competitor on the mound and not being afraid to ruffle some feathers when the time calls for it.
Pitchers seem to be getting increasingly good at this too, as evidenced by the amount of active players you'll find on this list. But heat is still heat regardless of the era, so there'll be lots of names you've probably heard of and a few names you haven't.
Note: No attempt was made to rank these pitchers because it's impossible to compare them across different eras. They are instead sorted alphabetically.
There’s a reason Beckett was the second overall pick in the 1999 amateur draft, and it’s because he can flat out pitch. The right-hander broke into the big leagues with the Marlins in 2001 and was an instant success with a fastball that topped out at 97 mph (he’s hit 100 mph once in his career) and a curveball that quickly became one of the hardest in baseball.
Beckett has never topped 200 strikeouts in a season (he had a career-high 199 in 2009), but his career 8.5 SO/9 IP is seventh among all active players and 19th in MLB history. He’s never been afraid to go after hitters and keeps his walk totals remarkably low.
Blyleven was a premiere strikeout artist during the 1970’s and 1980’s, piling up 3,701 strikeouts (fifth all-time) over the course of his career. He finished in the top five in the AL in strikeouts 13 times and in the top 10 a remarkable 15 times during his 22-season career.
Blyleven threw a ton of innings and wasn’t the most efficient strikeout pitcher (career 6.7 SO/9 IP), but he earned a reputation as someone who always finished with he started. The right-hander pitched in 24 complete games in 1985 and 242 in his career, two numbers that have never been approached since.
Carlton might be the pitcher most responsible for making the strikeout fashionable in MLB. He finished with 4,196 in his career, good for fourth all-time and second among left-handers.
Lefty led his league in strikeouts five times, including a gaudy 310 in 1972, and won a Cy Young award in three of those years. He never finished outside of the top nine in strikeouts every year between 1969 and 1984.
Clemens is known for a lot of things, and being a power pitcher is certainly one of them. The Rocket struck out 4,672 helpless batters during his career, third all-time. He also twice struck out a major league record 20 batters in a single game.
But what made Clemens great wasn’t his statistical achievements, but rather his approach to the game. He went after hitters and didn’t give them an inch of room at the plate. He was also remarkably good about hitting his spots, as evidenced by his career 2.96 SO/BB ratio.
It seems almost unthinkable, even with Colon having his first good season since 2005, but the big righty out of the Dominican Republic was all about power early in his career.
Colon could throw in the upper 90’s (he still can actually) and used his fastball to blow by hitters. At the height of his career (1998-2002), he was striking out more than a batter per inning, and who knows how many strikeouts he might have now if injuries hadn’t derailed his promising career.
If there’s one player on this list you’ve probably never heard of, it’s Steve Dalkowski. The lefty never actually made it to the majors because of serious control issues (1,354 walks in 995 minor league innings, plus 1,396 strikeouts), but those who actually faced him say he’s the fastest pitcher ever.
Ted Williams once took a spring training pitch from the 5’8” Dalkowski and reportedly never saw it. An official reading is unavailable because Dalkowski pitched in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but some have estimated his fastball could reach 105 mph. His greatest accomplishment is probably striking out 21 batters in a minor league game and walking 21 batters in another.
Feliz is only in his second full season of pro ball, but already he’s earned a reputation as a phenomenal power pitcher. During his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2010, the righty struck out 71 batters in 69.1 innings and walked only 18. He was the definition of unhittable and is still only 23 years old.
Feliz’s fastball was once clocked at 103.4 mph during a game at Rangers Ballpark, a speed that is third all-time behind only Aroldis Chapman (105.1 mph) and Joel Zumaya (104.8 mph).
Many hitters claim that Rapid Robert is the fastest pitcher who ever lived. It’s hard to disagree considering that the righty piled up 2,581 strikeouts (26th all-time) during his career and led the AL in K’s seven times from 1938-1948.
The true speed of Feller’s fastball is a subject of great debate. The fastest official speed is 98.6 mph, but there are those who believe he once threw a ball 107.9 mph during a demonstration. Whichever is accurate, Feller absolutely dominated hitters during his time.
You may think Jayson Werth is the most famous athlete from Hawaii, but that honor actually belongs to Sid Fernandez. The lefty was a great pitcher for the Mets during the 1980’s, making consecutive All-Star appearances from 1986-1987.
Fernandez owes his success to a deceptive slingshot sidearm delivery that left hitters wondering what happened. He was in the top five in the NL in strikeouts six times and finished with 8.40 SO/9 IP over his career, which is 21st all-time.
When Gagne walked to the mound, you knew he was probably going to embarrass you. The former Dodgers closer once converted a record 84 straight save opportunities and was as close to untouchable as a pitcher will ever be.
During his Cy Young season in 2003, Gagne struck out 137 batters in 82.1 innings for a SO/9 ratio of 15.0. His dominance only lasted about three seasons (2002-2004), but during that time, Gagne was simply overpowering. His 10.0 SO/9 IP during his career would be fourth all-time if the righty threw more innings.
Gallardo is still just 25 years old, but has already established himself as one of the premiere strikeout artists in the game. The right-hander has topped 200 K’s twice in three full seasons and is on pace to do it again.
In both 2009 and 2010, Gallardo finished second in the NL in SO/9 IP. If he maintains his 9.1 ratio for another decade or so, he’ll finish among the all-time leaders in strikeouts.
It’s easy to forget just how good Doc was with the Mets after his career pretty much fell apart in the late 1990’s. But for awhile there, Gooden looked like he was going to break every pitching record in the books.
He struck out 276 batters in 218 innings as a rookie in 1984 and then came back the next season to win the Cy Young award by striking out 268 batters in 276.2 innings. Gooden’s 2,293 career strikeouts are just 46th all time, but 1,875 of them came in his 11 seasons as a New York Met. Just imagine where Dr. K would rank if it wasn’t for injuries.
There are those who say Lefty Grove is the fastest pitcher who ever lived, and it’s hard to argue after the way he carved up hitters from 1925-1941. He led the AL in strikeouts in each of his first seven major league seasons and was easily the most dominant pitcher during a time when hardly anybody threw hard.
Grove’s 2,266 career strikeouts in nearly 4,000 innings don’t look all that impressive. However, considering the era he was playing in, it’s no wonder he’s regarded today as one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.
Hamels doesn’t get nearly as much attention as some of his more star-studded teammates, but this guy can flat out throw. Featuring a plus fastball and possibly the best changeup in the game, Hamels has plowed through hitters since making his major league debut in 2006 at the age of 22.
His 8.60 SO/9 IP is sixth among active players and would be 16th all-time, and he seems to be getting even better. The lefty already 78 strikeouts this year in just 74.2 innings and has only walked 15 batters. He might be the ace of the Phillies staff.
There’s a reason Hoffman is the major league save record holder, and it’s because nobody could hit the guy. Hoffman never started a game in his career and never pitched more than 90 innings in a season, yet he still topped 100 strikeouts twice.
That sort of production from a reliever is unheard of. Hoffman’s 9.4 SO/9 IP (fifth all time) and 3.69 SO/BB (ninth) are both ratios that are among the highest ever posted in any era. What more could you ask for out of a closer?
Jimenez is another pitcher who, at just 27 years old, has already raised eyebrows with some of his strikeout totals and radar gun readings. He was once clocked at 101 mph in 2009 and is capable of throwing in the upper 90’s late in the game.
Jimenez doesn’t get much attention as a power pitcher because he walks so many batters (nearly four every nine innings), but when he’s on, there might not be a better pitcher in baseball.
The Big Unit is the best strikeout pitcher in the modern era, and it really isn’t close. The 6’10” left-hander topped 300 K’s five times in his career (including an eye-popping 372 in 249.2 innings in 2001) and led his league in K’s nine times in 22 major league seasons.
His 4,875 strikeouts rank second all time, and his 10.6 SO/9 IP is first all time by a healthy margin. If we were ranking power pitchers instead of listing them alphabetically, Johnson would probably come in at No. 1.
Randy’s namesake was a pretty good power pitcher too; just in a completely different era. The Big Train, as Walter Johnson was known, did his damage in the early part of the 20th century as a starter for the Washington Nationals.
Johnson’s 3,509 career strikeouts (ninth all time) don’t look too impressive when you consider just how many innings he threw (nearly 6,000), but there’s no doubt about his arm. He’s still considered one of the best to ever throw a baseball, and it’s estimated his fastball could reach 100 mph.
You might be surprised to see Kershaw on this list, a pitcher with less than 600 career innings under his belt. But the numbers don’t lie, and the numbers say that Kershaw is as good as anyone else on here.
His 9.4 SO/9 IP ratio is historically good, and he’s on pace to shatter his single-season strikeout high of 212 with 87 already a third of the way through the season. His most impressive accomplishment, however, is probably the perfect game he threw in high school, striking out all 27 batters.
Koufax was just flat out a phenomenal pitcher, whether he used power, finesse or a combination of the two. He only pitched 12 major league seasons and was only a full-time starter in nine of them, but the left-hander put together an unmatched stretch of pitching in his final four seasons.
From 1963-1966, Koufax struck out 1,228 batters in just over 1,200 innings, winning three Cy Young awards and an MVP along the way. His 9.28 SO/9 IP still ranks sixth all time.
Speaking of dominant lefties, Lester has done pretty well for himself too. The Red Sox ace is one of the winningest pitchers in baseball history with a .716 winning percentage, and a big part of the reason for that is he simply doesn’t let hitters beat them.
Lester doesn’t throw particularly hard (his fastball sits at 94-95 mph), but he locates and mixes his pitches well. He’s on his way to a third consecutive season of 200-plus strikeouts, with many more likely to come in the future.
Remember when Lidge was challenging Mariano Rivera for the title of baseball’s best closer and was worthy of a first round pick in a fantasy draft? Yeah, that was just a few years ago.
From 2003-2008, Lidge never recorded less than 88 strikeouts and somehow set down a closer record 157 hitters in 94.2 innings in 2004. His career 12.0 SO/9 IP is way above what any starter has ever done and as high as any mark achieved in the history of the game. Lidge could become the first reliever to crack 1,500 career strikeouts (he’s at 766 right now).
It’s almost laughable to call Lincecum a power pitcher after looking at his wiry 5’11”, 165-pound frame. But The Freak is a monster when it comes to pitching.
He’s led the NL in strikeouts in each of the past three seasons and is a good bet to do it again this year. His 10.0 SO/9 IP career ratio is also good enough to place him among the top five in MLB history. There’s a reason the kid had two Cy Young awards by the time he was 25.
Marmol might be the next Lidge judging by the way he’s toying with National League hitters. Last season, he struck out 138 batters in 77.2 innings for a nearly impossible 16.0 SO/9 IP, and he’s back at it again this season.
Marmol owes his success to a fastball that registers in the upper 90’s and a hard slider that might be the best in all of baseball. He’s still just 28 years old and in his third full season as the Cubs closer.
Physically, Martinez looks like a carbon copy of Lincecum (5’11”, 170 pounds). It should come as no surprise, then, that Pedro was a pretty good power pitcher, too. He’s still one of the few pitchers to ever record at least 300 strikeouts in a single season in the modern era (he did it in 1997 and 1999) and is a member of the 3,000 strikeout club with 3,154 in his career (13th all time).
Pedro’s 10.04 SO/9 IP is still third in baseball history among starters, and there has never been a batter the right-hander was afraid to go after (Mike Piazza included). Pedro’s fastball reached 97 mph, but his true dominance came from a changeup that made the fastball look it was going 150 mph.
Mathewson is another one of those guys that’s hard to compare because the strikeout was such a small part of the game during his era (1900-1916). But Mathewson’s fastball was one of America’s most prized possessions, and the 2,507 hitters he struck out (29th all time) can certainly attest to that.
The righty led all of baseball in strikeouts five times and was also one of the first five players to be inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame.
McDowell, otherwise known as Sudden Sam, is another one of the pitchers you’ve probably never heard of unless you grew up as a Cleveland Indians’ fan during the 1960’s and 1970’s. But maybe it’s time to pay more attention to the guy who always played in Bob Feller’s shadow.
The 6’5” lefty was a true strikeout artist during his heyday, leading his league in K’s five times and twice topping 300. His 2,453 career strikeouts are just 34th all time, but his 8.86 SO/9 IP are ninth.
If you remember Nen, you’re either lying or a Giants fan. The right-hander played in the shadow of some of the greatest closers in baseball history (most of whom are also on this list), but there were few who could strike out a batter like Nen could.
Nen’s fastball was once clocke at 102 mph and his best pitch, the slider, came in (or down or sideways) at up to 92 mph. It’s hard enough to hit heat without it changing directions, and hitters were baffled almost every time they faced Nen. Injuries prematurely ended his career, but he still finished with 314 career saves and 10.0 SO/9 IP.
Those who followed Oswalt’s major league career in Houston can attest to his status as one of baseball’s best ever power pitchers. The right-hander has never led his league in strikeouts, yet is seventh among all active players with 1,695.
He’s still just 33 years old and his pitching as good as ever, so it’s not inconceivable he could join the 3,000-K club one day.
Papelbon would’ve been a great starter, but the right-hander makes a pretty terrific closer too. He’s closing in on career save No. 200 and has already piled up 453 strikeouts in just seven short seasons.
Papelbon’s best pitch is a fastball that sits at 94-96 mph, but he also throws a hard splitter and hard slider that are equally hard to hit. His career 10.5 SO/9 IP is evidence of that.
I’m pretty sure Rivera is either a robot or an alien, which should disqualify him from this list. However, until someone proves the 41-year-old is not exactly human, I have no choice but to include him and every one of his 572 slaves.
The Sandman’s cutter might be one of the most feared pitches in the history of the game, and it’s plowed down hitters at the rate of 8.2 SO/9 IP. Rivera’s closing in on the all time saves, but perhaps the most impressive stat on his resume is his career SO/BB ratio of 3.94, first among all active players and fourth all time.
K-Rod has the most violent delivery in the game, and it almost looks like his right arm will cross the plate right behind his blazing fastball.
Rodriguez was never much of a control guy, but he sure could strike hitters out. His career 11.2 SO/9 IP is among the highest for any active reliever. He’s still just 29 years old.
The Hoosier Thunderbolt has the best nickname of anybody on this list and the results to match it. Pitching in the late 19th century (as in 1889-1898), Rusie led the league in strikeouts five times and finished with 1,950 in his career well before most people even knew what a strikeout was.
It's believed that the right-hander threw in the mid to upper 90's and is right alongside Walter Johnson in any discussion of the hardest throwing pitchers from baseball's earlier years.
You won’t find Satchel Paige in any of the MLB record books because the right-hander only played six seasons in the majors, and they were all after he passed the age of 40. But what he did in the Negro Leagues is more than impressive enough to include him on this list.
Paige struck out a Negro League record 176 batters in 1929 and then set the single-game record by striking out 17 hitters on April 29 and then 18 hitters less than a week later. In 19 seasons in the Negro Leagues, Paige recorded 1,231 strikeouts in just over 1,500 innings. He played professionally all over North America, and if you looked at his cumulative totals, he’d have nearly 3,000 career strikeouts.
There have been pitchers who can throw harder than Ryan’s 100.9 mph fastball. But there will never be another strikeout pitcher who played as long as Ryan did (27 seasons) for as well as he did.
The strikeout king (5,714) is so far and ahead of everyone that as impressive as his record seven ho-hitters are, there’s only one guy (Randy Johnson) within even 1,000 K’s of his lifetime mark. Ryan finished his career with 9.5 SO/9 IP (fourth all time) and led the AL in strikeouts 11 times. He redefined what it meant to be a power pitcher and laid the groundwork for guys like Clemens and Johnson to take over the league.
It’s almost easy to throw it 100 mph when you’re 6’7” and nearly 300 pounds, but Sabathia still makes it look effortless. The big lefty was a prominent strikeout pitcher with the Cleveland Indians, and his career 1,854 K’s are fifth among all active players.
Sabathia has thrown a ton of innings (2,211) and if injuries don’t shorten his career, he should be approaching the 3,000-K club by about 2017.
Santana’s fastball only sits at about 88-94 mph, but his gravity-defying circle change make all his other pitches extra tricky to hit. The Venezuelan lefty has used that deceptiveness to demoralize hitters at the rate of nearly a strikeout per inning.
Santana has declined over the years and has yet to throw a pitch in 2011, but at 31 years old, he still has a good shot at joining Sabathia in the 3,000-K club at around the same time. He’s at 1,877 right now.
Schilling never really gets the credit he deserves as a power pitcher, because he spent most of his career pitching in the shadow of first Randy Johnson and then Pedro Martinez. But numbers don’t lie, and the numbers say that Schilling was really freaking good.
The 6’5” righty topped 300 K’s in three separate seasons and finished his 20-year career with 3,116 strikeouts, good for 15th all-time. His 8.60 SO/9 IP (17th all-time) is also among the highest in baseball history.
Seaver, otherwise known as Tom Terrific, did most of his damage as a starter for the New York Mets during the 1960’s. In his first 12 seasons, Seaver led the NL in strikeouts six times and finished his Mets’ career with 2,541 punchouts.
The righty kept pitching for another nine years and finished his career with 3,640 strikeouts, which is today sixth in MLB history.
Sheets is another one of those guys that was untouchable during the early part of his career before injuries weakened what was once most of the electric arms in the game.
In 2004, the right-hander struck out 264 batters in 237 innings for an insane ratio of 8.25 SO/BB (he topped that in 2006 with 10.55 SO/BB in an injury-shortened season). Sheets also once struck out 20 batters during a college game.
The best closers in MLB history are almost exclusively modern players, but Smith definitely belongs in the discussion even if he did most of his dirty work as a Chicago Cub in the 1980’s.
Smith’s 478 career saves still rank third all time, and his 8.73 SO/9 IP (15th all-time) ranks pretty highly too. The 6’6” righty could throw a fastball upwards of 95 mph and regularly pitched multiple innings as a reliever.
It’s a legitimate question to ask whether Smoltz was better as a closer or a starter, but the one thing we know for sure is that he could just plain get hitters out.
The righty led the NL in K’s twice and only finished outside of the top 10 twice between 1989-1998. His career 7.99 SO/9 IP is 31st all time and his 3,084 strikeouts are 16th.
Raise your hand if you can name the active leader in strikeouts. If you guessed Javier Vazquez, you’re lying to yourself. But you’re still right.
The 34-year-old outranks everyone with his 2,404 career strikeouts despite never leading his league in strikeouts and only one All-Star appearance. How is that possible? Vazquez has made at least 32 starts in 11 of his 13 major league seasons and strikes out batters at a rate of 8.0 SO/9 IP. It’s simple math.
It’s not often you find a starter who can throw up to 102 mph in any inning in any count on any day. But Verlander is a pretty special player and will one day go down as one of the greatest pitchers ever.
Strikeouts are only a part of his dominance, but in just 1,151 career innings, the 6’5” righty already has 1,041 strikeouts and is pitching no-hitters like he’s Nolan Ryan. He’s a lock to reach 3,000 if he stays healthy, and at 28 years old, he may just be getting better.
Wagner is the left-handed National League compliment to Mariano Rivera and was as dominant of a closer as you can find. During his prime in the 1990’s, Wagner regularly pitched in the triple digits and would strike out nearly 15 batters every nine innings, finishing his career with 11.9 SO/9 IP.
Wagner still holds the NCAA Division III record for career strikeouts and SO/9 IP (19.3). The most incredible part of Wagner’s story? He’s naturally right-handed.
Weaver, 28, doesn’t throw quite as hard as Verlander, but he might be even better at getting hitters to sit down after three strikes.
The 6’7” righty led the AL in strikeouts last season with 233, and he’s back at it again this year. He has a long way to go to catch some of the other names on this list, but considering his talent, it’s a pretty safe bet that he will.
There are a handful of players who will tell you that Smoky Joe Wood was the fastest throwing pitcher in baseball history. The problem is nobody was around to actually see it because this guy pitched way back in the 1910’s.
Wood finished his career with just 989 strikeouts in 1,434.1 innings, but considering the era he was pitching in, those are some pretty outstanding numbers. It’s believed he could throw upwards of 100 mph.
Speaking of Wood, Kerry Wood blazed onto the baseball scene (literally) with a 100 mph baseball and a 20-strikeout game that had fans thinking Hall of Fame in just his fifth career start.
Wood’s career didn’t turn out exactly as planned, as repeated arm injuries robbed him off his explosiveness, but the right-hander is still the active leader with 10.3 SO/9 IP, a mark that is second only to Randy Johnson among starters. Wood is now a full-time reliever.
Young never threw particularly hard, and the strikeout was just a small part of his game, but it’s hard not to include baseball’s most winningest pitcher on any list of the best pitchers in the game.
Young did actually lead his league in K’s twice, first in 1896 and again in 1901. His 2,803 career strikeouts rank 20th all time, and he threw an incredible amount of strikes (2.30 SO/BB ratio).
Zambrano is more well known for what he does off the mound than what he does on it, but when his mind’s in the right place, Big Z is a terrific power pitcher. His four-seam fastball can reach 99 mph, and all of his pitches come in hard.
Control has always been an issue for the 6’5” right-hander, but somehow, they rarely seem to hurt him. Zambrano’s still just 30 years old and already halfway to 3,000 career K’s.