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Baseball's Best Strikeout Pitchers of the 1980s

I am a former sports editor and currently serve as a historian with the Society of American Baseball Research and manage a valet operation.

Nolan Ryan was the undisputed king of strikeouts during the 1980s and took that talent to the Texas Rangers for the final season of the decade.

Nolan Ryan was the undisputed king of strikeouts during the 1980s and took that talent to the Texas Rangers for the final season of the decade.

Who Were Major League Baseball's Best Strikeout Pitchers in the 1980s?

A dominating strikeout pitcher can be the most exciting player on a baseball field. Whether it's guessing how the movement of the next pitch will impact the batter or simply watching him overpower a hitter, a strikeout king makes the game more interesting. Throughout the 1980s, there were 78 pitchers who struck out at least 700 hitters, and the most dominating among them came as starters and relievers. I'll feature the 10 best below.

These rankings are not based upon opinions, and for a player to be considered, he must have struck out at least 700 batters during the 1980s. Players were then ranked by averaging their decade rank for both of these criterion:

  • Strikeouts per nine innings
  • Strikeout percentage

These statistics were used in order to capture dominating relief pitchers, who counted rack up the strikeouts like a starting pitcher could. This caused some significant players to miss the top 10. Notables outside of the top 10 included: Steve Carlton (11th), Fernando Valenzuela (17th), Mike Scott (18th), Bert Blyleven (21st) and Jack Morris (32nd).

Following the top 10 are a handful of shorter lists of leaders in more defined categories among pitchers from the '80s. Information from Stathead on Baseball Reference, Retrosheet.org and Baseball-Reference was used to compile statistics

Note: Ranks in parenthesis in individual player capsules represent their ranking among players who struck out at least 700 batters during the 1980s.

10. Mario Soto

  • Years Played: 1980–88
  • Total Strikeouts: 1,360 (9th)
  • Innings Pitched: 1,614⅓
  • Strikeout Percentage: 20.5% (10th)
  • Strikeouts/9 Innings (K/9): 7.58 (10th)
  • Single-Season High: 274 in 1982
  • Single-Game High: 15 (at Atlanta on Sept. 9, 1980, and vs. New York Mets on Aug. 17, 1982)

Mario Soto was the Reds ace and one of baseball's top starting pitchers for much of the first half of the 1980s, and finished as runner-up for the Cy Young Award in 1983. He complimented a low-90s fastball with a devastating change-up to help him strike out 915 batters between 1982 and '85, which was the most in the majors during that stretch.

Jose DeLeon was 17–38 during his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates at the beginning of his career, but he enjoyed some success in the late '80s with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Jose DeLeon was 17–38 during his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates at the beginning of his career, but he enjoyed some success in the late '80s with the St. Louis Cardinals.

9. Jose DeLeon

  • Years Played: 1983–89
  • Total Strikeouts: 1,061 (27th)
  • Innings Pitched: 1,234⅓
  • Strikeout Percentage: 20.63% (9th)
  • Strikeouts/9 Innings (K/9): 7.74 (9th)
  • Single-Season High: 208 in 1988
  • Single-Game High: 14 (vs. New York Mets on April 16, 1985)

Jose DeLeon is not remembered as a standout pitcher, but what we he was best at was recording strikeouts. DeLeon is one of just four pitchers in baseball history with at least 1,500 strikeouts and fewer than 100 wins (also Kerry Wood, and current pitchers Oliver Perez and Ian Kennedy). DeLeon led the National League in strikeouts with 201 in 1989, and his best seasons came with the Cardinals in 1988 and '89, when he combined for 409 strikeouts in 470 innings and won 29 games.

8. Mark Davis

  • Years Played: 1980–89
  • Total Strikeouts: 754 (67th)
  • Innings Pitched: 858⅓
  • Strikeout Percentage: 20.92% (8th)
  • Strikeouts/9 Innings (K/9): 7.91 (8th)
  • Single-Season High: 131 in 1985
  • Single-Game High: 8 (at San Diego on July 3, 1983; vs. Los Angeles on Sept. 16, 1983; and vs. New York Mets on Aug. 19, 1984)

Mark Davis broke into the majors as a teenager in 1980, and after several failed seasons as a starter, he was converted to a reliever and had a brief run as one of the most dominating closers in baseball. Davis won the National League's Cy Young Award in 1989 after recording a league-leading 44 saves for the Padres, while striking out 92 hitters in 92⅔ innings.

Mark Langston made his first All-Star team in 1987, the same year he won a career-high 19 games.

Mark Langston made his first All-Star team in 1987, the same year he won a career-high 19 games.

7. Mark Langston

  • Years Played: 1984–89
  • Total Strikeouts: 1,253 (15th)
  • Innings Pitched: 1,374⅓
  • Strikeout Percentage: 21.36% (7th)
  • Strikeouts/9 Innings (K/9): 8.21 (6th)
  • Single-Season High: 262 in 1987
  • Single-Game High: 16 (at Toronto on May 10, 1988)

Seattle's Mark Langston led the American League in strikeouts three times during the 1980s, but even by doing so as a rookie in 1984, he wasn't able to pry Rookie of the Year honors from teammate, Alvin Davis. Langston again led the AL in strikeouts in 1986 and '87, and from 1984–87, he had the second-most punchouts among AL pitchers. He was included in the 1989 trade between the Mariners and Montreal Expos that landed Seattle future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.

Dwight Gooden was one of the best young pitchers in baseball history, but his career was eventually derailed due to battles with addiction.

Dwight Gooden was one of the best young pitchers in baseball history, but his career was eventually derailed due to battles with addiction.

6. Dwight Gooden

  • Years Played: 1984–89
  • Total Strikeouts: 1,168 (20th)
  • Innings Pitched: 1,291
  • Strikeout Percentage: 22.4% (6th)
  • Strikeouts/9 Innings (K/9): 8.14 (7th)
  • Single-Season High: 276 in 1984
  • Single-Game High: 16 (vs. Pittsbugh on Sept. 12, 1984; at Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1984; and vs. San Francisco on Aug. 20, 1985)

Dwight Gooden burst onto the major league scene with about as much explosiveness as any other pitcher in history. Gooden was named Rookie of the Year in 1984 after a brilliant season with the Mets saw him lead the National League with 276 strikeouts, and he followed that up with a 24-win, 268-strikeout showing in 1985 to claim the Cy Young Award. He made four All-Star teams during the 1980s and helped the Mets win the 1986 World Series.

Sid Fernandez had a lethal combination: he didn't allow many hits and he struck out a lot of batters.

Sid Fernandez had a lethal combination: he didn't allow many hits and he struck out a lot of batters.

5. Sid Fernandez

  • Years Played: 1983–89
  • Total Strikeouts: 972 (35th)
  • Innings Pitched: 1,033
  • Strikeout Percentage: 22.91% (4th)
  • Strikeouts/9 Innings (K/9): 8.47 (5th)
  • Single-Season High: 200 in 1986
  • Single-Game High: 16 (at Atlanta on July 14, 1989)

After two appearances with the Dodgers as a rookie in 1983, Sid Fernandez was traded to the Mets where he became one of baseball's best strikeout pitchers of the '80s. Fernandez used an unorthodox delivery to deceive hitters and rack up strikeouts (he had at least 180 in all but one season from 1985 to '89). He made back-to-back All-Star teams in 1986 and '87, and was a key member of the 1986 World Series championship team.

Mark Clear isn't the most recognizable player in baseball history, but his strikeout rates were among the best of the 1980s.

Mark Clear isn't the most recognizable player in baseball history, but his strikeout rates were among the best of the 1980s.

4. Mark Clear

  • Years Played: 1980–88
  • Total Strikeouts: 700 (T-77th)
  • Innings Pitched: 687⅔
  • Strikeout Percentage: 22.62% (5th)
  • Strikeouts/9 Innings (K/9): 9.16 (2nd)
  • Single-Season High: 109 in 1982
  • Single-Game High: 8 (at Boston on May 25, 1981)

Mark Clear was a pivotal and fairly underrated pitcher out of three different American League bullpens throughout the 1980s. Clear wasn't used exclusively as a closer, perhaps contributing to his career getting overlooked, but he struck out batters at a high clip (his 700 during the '80s were the third-most among relievers). Clear made the All-Star team for Boston in 1982, and also played for the Angels and the Brewers.

Roger Clemens only made two All-Star teams during the 1980s, despite being among the best starting pitchers in baseball.

Roger Clemens only made two All-Star teams during the 1980s, despite being among the best starting pitchers in baseball.

3. Roger Clemens

  • Years Played: 1984–89
  • Total Strikeouts: 1,215 (18th)
  • Innings Pitched: 1,284⅔
  • Strikeout Percentage: 23.17% (3rd)
  • Strikeouts/9 Innings (K/9): 8.51 (4th)
  • Single-Season High: 291 in 1988
  • Single-Game High: 20 (vs. Seattle on April 29, 1986)

Roger Clemens broke out in a big way in 1986. The third-year starter for Boston not only set a Major League record with 20 strikeouts in a game, he also won MVP honors and the first of his seven Cy Young Awards. He struck out 238 batters that season to begin a stretch of seven straight seasons with at least 200 punchouts. He upped his total to 256 in 1987, when he won another Cy Young Award, and then led the American League in 1988 with 291 strikeouts—his second-highest career total.

Lee Smith twice led the National League in games finished in the 1980s, and his late-game dominance was aided by his tremedous strikeout ability.

Lee Smith twice led the National League in games finished in the 1980s, and his late-game dominance was aided by his tremedous strikeout ability.

2. Lee Smith

  • Years Played: 1980–89
  • Total Strikeouts: 836 (59th)
  • Innings Pitched: 835⅔
  • Strikeout Percentage: 24.02% (2nd)
  • Strikeouts/9 Innings (K/9): 9.00 (2nd)
  • Single-Season High: 112 in 1985
  • Single-Game High: 7 (at Philadelphia on Oct. 4, 1981)

Lee Smith was one of the greatest closers in the history of baseball, and part of the reason why was how frequently he could strike out batters. Smith averaged a strikeout per inning throughout the 1980s, while racking up 234 saves as a closer for the Cubs and the Red Sox. He recorded at least 90 strikeouts in all but one season from 1982 to '89, including a career-high mark of 112 in 1985. Smith was twice an All-Star in the '80s, and despite retiring in 1997, it took until 2019 for him to get enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

1. Nolan Ryan

  • Years Played: 1980–89
  • Total Strikeouts: 2,167 (1st)
  • Innings Pitched: 2,094
  • Strikeout Percentage: 24.9% (1st)
  • Strikeouts/9 Innings (K/9): 9.31 (1st)
  • Single-Season High: 301 in 1989
  • Single-Game High: 16 (vs. San Francisco on Sept. 9, 1987)

Pitchers tend to slow down as they age, but Nolan Ryan did just the opposite. Ryan entered the 1980s at age 33, but arguably his best season in the decade came at age 42 in 1989. That was his first season with the Rangers, and he struck out 301 hitters for a third straight league-leading mark (the other two came in the National League with the Astros). In those three seasons—despite being over 40 years old—Ryan had more strikeouts than any other pitcher in the majors (799). On Aug. 22, 1989, Ryan struck out fellow Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson to become the first player in baseball history to strike out 5,000 hitters.

Major League Baseball Strikeout Leaders of the 1980s

What follows are some targeted leaderboards for strikeout pitchers during the 1980s.

Progressive 1980s Decade Strikeout Leaderboard

Hall of Famers Seve Carlton and Nolan Ryan each held the decade lead in strikeouts for four seasons, with Mario Soto sneaking in between them for one season.

  • 1980: Steve Carlton (286)
  • 1981: Carlton (465)
  • 1982: Carlton (751)
  • 1983: Carlton (1,026)
  • 1984: Carlton (1,189)
  • 1985: Mario Soto (1,248)
  • 1986: Nolan Ryan (1,368)
  • 1987: Ryan (1,638)
  • 1988: Ryan (1,866)
  • 1989: Ryan (2,167)

Top 5 Strikeout Totals During the 1980s

Below is a list of the top five strikeout totals during the 1980s.

  • Nolan Ryan (2,167)
  • Fernando Valenzuela (1,644)
  • Jack Morris (1,629)
  • Bert Blyleven (1,480)
  • Bob Welch (1,457)

Top 5 Single-Season Strikeout Totals During the 1980s

Two pitchers struck out at least 300 batters in a season during the 1980s, and four players accounted for the top five single-season totals in the 1980s.

  • Mike Scott, 306 (1986)
  • Nolan Ryan, 301 (1989)
  • Roger Clemens, 291 (1988)
  • Steve Carlton, 286 (1982)
  • Carlton, 286 (1980)

Top 5 Single-Game Strikeout Totals During the 1980s

Below is a list of the top five single-game strikeout totals during the 1980s.

  • Roger Clemens (20 vs. Seattle on April 29, 1986)
  • Bill Gullickson (18 vs. Chicago Cubs on Sept. 10, 1980)
  • Dwight Gooden (16, accomplished three times)
  • Clemens (16, accomplished twice)
  • Seven other players (16, accomplished once)

© 2021 Andrew Harner

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