Ranking College Baseball's Potential Strikeout Leaders in 2021
College baseball’s strikeout race is always a star-studded affair, with the top contenders in the mix as first-round draft picks and, typically, fronting the rotation for a team with College World Series aspirations.
Like we did last week with the home run race, here we’re taking stock of some of the top contenders to lead the nation in strikeouts in 2021. Last year’s champion in the abbreviated season was East Tennessee State’s Landon Knack, who was drafted in the second round by the Dodgers. Just off the pace was Louisville’s Reid Detmers, who was drafted 10th overall by the Angels. Minnesota’s Max Meyer and Texas A&M’s Asa Lacy both finished in the top five in the nation in strikeouts and then were also selected in the top five picks.
With so many of last year’s top strikeout pitchers now in pro ball, the leaderboard is sure to look different in 2021. But there’s no shortage of pitchers capable of taking their place. College baseball is especially strong on the mound this year, including CWS heroes like Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker and Oregon State’s Kevin Abel, established veterans with high-octane stuff like Ohio State’s Seth Lonsway and Wake Forest’s Ryan Cusick and precocious arms still looking to show everyone exactly what they’re capable of like Louisiana State’s Jaden Hill and Vanderbilt’s Jack Leiter.
Who will be 2021’s strikeout king? We break down the top 25 candidates.
1. Kumar Rocker, RHP, Vanderbilt
Everything about Rocker’s track record suggests that he could top this list in 2021. He struck out 114 in 99.2 innings as a freshman, including 19 in a no-hitter against Duke in the super regionals. Last season, he struck out 28 in just 15 innings of work, and he’ll go into next season with a repertoire that includes an improved changeup and a fourth pitch, a cutter.
2. Seth Lonsway, LHP, Ohio State
It’s a relatively small sample, sure, but Lonsway led the country in strikeouts per nine innings last season by punching out 42 hitters in 18 innings of work. That said, a high strikeout rate is sustainable for a pitcher with Lonsway’s stuff, which includes a fastball that reaches the mid 90s and three secondary offerings.
3. Ryan Cusick, RHP, Wake Forest
Cusick struck out 43 batters in 22.1 innings in 2020 and only improved his stock as a potential strikeout king with his performance over the summer, when he struck out 40 in 23.1 innings in the Coastal Plain League thanks to a fastball that was up to 96 mph and a slider that’s above average at its best.
4. Jack Leiter, RHP, Vanderbilt
We got just a short glimpse of Leiter as a freshman last season, but there was plenty to like, including 12 strikeouts in five hitless innings against South Alabama in his first start of the season. Leiter has the stuff to give Vanderbilt a second contender, with Rocker, to top the strikeout list.
5. Jaden Hill, RHP, Louisiana State
Because of an injury in 2019 and the season cancellation in 2020, Hill has thrown just 21.2 innings over two seasons at LSU, but he has struck out 28 in those innings. With a fastball that can reach the high 90s, a plus changeup and slider, and a cutter with potential, there’s an argument to be made that hill has the best raw stuff in college baseball.
6. Christian Macleod, LHP, Mississippi State
MacLeod broke out in a big way in 2020, stepping up into the Mississippi State rotation and answering the bell to the tune of 35 strikeouts in 21 innings of work. His stuff isn’t as explosive as others at the top of this list, but he proved last season that he has a knack for the punch out.
7. Braden Olthoff, RHP, Tulane
The righthander might have had the best abbreviated season of anyone in 2020, as he put up a 0.32 ERA and .128 opponent batting average with 47 strikeouts and only three walks in 28 innings. Olthoff has plenty of stuff, including a fastball that sits in the low 90s, but command and control are his calling card.
8. Mason Black, RHP, Lehigh
Black struck out 29 batters in 22 innings in 2020, but if what he did over the summer is any indication, he’ll pile up many more in 2021. In the South Florida Collegiate League, he struck out 42 in 28 innings and featured a fastball up to 98 mph. It will also help his chances to top the strikeout leaderboard that he plays conference games in the Patriot League, where he’ll overmatch hitters, much like Noah Song two years ago.
9. Gunnar Hoglund, RHP, Mississippi
Hoglund came into college baseball with a reputation as an elite strike thrower, but after an up-and-down freshman season, he really came into his own in terms of missing bats last season, when he struck out 37 in 23.1 innings. His command will help his stuff play up, but with a fastball that can touch the mid 90s as its best and a good slider, the stuff is plenty good as it is.
10. Mason Erla, RHP, Michigan State
Erla has been a durable arm for Michigan State for several years now, but he appeared to take a massive step forward in 2020, when he struck out 42 in 26 innings on the way to putting up a 1.04 ERA. His fastball was up to 96 mph last season, and while the fact that he’s 23 years old Will Hurt him from a draft standpoint, that experience can only help in his pursuit to fly up the strikeout leaderboards.
11. Connor Prielipp, LHP, Alabama
The Alabama lefthander was a big catalyst behind the Crimson Tide’s scalding-hot start to the season. Thrust into the rotation right away as a freshman, he responded by striking out 35 in 21 innings. Prielipp never got his chance to prove himself against SEC competition, but if his debut is any indication, he’ll be able to hold his own.
12. Hunter Barco, LHP, Florida
To a neutral observer, Barco might appear to be third in a potential Florida rotation that would include veteran righthanders Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich, but his stuff makes him the most likely of the three to pile up massive strikeout numbers. Early returns are good, as he struck out 26 in 19.1 innings as a freshman in 2020.
13. Steven Hajjar, LHP, Michigan
Hajjar is going into his third season in the Michigan program, but after a redshirt season and the 2020 cancellation, he hasn’t thrown that many competitive pitches. He had 24 strikeouts in 20 innings last season, but with a good handle on three offerings, there’s potential for that strikeout rate to skyrocket next season.
14. Sean Burke, RHP, Maryland
Like his Big Ten counterpart Hajjar, Burke missed 2019 due to injury and burst onto the scene with authority in 2020, striking out 35 hitters in 22.2 innings to lead all freshman pitchers. His fastball-curveball combination is a real weapon that should keep the high strikeout numbers rolling in next season.
15. Kevin Abel, RHP, Oregon State
Abel is the wildcard on this list. On one hand, he’s one of the more accomplished pitchers here, having pitched Oregon State to a national title in 2018. On the other hand, due to injury, he has only pitched in three games since the end of that season. If he’s back to his 2018 form in 2021, he’ll be one of the best pitchers in college baseball.
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16. Sam Bachman, RHP, Miami (Ohio)
Bachman had a nice freshman season in 2019, striking out 75 in 75.2 innings, but in 2020, he started to show an improved ability to dominate by totaling 31 strikeouts in 23.2 innings thanks in large part to a fastball up to 96 mph. Arms like Bachman don’t take the mound every day in the Mid-American Conference, and that should only help Bachman pile up strikeouts.
17. Jack Perkins, RHP, Louisville
Perkins doesn’t have the track record of many of the pitchers on this list, as he’s started just four games in his career, but he’ll have a chance to shine as a member of the Louisville weekend rotation in 2021. There’s little doubt about his stuff, including a fastball that can work its way into the mid 90s, and the hit rate on the Cardinals developing dominant starting pitchers under Dan McDonnell is extremely good.
18. Brant Hurter, LHP, Georgia Tech
Hurter missed part of the 2019 season and all of the 2020 season due to injury. When he’s been healthy, he’s been inconsistent in his career, but he’s always been able to dominate hitters when he’s on. He was starting to put things together in 2019 with 58 strikeouts in 48.1 innings when he went down with injury, and he’ll look to pick that up in 2021.
19. Nate Savino, LHP, Virginia
Savino threw just 10.2 innings as a freshman last season, and while he showed flashes of greatness in those innings, his place here is less about what he’s proven at the college level already and more about his potential, which has also made him the top college arm in the 2022 draft class.
20. Carson Montgomery, RHP, Florida State
The highest-ranked freshman on the BA 500 to make it to campus, Montgomery has a fastball that has been as high as 96 mph and a slider that was one of the best in the 2020 prep class. It’s a tough ask for a freshman to come in and start dominating ACC hitters as a freshman, but those are the kind of raw materials that can allow a first-year pitcher to do so.
21. Jonathan Cannon, RHP, Georgia
Cannon is in a similar place to Savino in that he’s thrown just 11.1 innings at the college level, with his potential far outpacing his results due to the 2020 season cancellation. His fastball sits in the low 90s but has been up to 96 mph as part of a quality four-pitch mix. With Emerson Hancock and Cole Wilcox gone from the Georgia pitching staff, Cannon will have his chance to shine in 2021.
22. Zach Torra, LHP, UC Santa Barbara
Torra quickly established himself as a dominant force after transferring from junior college. Last season, he struck out 39 and allowed just one earned run in 25.1 innings. Torra’s stuff isn’t as big as some of his counterparts on this list, but he has a long track record of success, both at UCSB and in junior college.
23. Rodney Boone, LHP, UC Santa Barbara
Along with Torra, Boone gave UC Santa Barbara quite the left-handed duo in 2020. After turning in an outstanding freshman season in 2019, Boone appeared to take a step forward in 2020, striking out 13.08 batters per nine innings after punching out 8.89 per nine innings as a freshman. Another step forward could put him among the country’s top arms in terms of strikeouts.
24. Bryce Osmond, RHP, Oklahoma State
Osmond had an up-and-down abbreviated first season in Stillwater, but he has a couple of things going for him headed into next season. One is his pure stuff, which includes a devastating fastball-slider combination. The other is that he was making strides as the 2020 season came to an end, with his best start being his last. One of the top arms in the 2022 draft class, look for Osmond to make a leap next season.
25. Jake Hamilton, RHP, Wichita State
Hamilton took to Division I baseball well in 2020 after transferring from the junior college ranks, striking out 33 batters in 19.1 innings for a resurgent Wichita State team. If the righthander can keep that pace up over an entire season, he’ll have one of the highest strikeout totals in the country and it will bode well for the Shockers being a force in 2021.