Spring Training is here, and with baseball officially in full swing, I think it would be a good time to begin taking a look at who we can guess will be the main category leaders for roto leagues this coming season. I'll be looking at strikeouts for this article, specifically which ten pitchers I think will lead Major League Baseball in generating big strikeout numbers for their owners in 2014. All 10 of these starters are frontline starters for your fantasy baseball rotation and you should make sure to end up with at least one of these guys on your team come draft day.
2013: 277 K (in 209.2 IP)
2014 Projection: 240-260 K
It should come as no surprise that Darvish leads this list. Through the first half of last season, he was on pace to be the first pitcher in the last 15 years to hit the 300-strikeout mark in a single season. If you're looking for 2014's strikeout king, he'll be pitching in Texas.
2013: 240 K (in 214.1 IP)
2014 Projection: 230-235 K
Last season marked the second consecutive year that Max Scherzer struck out over 230 batters over the course of a season (231 punchouts in 2012 and then 240 in 2013), which puts him in very rare company. While I think his numbers drop a little bit from the lofty heights of his Cy Young season, I think he's shown us enough to say that he's one of the couple pitchers in baseball you can project into the 230 K territory.
2013: 232 K (in 236 IP)
2014 Projection: 225-230 K
Every time I watch Kershaw throw his curveball, I wonder to myself how any batter manages to hit it. He's one of the most dominating pitchers in the major leagues, and because of the sheer number of innings he throws every season Kershaw's floor in any counting stat like strikeouts is incredibly high. A 'down' season for him would probably be around 200 Ks, and that's not something you can say about a lot of pitchers.
2013: 216 K (in 204.1 IP)
2014 Projection: 220-225 K
Hernandez has been losing fastball velocity over the past several seasons, but he's adjusted remarkably well to this declining velocity and has posted over 220 strikeouts in three of the last four years. A decrease in innings pitched is all that kept him from that same benchmark last season. The Mariners are looking to contend in 2014, which should alone push his workload up this coming season because that's a team that can't make the playoffs without a monster season from their King. It's also worth noting that even with nine seasons worth of innings on his arm, Hernandez is still fairly young at only 27 years old. I'm looking to see him rebound this season back into the 220K+ territory in 2014.
2013: 191 K (in 183.0 IP)
2014 Projection: 210-215 K
I've been a huge fan of Stephen Strasburg for a couple years now, and while last season wasn't what fantasy owners had hoped for when drafting him, I think it's worth remembering that he didn't pitch particularly poorly. His strikeout rate (K/9) for example clocked in at 9.39, good for 4th highest in the NL, above guys like Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee. Strasburg's biggest problem last season was just that he couldn't pitch deep into games. Strasburg averaged only 6.1 innings per start, while studs like Kershaw and other top strikeout pitchers averaged a little better than 7 innings per start. For counting stats, innings pitched matter a lot as they give the pitcher more opportunities to accumulate those stats. Many young pitchers struggle with this aspect of their game (it's easy to forget sometimes because of how good he is, but we're talking about a guy who's still only 25 years old), but I see things coming together for Strasburg in 2014. He looks fully healthy and he's had a couple of years now to adjust to the demands of pitching in the big leagues. Expect a monster season out of him in 2014.
2013: 226 K (in 214.1 IP)
2014 Projection: 210-215 K
I wish Chris Sale pitched for a different team, because if he had a legitimate offense behind him, he'd easily be one of the best fantasy pitchers in baseball. Thankfully strikeouts are one of those categories where Sale doesn't have to depend on the skills of his teammates to contribute, and he's been a beast in this category ever since the White Sox moved him to the starting rotation. I think he'll regress a little bit after his sensational 2013 season, but he'll still be a dominant producer in strikeouts even after accounting for this.
2013: 217 K (in 218.1 IP)
2014 Projection: 200-210 K
Verlander's struggles last year and worries over the loss of fastball velocity force me to lower his projection a bit from what it would have been only a season ago, but I don' t think he's anywhere near done contributing at a very high level for fantasy owners. Even with diminished stuff he's still one of the more terrifying pitchers in baseball, and from an innings pitched standpoint there are few pitchers more reliable than Verlander (he hasn't pitched less than 200 innings in a season since 2006). There's also the upside that if September and October of last year carry over to this season, he's the only pitcher on my list that I could see beating my projection by 20Ks easily. That's a lot of upside.
2013: 199 K (in 201.1 IP)
2014 Projection: 200-205 K
Full disclosure here: I'm a Giants fan. But my inclusion of MadBum on this list isn't just me being a homer. Bumgarner is young, has a weaponized slider of death, and he was only a single strikeout short of 200 last season. He was also the only consistent producer on a very shaky Giants rotation and he is a model of consistency when looking at his innings pitched numbers. He's pitched over 200 innings in each of the last 3 seasons, and his strikeout numbers have climbed steadily since his rookie debut. I think this season is the one where he finally breaks 200Ks, to my happiness as a Giants fan and to the collective happiness of fantasy owners everywhere.
2013: 187 K (in 172.2 IP)
2014 Projection: 200 K
Fernandez has as much raw talent, if not more, as any pitcher on this list. Just in terms of raw stuff he has the potential to be a 220K+ guy at some point in his career, and that's not something you can say about a lot of pitchers. The issue with him in 2014 is that, like many young pitchers, he'll be on an innings cap designed to protect his arm from injury. I'd be flabbergasted if the Marlins, a team that certainly won't be in the postseason discussion and doesn't need to push him in the name of a pennant race, lets him get up to 200 innings this season. Rather I think Fernandez will pitch about 185-190 inning this year at most. Similarly, he'll have a slightly tougher time this season as the league adjusts to his stuff, as it does to all young pitchers. I think he'll still emerge with top strikeout numbers, just not ones high enough to move up any more on this list.
2013: 192 K (in 195.2 IP)
2014 Projection: 200 K
I've followed Gonzalez's career for a little while now, back to his days when he was still with the Athletics, and I think he'll be better this season than he was in 2013. He showed us in 2012 that he has the stuff to be a 200K guy and I know that pitcher is still there. He's still young and I'm looking for him to take a step forward this season.