Opening Day is when the aces come out from their ace caves. Which starting-pitcher matchup is the best?
The mythos of the Opening Day starter appeals to me. Oh, how it appeals to me. It’s everything there is to love about baseball: Arbitrary designations, arguments about those designations, talented baseball men, that Opening Day smell, and a chance to laugh at the less fortunate teams around baseball. When teams announce their Opening Day starters, I am so in.
With that in mind, it’s time to rank all of these Opening Day matchups. While baseball doesn’t have a true, pure opening day anymore, with some teams cordoned off for a special Sunday schedule, we still get 15 of these hand-picked duels, with every team in baseball saying, “This is the best we have, unless we’re dealing with injuries. Or maybe a general organizational malaise that will spread across generations.”
These are the 15 Opening Day starting-pitcher matchups, ranked:
15. Ricky Nolasco vs. Kendall Graveman (Angels at A’s)
This will mark Nolasco’s 28th year in Major League Baseball, yet this is his first Opening Day start. And, no, I’m not looking that up. Feels true, though.
Nolasco was excellent for the Angels for 11 starts after they acquired him, though his overall season was kind of a drag (4.42 ERA, 93 ERA+). He has the third-highest ERA of any starter with 50 starts or more since 2014, and the two pitchers with worse ERAs are a non-roster invitee (Kyle Kendrick) and someone who’s out of baseball (Tim Lincecum).
Graveman is a perfectly competent starter who’s in this spot because of injury (Sonny Gray) and because the A’s understandably don’t want to shove a second-year player like Sean Manaea in the Opening Day slot.
14. Jeremy Hellickson vs. Scott Feldman (Phillies at Reds)
I used to play baseball with a guy who played with a guy who became the Opening Day starter for the Reds. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to update my Twitter bio, because that sounds really important.
This isn’t No. 15 because Hellickson was kinda sorta okay last year — roughly what Nolasco did with the Angels, but more consistently spread out over the entire year. This still doesn’t have an Opening Day feel to it. And if this matchup happened on May 28, you know there would still be about 12 or 13 more interesting matchups.
13. Jon Gray vs. Junior Guerra (Rockies at Brewers)
Junior Guerra is one of baseball’s best stories. Dude pitched in Spain. Spain. Like, not even Italy or in a honkbal league. SPAIN.
Guerra made a name in Europe during the 2010 season, when he dominated the Spanish Division de Honor, pitching for CBS Sant Boi. He had an 11-1 record with an ERA of 0.89 in 17 games. He struck out 122 in 91 innings, while allowing just 47 hits.
Here come Sant Boi. This is a very good baseball story. That doesn’t mean I want to watch him pitch more than Stephen Strasburg, but don’t make fun.
Jon Gray is a big, strong, pitchery pitcher. That’s a compliment. He got his hair at the Noah Syndergaard Outlet Store, and he’s a solid breakout pick for 2017. This is a better matchup than you think.
12. Edinson Volquez vs. Stephen Strasburg (Marlins at Nationals)
Strasburg isn’t just fun to watch: He’s fun to speculate about and read too much into when he struggles. There might not be an ace-type in baseball that’s better for concern-trolling, which means you’re guaranteed a good time out, regardless of what he does. Also, he’s excellent at pitching and stuff, which counts for a lot. Even though this should be Max Scherzer’s spot, it’s not like we’re suffering too much, here.
Volquez is a known quantity, and even though his 2016 was lousy, he’s still probably fine. Good enough, at least, that he won’t drag Strasburg down too much in this ranking.
11. Marco Estrada vs. Kevin Gausman (Blue Jays at Orioles)
Another surprisingly compelling matchup, but mostly for baseball nerds. Gausman didn’t get enough credit for putting up a 3.61 ERA in Camden Yards in a homer-happy season (his 123 ERA+ tells a more complete story), he’s really here because Chris Tillman is out. That’s okay, though. I like watching Gausman just as much.
Estrada has never cracked 200 innings in a season, but he has had the lowest hits-allowed rate in the American League for two straight years. A strong infield defense helps with that, sure, but he’s still a quality pitcher, and he has been for years. Not bad for a guy the Nationals once waived to make room for Tyler Walker.
10. Danny Duffy vs. Ervin Santana (Royals at Twins)
I spent a lot of time making fun of the Ervin Santana signing. He has been a very consistent starter for many years, and I would like to apologize to him, the Twins organization, and my family because he’s kind of good.
Danny Duffy is better, of course, one of last year’s breakout stars. On a watchability scale, he’s in the second tier of baseball’s best, pushing his way into the top tier. Look at this guy:
9. Jhoulys Chacin vs. Clayton Kershaw (Padres at Dodgers)
Of course, this is the most watchable pitcher in baseball — one of the greatest pure talents in baseball history — so it’s hard to rank him anywhere near the bottom. On the other hand, he’s facing Jhoulys Chacin, who is the reason I had to put (Team at Team) next to all the matchups. That’ll ding them in the ranking.
Chacin was really, really good in both 2011 and 2013, so it’s not quite fair to consider him a random journeyman. On the other hand, he wasn’t very effective with the Angels last year, to the point where the Angels were like, nah, we can do better.
That guy is an Opening Day starter. It takes more than Clayton Danged Kershaw to make up for that.
(Padres win, 8-2.)
8. Masahiro Tanaka vs. Chris Archer (Yankees at Rays, Sunday)
And now we have reached the tipping point, where all of the matchups become Unambiguously Good Pitching Matchups. Archer struggled with the home run ball and almost lost 20 games somehow, but you all know he’s still great.
Tanaka finished seventh in the Cy Young voting, making 31 starts and staying healthy all year. Not bad for a guy who was contemplating Tommy John surgery a couple years ago and had surgery to remove bone spurs before the start of last season.
This is the kind of matchup that could be No. 1 next year. Of course, both of them might be on the Dodgers, but that’s a minor concern.
7. Felix Hernandez vs. Dallas Keuchel (Mariners at Astros)
Cy Young vs. Cy Young. Just, uh, ignore the 2016 season, which wasn’t too hot for either of them.
This is a great matchup, though, because both of their teams are desperately counting on them to be excellent again, so everyone will read way too much into their first outings. It’s almost like a Groundhog Day of first games, where if they see their shadows and pitch seven strong innings, both teams will have five months of summer. If they combine to give up 12 earned runs, the panic will be thick enough to spread on a slice of French bread.
There is nothing better than smooth, creamy panic on a slice of French bread. But these guys are probably going to have strong seasons, so you’ll have to look elsewhere.
6. Gerrit Cole vs. Rick Porcello (Pirates at Red Sox)
My biases come into play here because I automatically thought, “Alright, Gerrit Cole!” That was followed by “Huh. Rick Porcello.” This is because I watch more National League games, I’m sure, but it’s also because I missed the entire Porcello story last year. Dude won the Cy Young. That seems good.
There are instant demerits, though, for being the necessary interleague Opening Day matchup. This is not a classic rivalry. Or a rivalry at all. Also, there are demerits for me wanting to watch Chris Sale instead, which isn’t odd.
Still, Cole vs. Porcello is an excellent, compelling matchup, and it’s the kind that would make you turn on a Pirates/Red Sox game in July. If this is your Opening Day pick, you’ve chosen wisely.
5. Julio Teheran vs. Noah Syndergaard (Braves at Mets)
Syndergaard pitched once vs. the Braves last year. ONCE. Clayton Kershaw made just 21 starts last year, and he still pitched five times against the Giants. So the Braves deserve this. They deserve to see Syndergaard three times in April. Not that I’m bitter.
Teheran is a fine talent, and if you want to move this up the power rankings, go right ahead. This isn’t a seven- or eight-way tie at the top, but that doesn’t mean there are any wrong answers, here.
4. Madison Bumgarner vs. Zack Greinke (Giants at Diamondbacks, Sunday)
Last year, this would have been the best matchup, and it wouldn’t have been close. It was a rough year for Greinke, though, and it didn’t get better this spring:
Greinke’s game-by-game velocity including four appearances in Spring Training this year. Not great. pic.twitter.com/BYb1uWijhG
— Kyle Boddy (@drivelinebases) March 25, 2017
I still believe. But a 33-year-old pitcher with diminished velocity and his worst FIP in a decade is a pitcher that should scare you. This matchup is near the top because of name recognition and star power, but your mileage may vary.
Bumgarner, for his part, had what might have been the only good spring training he’s ever had. This makes me worried that he’ll struggle mightily in April, but that’s because I’m a strange, cynical man. He sure looks ready.
3. Jon Lester vs. Carlos Martinez (Cubs at Cardinals, Sunday)
Carlos Martinez might be the most underrated starter in baseball. His nickname is Tsunami, and he should just go by it at all times, like Rock Raines on the 1989 Topps.
Guys, I’m Rock now. Thanks for understanding.
If Martinez does that with “Tsunami,” he’s talked about in the same breath as Chris Sale and Corey Kluber, like he should be. As is, it takes some gentle prodding and a reminder that he’s an extraordinary pitcher to justify a ranking like this.
Say, how did he get the nickname, “Tsunami?”
I’ve had a lot of ups and downs on my road to the Big Leagues, but for the sake of this blog let’s just say there was a WAVE of adversity.
I don’t get it.
2. Justin Verlander vs. Jose Quintana (Tigers at White Sox)
Last year’s Cy Young should-be vs. a walking trade rumor. I love this matchup so. The contrast in styles is fun, too, with Verlander the classic, strong right-handed ace, and Quintana the left-handed control monster (though not exactly a soft-tosser). It would be a lot cooler of a matchup if the White Sox were any good, but at least they are when Quintana pitches.
There are fewer than 10 “Of course we’re starting this guy” matchups on this list. This is the most obvious one, really. The cliff after these two is steep, but at least we’ll get the best of the best on Opening Day.
1. Corey Kluber vs. Yu Darvish (Indians at Rangers)
That is still one of the greatest baseball GIFs ever made, and it works so well because Yu Darvish is a wonder. He’s one of the most delightful pitchers to watch, and of course he’s starting Opening Day. He deserves it.
Corey Kluber is made out of gears and sprockets, a steampunk version of a mechanical pitcher, and his silent consistency doesn’t take away from his exhilarating stuff. He just goes out there and pitches better than the other guy.
UNLESS THE OTHER GUY IS YU DARVISH. Maybe. I mean, that’s the point. We’ll see.
Those are the best Opening Day duels, from Nolasco/Graveman to Kluber/Darvish. The most important part is that baseball is back, and we get to watch it. Here, have some Cy Young winners and assorted aces. This’ll help make up for the dumb winter, which is dumb every year.