The pleasures of Opening Day are well understood and innumerable and thus not necessary to re-legislate here. You’ve made it through the winter to Opening Day Eve: The hard part is almost over, and thus you need make no apologies for the upcoming celebrations. These are going to be some wonderful few days.
But here’s one underrated aspect of Opening Day: The pitching matchups. Fans get so justifiably excited by Opening Day itself that they can overlook just how fantastic the individual pitching matchups are ... and how they won’t be this good again the rest of the regular season. There will be no other day -- not even the day after the All-Star break or the first day of the postseason -- when every team puts its best arms forward the way they do on Opening Day; they’ll never match up like this again. Even if you’re part of the contingent that believes starting pitchers are losing influence, the ace of the staff is the ace: He’s the guy you’ll be relying on the most, the longest. And he’s the guy you want on the mound on Day 1.
So on Opening Day Eve, I’ve put together a little Starting Pitcher Matchup Ranking, a viewer’s guide for the best baseball has to offer on its first day. Everybody loves offense, and the highlights will all be of homers. But there’s nothing like two top-level pitchers facing off against each other. Here are Opening Day’s best pitching matchups (all times ET).
1) Jacob deGrom (NYM) vs. Max Scherzer (WSH), 1:05 p.m.: As far as matchups go, you can’t do much better than the winner of the last three National League Cy Young Awards. deGrom makes his first start on the heels of his fresh contract extension against the guy who, if hadn’t been for deGrom’s otherworldly 2018 season, might have won his third Cy in a row (and fourth overall). The intrigue is elevated considering how tight this division is going to be this year. Every game counts, and you always expect to win when you toss either one of these guys out there.
2) Justin Verlander (HOU) vs. Blake Snell (TB), 4 p.m.: The National League has the two men who finished first and second in Cy Young voting last year squaring off … and somehow, the American League has the same. Perhaps not coincidentally, both pitchers are coming off contract extensions of their own, and both of their teams plan on being serious postseason contenders. The only major difference here, of course, is experience. Verlander has pitched 2,759 innings in his career; Snell has thrown 399.
Fun fact: The deGrom-Scherzer and Snell-Verlander matchups represent just the third and fourth times the 1-2 finishers in Cy Young voting faced each other the following Opening Day -- and the other two were also in the same year! On Opening Day 1979, the 1978 winner in the AL (Ron Guidry, Yankees) took on runner-up Mike Caldwell (Brewers), while the reigning NL Cy Young winner (Gaylord Perry, Padres) faced off against Burt Hooton (Dodgers).
3) Corey Kluber (CLE) vs. Jose Berrios (MIN), 4:10 p.m.: Kluber is Kluber, and the only real surprising thing about him starting on Opening Day is, well, that he’s doing it for the Indians after an offseason filled with trade rumors. Berrios obviously hasn’t had the career success of Kluber, but he took big strides forward last year and is a sleeper Cy Young pick this year. A great way for the Twins to assert themselves as actual challengers to the Indians' mini-Central dynasty is to beat them and Kluber at home on Opening Day.
4) Miles Mikolas (STL) vs. Jhoulys Chacin (MIL), 2:10 p.m.: Ranked too high? Look again. Mikolas was one of the sturdiest, most consistent pitchers in baseball last year and has considerable upside in Year Two of his return to the States, and Chacin had the best year of his decade-long career in 2018. Look out, though: The Cardinals were one of the few teams to knock Chacin around last year; he had a 5.26 ERA in five starts against the Birds.
5) Zack Greinke (ARI) vs. Hyun-Jin Ryu (Dodgers), 4:10 p.m.: This would obviously be a little bit more fun if it were Greinke against his former Dodgers teammate Clayton Kershaw -- or even if it were between Greinke and Walker Buehler -- but Ryu can more than hold his own as well.
Fun fact: The last Dodgers pitcher not named Kershaw to start on Opening Day was Vicente Padilla in 2010. It did not go well.
6) Chris Sale (BOS) vs. Marco Gonzales (SEA), 7:10 p.m.: Sale takes the hill for the defending champs with a contract extension in hand. (Sensing a pattern here.) But Gonzales has something that Sale doesn’t: A victory in 2019. He won the season opener over in Japan.
7) Kyle Freeland (COL) vs. Jose Urena (MIA), 4:10 p.m.: It’s the battle of the 1993 expansion squads! Freeland, ever so quietly, put up the second-lowest ERA in Rockies history last year, behind only Marvin Freeman’s 2.80 mark in 1994. Urena was better than you realized in 2018, with a 3.98 ERA and 1.18 WHIP: This is actually his second Opening Day start in a row.
8) Julio Teheran (ATL) vs. Aaron Nola (PHI), 3:05 p.m.: The Braves would have preferred to be starting Mike Foltynewicz, but Teheran certainly has experience: This is his sixth consecutive Opening Day start, tying Warren Spahn (1957-62) for the franchise’s Modern Era record. Nola, meanwhile, put up the breakthrough season everyone was waiting for from him in 2018. (Guess what: He got a contract extension.)
9) Jameson Taillon (PIT) vs. Luis Castillo (CIN), 4:10 p.m.: Taillon is the beginning of what should be a most formidable Pirates rotation. The Reds’ rotation should be … less formidable, but even though Castillo didn’t quite make the big step forward in 2018 the Reds were hoping for, he’s still only 26 years old and throws harder than anyone on Cincinnati's staff. And interestingly enough, he led the Majors with 105 strikeouts off his changeup last year.
10) Jon Lester (CHC) vs. Mike Minor (TEX), 4:05 p.m.: Lester really isn’t the Cubs’ “ace” at this point, but sometimes an Opening Day nod is as much about career value and franchise stature, and this assignment is more of a recognition of that. This will be Lester’s eighth Opening Day start (four with the Cubs, four with the Red Sox). Minor was the Rangers’ best starter last year and has more than recovered from the two years he spent out of baseball (2015-16) recovering from shoulder woes.
All Opening Day matchups are special, so we’re not going to knock on anyone by ranking them last. So in the interest of being comprehensive, here are the final five (in no particular order!).
Trevor Cahill (LAA) vs. Mike Fiers: (OAK), 4:07 p.m.: Fiers hopes this goes better than his first start, in Japan, did (3 IP, 5 ER).
Madison Bumgarner (SF) vs. Eric Lauer (SD), 4:10 p.m.: Apologies to Bumgarner, but here’s a question: Which player is more likely to be on his current team come August?
Andrew Cashner (BAL) vs. Masahiro Tanaka (NYY), 1:05 p.m.: The Orioles will cycle through a lot of players you have probably never heard of this year, but Cashner is someone whose name you know.
Carlos Rodon (CHW) vs. Brad Keller (KC), 4:15 p.m.: Keller was the Royals’ surprise ace last year, and he cuts against the grain of the modern strikeout trends. He fanned just 96 batters in 141 innings last year, but had the sixth-lowest hard-hit rate in the AL among the 83 pitchers with 250 batted balls allowed.
Jordan Zimmermann (DET) vs. Marcus Stroman (TOR), 3:37 p.m.: Did you know that Zimmermann is the eighth-highest-paid player in the American League?