The Best Pitching Matchups of Opening Day

Gerrit Cole
Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Opening Day is finally upon us. The weather is getting warmer, the smell of spring is in the air, and regular season baseball is back. Enjoying games around the league on Opening Day is a ritual for many baseball fans including myself, and these games are particularly exciting because teams always bring the best they have to offer. The long slog of the season sometimes leads to rest days for star hitters, and a string of injuries can ruin a lineup come June or July. But Opening Day is the only day where everyone is on display, particularly on the mound, as each team hands the ball to its no. 1 starter to start the season, health permitting, to produce some of the best matchups we’ll see all year.

The Best Opening Day Pitching Matchups, Ranked
Team 1 Team 1 Starter Team 2 Team 2 Starter Projected Combined Starter WAR
Rangers Jacob deGrom Phillies Aaron Nola 9.9
Marlins Sandy Alcantara Mets Max Scherzer 8.2
Giants Logan Webb Yankees Gerrit Cole 8
Mariners Luis Castillo Guardians Shane Bieber 7.7
Cubs Marcus Stroman Brewers Corbin Burnes 7.6
Astros Framber Valdez White Sox Dylan Cease 6.8
Diamondbacks Zac Gallen Dodgers Julio Urías 6.4
Rays Shane McClanahan Tigers Eduardo Rodriguez 6.1
Rockies Germán Márquez Padres Blake Snell 5.9
Athletics Kyle Muller Angels Shohei Ohtani 5.7
Cardinals Miles Mikolas Blue Jays Alek Manoah 4.9
Nationals Patrick Corbin Braves Max Fried 4.7
Reds Hunter Greene Pirates Mitch Keller 4.7
Royals Zack Greinke Twins Pablo López 3.3
Red Sox Corey Kluber Orioles Kyle Gibson 3
Projections from Depth Charts

In total, 19 of the top 30 pitchers by our Depth Charts projections will take the hill today, from no. 1 Jacob deGrom to no. 29 Hunter Greene. A few top pitchers lost Opening Day nods to a superior teammate — for example, the pocket aces at the top of Philadelphia’s rotation will force Zack Wheeler to wait his turn to start until Saturday. In other cases, a team’s Opening Day starter isn’t its best by our projections; Brady Singer, the no. 30 pitcher by Depth Charts with a projected WAR of 2.9, was supplanted by Zack Greinke and his 1.1 WAR projection. But overall, the combined skill of today’s starters outclasses that of any other day in the season. With these great matchups in mind, let’s plan out a full day of baseball watching that will maximize the amount of elite starting pitching on the screen.

The first games will begin at 1:05 PM ET, and your best bet is the Giants-Yankees matchup featuring Gerrit Cole and Logan Webb, a duo that ranks third on the projected WAR leaderboard. Cole had a down year by his standards due to a 1.48 HR/9 rate but still finished second to Shohei Ohtani in K-BB%. On the other side, Webb had the fourth-lowest HR/9 rate in baseball last season, proving that the contact management skills he showed off in his breakout 2021 are no fluke.

As the bullpens take over that game in the later innings, pop into the Brewers-Cubs (2:20 PM ET) and Tigers-Rays (3:10 PM ET) broadcasts to see Corbin Burnes and Shane McClanahan kick off their seasons. Burnes had a considerable dropoff from his 2021 Cy Young season, but 200 innings with an ERA below three and a career-best 243 strikeouts isn’t exactly a bad year. McClanahan is, by a considerable margin, the hardest-throwing lefty starter in baseball, sitting at a cool 96.7 mph and occasionally reaching back for triple digits. His slider and changeup both had swinging strike rates above 24%; no other starting pitcher had a mark that high on two separate offerings. These aces combined for eight Cy Young votes in our 2023 staff predictions.

The biggest slate of games begins around 4 PM ET, and unfortunately for those who only have one screen on which to watch, the two best matchups by projected WAR are happening during this time block. In Arlington, the reigning NL champion Phillies will square off against the Rangers, who have a new face on the mound: deGrom. When healthy, his past two seasons have been arguably the most dominant of any hurler ever. In 26 starts since the start of 2021, he’s fanned 44% of batters faced against just a 3.3% walk rate, allowing just 0.63 baserunners per inning. His stuff is downright dominant, with near-robotic command of two 80-grade pitches that batters can’t make contact with even when they know what’s coming. deGrom’s health over the full season is far from a guarantee, but Opening Day gives us at least one game to see his excellence.

His opponent is no slouch either. Nola wasn’t a Cy Young finalist last season, but I believe he had the finest season of any MLB pitcher. While Sandy Alcantara took home the hardware unanimously, Nola had a better FIP, xERA, and SIERA and finished second in innings pitched, ending the season at the top of our pitcher WAR leaderboard narrowly ahead of Carlos Rodón (who came a distant sixth in the Cy Young race). Nola doesn’t throw 100 mph like deGrom or Alcantara, but the name of his game is command: He led the league with a 3.6% walk rate and 8.1 K/BB ratio, largely because he could get hitters to swing at his breaking ball in any count and situation. When hitters saw a Nola curveball outside the strike zone, they still swung half the time (and usually came up empty). And the last time these two pitchers squared off was an instant classic. Half of the 20 batters deGrom faced were sat down on strikes, and he gave up just two hits in his six innings of work. Not to be outdone, Nola threw a complete game, allowing a single run, but he was let down by his offense as the Mets won, 1–0. Their previous showdown back in 2020 was a blowout win for New York, though Nola struck out 10 batters in 5.1 innings. deGrom, in his seven innings of one-run ball, got Phillies hitters to swing and miss 35 times — tied for the most whiffs in the pitch tracking era.

While deGrom has moved on to Texas, his former team still has a stacked rotation. The seemingly ageless Max Scherzer (who already has 18.1 more WAR in his 30s than his 20s) had a stellar 2022, with a 2.29 ERA and 2.62 FIP in 145 innings and a strikeout rate north of 30% for the eighth consecutive year. Scherzer’s opponent will be Alcantara, whose 2022 season felt like a throwback to a decade ago. His 228 frames completed was the most since David Price in 2016, and he was the only pitcher to average at least seven innings per start. And he did all this while striking out less than a batter per inning. My praise of Nola in the previous section was by no means a criticism of Alcantara, whose ability to pitch deep into games is incredibly valuable, especially on a team with a bullpen that ranked 22nd in ERA. If you start with Phillies-Rangers and flip to Mets-Marlins in the later innings, worry not; it’s a good bet Alcantara will still be in the game and cruising.

Some other exciting pitchers in the 4:00 PM block of games include Greene, sweeper artist Alek Manoah, and former Cy Young winner Blake Snell. And take at least a few minutes to enjoy the beginning of what may be the final season of Greinke’s Hall of Fame career. Plus, you can watch him shake off his own signs as he calls his own games using PitchCom.

Just one game is scheduled for 7 PM ET, but luckily for fans, it’s a good one between Houston and Chicago, featuring Framber Valdez and Dylan Cease, who each finished last season with 4.4 WAR. Valdez must be an incredibly frustrating opponent for hitters; no matter what they do, they can never elevate the ball. Each of his four pitches had a groundball rate above 57%, and he’s also figured out other ways to neutralize the damage on balls in play. Last season, Cease repeated the strikeout and walk numbers from his breakout 2021 campaign but also had the BABIP and flyball luck fall heavily on his side, finishing second in the AL in ERA. He should be a tough opponent for the reigning World Series champions.

Three West Coast games, beginning at 10 PM ET, close out a full day of thrilling baseball action. You can choose your own viewing adventure here; each of the three matchups has its perks. If, like me, you’ve had the final inning of the World Baseball Classic playing on repeat for the past week, you can watch Ohtani and his 81-grade sweeper against rookie Kyle Muller and a pretty grim A’s lineup. As a bonus, the Angels also have Mike Trout, who in his last plate appearance in the Oakland Coliseum hit a 489-foot homer. If you enjoyed watching Nola’s pinpoint command and want to see more of it, make sure to catch Shane Bieber’s start in Seattle. He’s lost three ticks of velocity since his dominant 2020 Cy Young season, but his ability to execute his slider and curveball outside off the plate over and over again is marvelous to watch. Working for the home team is the recently-extended Luis Castillo, coming off the best season of his career by ERA. No starter got more swings and misses with their four-seamer last year than Castillo, who fires at 97 mph from an outlier release point with an ultra-flat vertical approach angle.

Finally, Cy Young runner-up Julio Urías got the Opening Day nod over Clayton Kershaw, as he faces Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen. Urías vastly outperformed his peripherals in 2022, though the contact suppression skills of his sweeper certainly seem repeatable; batters have put up a mere 62 wRC+ against the pitch. Gallen took a leap forward in all facets of his game, but a boost in chase rate contributed heavily to a career-low walk rate.

Opening Day is the day we’ve waited all winter for (though the WBC certainly helped). It’s the day where the hopes and dreams of fans from all teams are renewed, and the collective joy of knowing that Major League Baseball will be on the air for each of the next 180 days is nothing short of magical. So enjoy it; this day only happens once a year. And enjoy the fact that the best pitchers the league has to offer will all be in action today.

Kyle is a FanGraphs contributor who likes to write about unique players who aren't superstars. He likes multipositional catchers, dislikes fastballs, and wants to see the return of the 100-inning reliever. He's currently a college student studying math education, and wants to apply that experience to his writing by making sabermetrics more accessible to learn about. Previously, he's written for PitcherList using pitch data to bring analytical insight to pitcher GIFs and on his personal blog about the Angels.

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1 year ago

On Nola having the finest season in the majors: things like FIP don’t account for sequencing at all. Some of that is luck, but when we’re talking about who had the best year in 2022 I think we should acknowledge what actually happened. (SIERA is a bit better but I think has the same problem).