Opening Day is a great day not only because it means that baseball is back, but also because it affords us the privilege of watching each team pit their best arms against one another. While you will sometimes get a couple of these matchups in a day during the regular season, there are no days that quite compare to the “full” Opening Day in terms of pitching matchups. But of course, not every team has a true “ace”, or even a fringe “ace”, so not all of these games will be created equal. With that in mind, let’s take a look at today’s probable starters for each game and rate them on an A-F scale.
While Madison Bumgarner is one of the game’s top arms (and somehow still just 26 years old), his counterpart in this matchup draws little interest from those outside of Milwaukee, and just slightly more interest from those inside it. Bumgarner’s now sitting on three straight seasons with a sub-3 ERA, 200 innings pitched, and 199 or more strikeouts, and in 2015 he saw his K/BB ratio reach 6.00 (exactly) for the first time in his major-league career. While MadBum’s electric stuff will surely draw eyes to screens come gametime, Peralta’s inability to strike out hitters (5.0 K/9 in 2015) and general mediocrity make this a somewhat disappointing matchup; unless you’re a Giants fan, that is.
After 200-plus inning and sub-four ERA seasons in 2013 and 2014, the Orioles’ veteran ace Chris Tillman took a step back last season, posting an ERA of nearly 5.00 in just over 170 innings and 31 starts. Santana, on the other hand, was quietly solid for the Twins down the stretch, making 17 starts from July 5 on. On August 25, his ERA sat at an ugly 6.05, but seven starts of seven innings or more after that date dropped that mark down to a respectable 4.00 and improved his W-L record from 2-4 to 7-5. Watching to see if Tillman can bounce back from a bad year and if Santana can continue his success from late 2015 will be interesting, but neither guy here has eye-popping stuff that makes for a super-exciting matchup.
When your worst season in recent memory includes 200-plus innings pitched and an ERA+ of 107, you know you’re pretty good at throwing baseballs. Such is the case for Mariners’ ace Felix Hernandez, who, like Madison Bumgarner, is still impossibly young for the amount of experience he has; 2016 will be just his age-30 season, and he already has 11 seasons under his belt. After rumors of a trade involving Hamels floated around for most of last offseason, a deal finally came to fruition at the 2015 trade deadline, and the former Philadelphia Phillies southpaw got a shot to pitch for a postseason contender in Texas. Both of these guys are true aces with something to prove after sub-par 2015 seasons (by their own standards, at least). Look for both hurlers to come out of the gate with their best stuff to start 2016.
Despite being traded at the deadline for the second consecutive season, Vanderbilt product David Price posted one of his best seasons ever in 2015, setting a career-best mark in ERA, and posting second- and third-best numbers in K/9 and BB/9, respectively. After inking a seven-year deal for more than $200 million with the Red Sox this offseason, David should be fired up to get his new team started on the right track this season. On the other side of the ball, 2014 Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber may come out with a chip on his shoulder after a disappointing 2015 campaign. While it may not reflect poorly on his abilities, leading the league in losses can not be great for a pitcher’s morale. Regardless, Kluber’s FIP was still sub-3 and his K/BB ratio as well as WHIP were actually better than his Cy Young season. In terms of ace power, you’re not going to find many better matchups than this one.
After bursting on to the scene as a 23-year-old in 2010 with the Tampa Bay Rays, Jeremy Hellickson started 60 games for the club between 2011 and 2012, posting a 3.02 ERA. However, Hellickson’s FIP hovered a full 1.50 points higher at 4.52, and his sub-par strikeout ability and high walk totals came back to bite him as he posted a 5.17 ERA in 2013. After splitting 2014 between the minors and majors, Hellickson returned to a full-time starting job with Arizona last season. Iglesias, signed with the Reds as a free agent out of Cuba in mid-2014, and made his MLB debut last season. He performed relatively well, especially down the stretch. While Hellickson will probably never replicate the ace potential he flashed early in his career, Iglesias could be poised for a breakout season.
Two seasons removed from his Cy Young-award winning campaign in 2013, Scherzer dazzled hitters from the National League East and beyond in his first season with the Nationals, fanning 276 batters in 228.2 innings pitched with walking just 34 hitters all season. He’s now posted a sub-3 FIP and over 200 innings in three straight seasons, and proven himself as one of the game’s top pitchers. After an incredible 2014 season in which he posted a 2.89 ERA in 221.0 innings, Teheran’s WHIP jumped from 1.08 to 1.30 in 2015, and his ERA suffered mightily as a result. With Scherzer looking to continue his run of dominance on the hill and Teheran hoping for a bounce-back season, this should be an exciting early-season divisional matchup.
After posting between 210 and 250 strikeouts every season between 2010 and 2014, Kershaw took his game to a new level in 2015, fanning 301 batters in 232.2 innings. Entering just his age-28 season, Kershaw is already arguably the best pitcher in the majors, and with Zack Greinke moving to Arizona in the offseason, the Dodgers will rely on him to carry their rotation through the 2016 season. While the Padres’ pitching staff was largely disappointing last year, Ross was the lone right spot in the rotation, tossing a career-best 196.0 innings and striking out an impressive 212 batters. While his 84 walks were tops in the majors, he allowed just nine home runs all year and held opposing hitters to a .237 average and .652 OPS. Should he be able to limit his walks and maintain his good strikeout ability, Ross may be able to earn his way into the “ace” ranks in a division that features plenty of them already.
After a stellar 2012 season with the New York Mets earned him the NL Cy Young award, Dickey has been largely disappointing in his three seasons with the Blue Jays, especially considering the package for which he was acquired for in December of 2012 (Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard). However, trade value aside, Dickey has accumulated a sub-4 ERA over the last two seasons, but his K/9 has dropped from 7.1 and 7.1 in 2013 and 2014 to a measly 5.3 in 2015. Smyly, on the other hand, had a very good season in limited time with the Rays last year, posting a 3.11 ERA in 12 starts while striking out 77 batters in 66.2 innings. While his 11 home runs allowed is concerning, Smyly could be a huge boost to the Tampa Bay rotation if he maintains good strikeout ability and can keep the ball in the park more consistently. While the marquee matchup of Archer and Stroman came on the “limited” Opening Day yesterday, this is hardly a matchup to sneeze at.
While De La Rosa’s numbers don’t catch much attention, he deserves a certain level of leeway given that he’s entering his ninth consecutive season pitching in the harsh confines of Coors Field in Denver. He did see an uptick in his strikeout numbers last season, jumping from 6.8 K/9 in 2014 to 8.1 in 2015, but his walks also increased from 3.3 BB/9 to 3.9. Should he be able to maintain some of that strikeout ability and brings his walks back down, he could be solid for the Rockies this year. On the other side of things is NL Cy Young runner-up Zack Greinke, who shined all season on his was to an MLB-best 1.66 ERA, posting a 5.00 K/BB ratio and and allowed a minuscule 6.0 H/9 in 222.2 innings pitched. Greinke is due to regress some in 2016, but his ability to command his pitches and stay away from hard contact makes him a reliable ace to trot out every fifth day.
After a solid start to last season, Jake Arrieta took his game to the next level in the second half of last season, bringing his ERA down from 3.40 on June 16 to the microscopic 1.77 it ended at on October 2. Arrieta, like Greinke, benefited from an absurdly low H/9 at 5.9, but combined that with excellent strikeout numbers (236 K in 229.0 innings pitched) while walked less than two batters per nine innings. Now firmly cemented as the #1 pitcher in the Cubs’ rotation in front of veterans Jon Lester and John Lackey, Arrieta has big expectations for the new season. The guy in the other dugout is no slouch either, as Garrett Richards is the owner of the hardest fastball from all qualified starters in the MLB from 2015, sitting above 96 mph. While his 2015 wasn’t as electric as his 2014, when he posted a 2.61 ERA in 26 starts for the Angels, he allowed just 7.9 H/9 and pitched to a 103 ERA+ last year. In terms of each pitchers’ “stuff”, this just may be the best matchup of the day.
Like another left-handed ace pitching today, Chris Sale took his strikeout levels to a new high in 2015, fanning 274 batters in 208.2 innings for a remarkable 11.8 K/9, tops among all qualified starters in the majors last year. Combine that power with the control of just 1.8 BB/9, and it’s a real surprise that Sale’s ERA was as high as it was. While his velocity does help opposing hitters barrel up the occasional pitch (23 home runs allowed in 2015), Sale was mostly on wrong end of some bad luck last year, as indicated by his sub-3 FIP. Gray, who has been rumored as a trade target for much of the offseason, had a great 2015, putting up a 2.73 ERA in 208.0 innings pitched. While Gray doesn’t possess the strikeout pitches that most “aces” do, he’s proven his ability to limit hard contact, holding opposing hitters to a lifetime .223 average and .604 OPS against him while allowing just 0.7 HR/9. While neither team in this game looks to be a front-runner in their division this season, this is certainly a first-division pitching matchup worth watching.