Opening Day is easily one of the most exciting times of the baseball year. More people watch these two days of baseball than at any other point during the season, save for the postseason and All-Star game.
People tune in for various reasons. Often it is blind optimism for their team. Eventually, the season shapes up and fans realize their team is really not that good. Others watch it as a celebration of the game. The three-month leave that is the offseason is finally over.
One of the most underrated aspects that makes opening day so great is the pitching matchups. It is the only time of the year that it is guaranteed that aces will face off in some capacity.
There is also the randomness associated with a new year. Sometimes pitchers come into a new year with revamped mechanics and they are ready for a proper breakout or bounce back.
With that said, here are a few of the best pitching matchups worth watching out for as you binge watch baseball for the next few days. (All times Eastern.)
Yankees at Rays: Masahiro Tanaka vs Chris Archer, 1:00 PM, April 2
Coming off of a down year, Archer is still acclaimed by many to be an elite pitcher in the American League. Archer’s downfall last year was a 16.2 percent home run per fly ball rate, the seventh-highest in all of baseball. This was a large spike from the 10.4 rate he posted in 2015.
It is one thing if a pitcher struggles with command and that leads to giving up more runs. In the case of last year, though, an increase in home runs given up can be considered a total fluke. The 2016 season saw the highest home runs per game rate in MLB since 2000. This, by the way, was the height of the steroid era. The average game last year saw teams slug 1.16 home runs per game, a huge increase from the 1.01 rate from just a year prior.
Archer has the stuff to dominate, as he was tied for second in the AL in strikeouts last year with 233. If he can just keep the ball in the yard, he will be as effective as anyone.
Enough about Archer, though. Let us take a look at the man who will toe the rubber opposite of Archer in the first game of the season on Sunday: Tanaka. He is coming off his first year of being healthy for a full season in the majors, and he did not disappoint. In 199.2 innings in 2016, he posted a 3.07 ERA (3.51 FIP) and a WAR of 5.4, ranking third in the AL.
Tanaka is so effective because of his ability to command the strike zone and keep the ball in the ballpark. Last year, he had the fifth lowest walk rate in baseball, with a rate of 1.62 per nine innings. Also, while the rest of the league saw an increase in home runs given up, Tanaka saw his home run rate go down, from a pedestrian 1.46 per nine in 2015 to an above-average 0.99 in 2016.
Tanaka is not as overpowering as Archer, but he can finesse his way to being a legitimate Cy Young candidate in 2017. Expect this season to get off to a hot start when these two pitchers clash in the first game of Opening Day on April 2.
Tigers at White Sox: Justin Verlander vs Jose Quintana, 4:10 PM, April 3
The Chicago White Sox are not going to contend in 2017. General manager Rick Hahn has fully committed to rebuilding this team, trading away stars Chris Sale and Adam Eaton. This does not mean, however, that the Sox cannot be exciting to watch. Enter Quintana, who is being pegged for his first career Opening Day start on Monday. Quintana has been easily one of the most underrated pitchers in all of baseball for the last half-decade. Since 2012, he has posted a WAR of 20.3 and a FIP of 3.47. During that time, Quintana had the luxury of being in Sale’s shadow atop Chicago’s rotation, but now the spotlight is on him.
Quintana is another finesse-type pitcher. He does not overpower hitters and does not rack up very many strikeouts. This has not stopped him from being as effective as anyone. He earned his first All-Star game appearance and finished 10th in the AL Cy Young Award voting in 2016.
He will be opposed by the 2016 Cy Young runner-up, Detroit Tigers ace Verlander. Verlander has a track record of dominance and will make a worthy candidate for the Hall of Fame when he decides to finally hang up his cleats.
After two down years in 2014 and 2015, Verlander bounced back in a huge way in 2016. In 227.2 innings pitched, he led the AL in strikeouts with 254. He also had a career best strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.46.
Even at 34, he can still dot his four seamer at 97 miles per hour. Put that together with his devastating 12-to-6 curveball and nasty changeup, and he has an arsenal that can dominate even the best of hitters.
Given the state of the AL Central in 2017, the Tigers visiting the White Sox may not seem like a very high profile matchup. These two pitchers, however, can make this game into one of the more fun ones to watch on Opening Day.
Mariners at Astros: Felix Hernandez vs Dallas Keuchel, 8:10 PM, April 3
It is weird to say that a matchup of two former Cy Young winners might fly under the radar. This will still be a game worth watching, though.
For Hernandez’s standards, 2015 and 2016 were average at best. He missed time in the middle of last year due to a calf strain. This led him to post a career high 3.8 walks-per-nine rate last year. This injury also limited him to 153.1 innings, meaning he did not qualify for the ERA title for the first time since he was a rookie in 2005. Coming back healthy, look for Felix to have another dominant year in 2017.
Astros ace Keuchel is also looking to bounce back after a miserable 2016 campaign. After winning the AL Cy Young in 2015, Keuchel struggled in 2016. He posted a 4.55 ERA and a 7.7 strikeouts-per-nine rate in 168 innings pitched.
Keuchel also caught the injury bug in 2016, dealing with shoulder pain all year. This pain hurt his fastball velocity slightly and took away a bit of the bite in his sinker. He lead the AL in ground ball percentage in 2015, but the lack of a sinker hurt him last year. After an offseason of rest and recuperation, Keuchel is primed to bounce back to being the ace he established himself as just two years ago.
These two pitchers have the potential to steal the show on Opening Day if both can come back healthy and effective.
Cubs at Cardinals: Jon Lester vs Carlos Martinez, 8:30 PM, April 2
It may be the most interesting rivalry in baseball right now. The upstart Cubs, coming off their first world championship in over a century, and the Cardinals, who missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 2010.
These teams will square off in the first Sunday Night Baseball of the year for the second time in three years. Familiar face Lester gets the nod on Opening Day for Chicago. St. Louis will be trotting out a new face to start the year: Martinez.
Last year, Martinez established himself as a legitimate ace in the National League. Among a struggling Cardinals rotation, Martinez was the one constant. In a career-high 195.1 innings, he held steady with a 3.04 ERA and a 5.4 WAR. This ranked fifth in the NL, even higher than his counterpart Lester, who posted a 5.3.
The only thing different about Martinez in 2016 as opposed to 2015 was his strikeout rate. Last year he had an 8.0 strikeout-per-nine rate, a sharp decline from the 9.2 he posted just a year earlier. Normally this would raise some red flags. Martinez stayed consistent all year while striking out less batters, though, so he gets a pass.
This will be Lester’s second Opening Day start in three years with the Cubs. He is coming off a year which by some accounts can be considered a career year. He posted a career low 2.44 ERA and a career low WHIP of 1.016. These numbers can very much be attributed to the fact that Lester pitches in front of an elite defense. Last year he allowed a career low 154 hits.
His strikeout rate went down slightly from 2015 and his walk rate up slightly, so how was Lester so good?
One thing worth pointing out is Lester’s 84.9 left-on-base percentage. This means he did a stellar job working his way out of trouble. A BABIP against of .256 also suggests that he may have been very lucky last year. With the Cubs bringing back essentially the same defense from a year ago, there is very little reason to think Lester will regress significantly in 2017.
While not as spectacular as other Opening Day matchups, look for both offenses to struggle scoring against these aces.
Indians at Rangers: Corey Kluber vs Yu Darvish, 7:00 PM, April 3
This is the biggest matchup of “stuff” on Opening Day. Other matchups listed here are between contrasting styles (power vs finesse). This one, however, will pit two of the best strikeout pitchers in the game head-to-head.
Coming off another brilliant season, Indians ace Kluber will be making his third straight Opening Day start. Over the last three years, Kluber has averaged 247 strikeouts a season. He does not overpower hitters like most strikeout pitchers. Instead, he misses a lot of bats by not throwing anything straight. A fastball that sinks, a fastball that cuts, a curveball that slides, and a changeup help Kluber to be one of the most dominant pitchers in the game today.
Watch a replay of Game 1 of the World Series last year to see how filthy this man can be when all his pitches are working. He has accumulated a WAR of 18.0 over the last three seasons and has finished in the top three of the Cy Young voting twice, winning the award in 2014.
Not to be outdone, Rangers ace Darvish is looking to stay healthy for a full season for the first time since 2013.
Darvish is coming off Tommy John surgery that kept him out of action for the entirety of 2015 and part of 2016. In limited action last year, he showed that he is still an elite pitcher. In 100.1 innings pitched, he struck out 132 batters and only walked 31. For his career, he owns an 11.3 strikeouts-per-nine rate. In 2013, the only season in his career in which he pitched more than 200 innings, he led the majors with 277 strikeouts, en route to finishing second in the Cy Young voting to Max Scherzer.
Last year he posted a career low 2.8 walks-per-nine rate. This led many to believe that he pitched much better than his 3.41 ERA would suggest. If he can stay healthy and consistent in 2017, he could be a sneaky Cy Young candidate. The biggest thing holding him back will be his post-Tommy John innings limit.
If both men are on, look for there to be a lot of swings and misses in this matchup.