The 2021 regular season is upon us. Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, MLB made it through spring training without interruption, and a full 162-game season is on deck. Last year's abbreviated 60-game schedule was unique and a big change of pace for this sport. I'm looking forward to the return to normalcy, or something close to it.
Each year Opening Day brings a ton of quality pitching matchups. Every club starts whomever they deem their best available pitcher in the first game of the new season. You can't beat it. It's nothing but great matchups all day. Given that, it's time to compile our annual Opening Day pitching matchup rankings. The rankings are based on three factors:
- Pitcher Quality. The better the pitchers the better the matchup, right? Right.
- Intrigue. Is someone making their first start with a new team? Facing his former team? Coming back from injury?
- Watchability. The most subjective factor. How fun is it to watch these guys pitch?
So, with that in mind, here are our 2021 Opening Day pitching matchup rankings. There are 10 Cy Young awards and one MVP award among this year's Opening Day starters.
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1. RHP Jacob deGrom, Mets vs. RHP Max Scherzer, Nationals
DeGrom vs. Scherzer tops our list for the second time in three seasons. The two multi-time Cy Young winners also matched up in 2019, with deGrom and the Mets earning a 2-0 season-opening win over Scherzer and the Nationals. I'm guessing Washington doesn't mind given how the season played out. The two righties combined for 22 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings that day.
For my money, deGrom is the best pitcher in baseball. He's somehow throwing harder than ever, and he is the ultimate combination of power and precision. Scherzer is no slouch himself, of course, though 2020 was his worst season in quite some time. It was also a bizarre 60-game season and he pitched through a few nagging injuries, so I'm willing to give him a mulligan.
DeGrom (two) and Scherzer (three) combine for five Cy Young awards and my money's on deGrom winning the 2021 award, though this ranking isn't about hardware. It's about two of the game's very best starters going head-to-head on the first day of the season. Strikeouts and tenacity. Scherzer and deGrom bring both in spades. Pitching matchups get no better.
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2. RHP Gerrit Cole, Yankees vs. LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu, Blue Jays
One stinkin' little point separated Ryu (third place) and Cole (fourth place) in the AL Cy Young voting last season. The two joined AL East teams on pricey free agent contracts last offseason and more than held up their end of the bargain. I greatly appreciate the contrasting styles this pitching matchup features. Cole is pure power with upper-90s fastballs and wicked breaking balls. Ryu is a finesse guy who gets in his rocking chair and lulls hitters to sleep with changeups and secondary pitches. Both styles work. Very well, in fact, and the contrast is what makes this matchup so fun.
3. RHP Jack Flaherty, Cardinals vs. RHP Luis Castillo, Reds
Few things in baseball are as aesthetically pleasing as a good changeup, and Castillo has maybe the best changeup in the sport. He sells it extremely well and the pitch just disappears about 10 feet in front of the plate. Please enjoy:
Two Minutes of Luis Castillo's Changeups.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 2, 2020
The most exciting 2 minutes in sports...since the Kentucky Derby is canceled. 🏇 pic.twitter.com/TbU51YBZOw
Castillo is more than a pretty changeup though. He also has an upper-90s fastball and pitches with swagger, and I'm a fan of guys who are really good and they know it. That also applies to Flaherty, who had a down 2020 season but a historically great second half in 2019. There are reasons to believe a bounceback is coming in 2021. These two NL Central aces are appointment viewing on their own. Together, they're must-see television.
4. LHP Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers vs. RHP German Marquez, Rockies
Marquez is among the most underappreciated starters in the game right now, partly because Coors Field skews his overall numbers and partly because the Rockies always seem to make headlines for the wrong reasons. The breaking ball master has been 20 percent better than league average once adjusted for ballpark over the last three years while averaging more than a strikeout per inning. Kershaw is no longer the pitcher he was in his prime, but he's still really good, and is still capable of throwing a masterpiece every so often. Case in point: Game 1 of the 2020 Wild Card Series. Vintage Kershaw is as good as it gets.
5. RHP Kenta Maeda, Twins vs. RHP Brandon Woodruff, Brewers
The Twins wisely inserted themselves into the Mookie Betts trade last year and nabbed Maeda, who finished runner-up for the AL Cy Young award. Minnesota convinced him to scale back on his fastball and spam hitters with his slider and changeup. Woodruff's greatness is understated to a degree. He has the power arsenal (mid-to-upper-90s fastball, bat-missing slider, etc.) and limits hard contact, though he's not especially flashy, and that can cause him to be underrated. Make no mistake though, Woodruff is among the game's best starters. This is a very fun matchup for pitching nerds.
6. LHP Max Fried, Braves vs. RHP Aaron Nola, Phillies
It was a short season, but Fried broke through and became a legitimate ace last year, thanks in large part to his trademark high spin curveball and relatively new slider. Few pitchers in baseball can spin the ball like Fried.
Max Fried, 94mph Fastball (foul) and 77mph Curveball (Swinging K), Individual Pitches + Overlay.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 1, 2020
You can see why Devers was left shaking his head.
Fried's curveball was #3 in my filthiest pitches from yesterday.
Watch here 👉https://t.co/mWEMt7Ar3d pic.twitter.com/VU9HErlKhl
Nola might be the least talked about great pitcher in the sport. We can probably blame that on the Phillies as a team falling short of expectations the last few years, though Nola has finished in the top seven of the NL Cy Young voting twice in the last three seasons. His running two-seam fastball is one of the most visually stunning pitches in the sport. When Nola's on his game, few make it look easier.
7. RHP Tyler Glasnow, Rays vs. RHP Sandy Alcantara, Marlins
It is easy to dream on an arm like Glasnow's. He's still more potential than production at this point -- Glasnow's only extended run of dominance as an unfettered big-league starter was the eight starts he made prior to his 2019 elbow injury -- but a 6-foot-8 pitcher who throws 100 mph with a wicked curveball and a new slider ...
So this looks like Glasnow's new slider at 87mph, followed by his usual hook at 85mph. pic.twitter.com/uk825kV8d5— Lucas A (@DBITLefty) March 17, 2021
... is my kind of guy. Alcantara stills flies under the radar a bit -- did you know he will pitch almost the entire season at only age 25? -- though he's pitched at an ace level since joining Miami in the Marcell Ozuna trade. He has a five-pitch arsenal and he commands it well. Give me a choice and I'm pretty sure I'd take Alcantara's next five years over Glasnow's given their careers to date and injury histories. On Opening Day, you won't have to pick between them. You can watch both in the same game.
8. RHP Lucas Giolito, White Sox vs. RHP Dylan Bundy, Angels
It took longer (a lot longer) than the prospect hounds expected, but Bundy finally became an ace last season, albeit in a weird and short 60-game season. He's always had that potential though, so it's not like his excellent season came out of nowhere. Giolito took the scenic route to ace-hood as well, and had to reinvent his mechanics along the way. Later is better than never with these things, of course. This is the Opening Day pitching matchup to watch if you need to be reminded that development is not linear, and it's smart to be patient with talented young players.
9. RHP Shane Bieber, Cleveland vs. LHP Matthew Boyd, Tigers
Too low for the reigning AL Cy Young winner? Probably, though Boyd has been one of the least effective pitchers in baseball the last two seasons (5.15 ERA in his last 340 2/3 innings). That said, Boyd is capable of spinning a gem every now and then, and Bieber is as good as it gets right now. This is my sleeper pick for a "each starter has a no-hitter through six innings" Opening Day matchup, partly because the two offenses are underwhelming.
10. LHP Madison Bumgarner, Diamondbacks vs. RHP Yu Darvish, Padres
Every year there's one pitching matchup I'm afraid I'm ranking too low, and this is it this year. Darvish is still outstanding as last year's second place finish in the NL Cy Young voting shows. Bumgarner had a poor 2020 season, though he was hardly the only veteran to do so, and his track record is unparalleled. I knocked this matchup down a few pegs because I'm not sure which Bumgarner we're getting this year, and the bad 2020 version of Bumgarner is not someone I particularly enjoy watching. I hope he comes out in vintage form, and he and Darvish steal the show on Opening Day.
11. RHP Zack Greinke, Astros vs. RHP Chris Bassitt, Athletics
Bassitt is Oakland's latest find-an-ace. I don't know how they do it, but every few years they turn an afterthought (in Bassitt's case, he missed most of 2016-18 with Tommy John surgery) into a frontline starter, and Bassitt is the latest in a long line that includes Frankie Montas, Kendall Graveman, and others. Greinke is Greinke. He's the modern day Mike Mussina thanks to his craftiness, his command, his deep arsenal, and the way he sells his changeup with grunts. The end of last season was pretty rough for Greinke and that's always a red flag for a 37-year-old.
12. RHP Kevin Gausman, Giants vs. LHP Marco Gonzales, Mariners
Among the many other dumb things he said, former Mariners CEO Kevin Mather called Gonzales "very boring" earlier this year. Gonzales has taken it in stride (note his Twitter bio) and while I wouldn't call him boring, he isn't flashy. He's a finesse southpaw who succeeds by keeping hitters off balance, and in this era of big velocity and high strikeouts, Gonzales is a throwback. Gausman has long been a personal favorite and he found another gear last season thanks to increased use of his splitter.
13. LHP John Means, Orioles vs. RHP Nathan Eovaldi, Red Sox
I am all in on Means. I know he had a rough 2020, but the changeup is a legitimately elite pitch, and if he's able to maintain last year's velocity spike, he could really be something. Eovaldi is on the short list of the hardest-throwing starters in the sport and velocity is sexy. He's also been more hittable throughout his career than the velocity would lead you to believe. This Opening Day pitching match is very high-variance. Could be two gems, could be two clunkers.
14. RHP Chad Kuhl, Pirates vs. RHP Kyle Hendricks, Cubs
It feels wrong to have Hendricks this low because he's so good. He's very unconventional by today's standards -- Hendricks has averaged 87.4 mph with his fastball the last two seasons -- but it works thanks to his dead fish changeup and top of the line command. Kuhl is, well, a pitcher for the Pirates. He came back from Tommy John surgery last year and was solid, and hey, someone has to start Opening Day for Pittsburgh.
15. RHP Kyle Gibson, Rangers vs. RHP Brad Keller, Royals
This will be Keller's second career Opening Day start. Other notables with exactly two career Opening Day starts: Dean Chance, Mike Flanagan, Cliff Lee, Denny McLain, Dontrelle Willis, and Kerry Wood. That's some nice company. This will be Gibson's first career Opening Day start.