MLB Opening Day pitching matchups, ranked: Corey Kluber vs. Felix Hernandez tops our list

The 2018 regular season is finally upon us. All 30 teams begin their seasons Thursday, March 29, meaning we get a full 15-game slate on Opening Day. Hooray for that.

Each year Opening Day brings a ton of quality pitching matchups. Every club starts whoever 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, which were compiled by me after consulting the other CBS Sports MLB scribes, are based on three factors:

  1. Pitcher Quality. No one likes to watch a bad pitcher, right? Right.
  2. Intrigue. Is someone making their first start with a new team? Facing his former team? Coming back from injury? That sort of thing.
  3. Watchability. The most subjective factor. How fun is it to watch these guys pitch?

Now, with that in mind, here are the 2018 Opening Day pitching matchup rankings. Two former Cy Young winners get us started.

1. Corey Kluber, Indians vs. Felix Hernandez, Mariners

For a while it appeared Felix wouldn't able to start on Opening Day. He took a line drive to the forearm early in spring training and had to be shut down for a while to let it heal. Fortunately, Hernandez was able to take the mound late in camp, and he will indeed be on the mound for the 10th consecutive Opening Day.

Felix is no longer the pitcher he was in his prime, but he is still only 31, and he has a deep enough bag of tricks that he should remain effective for several more seasons as long as he stays healthy. The baseball fan in me would love to see a vintage Felix season. When he was at his best, he was as fun to watch as any pitch I've ever seen.

As for Kluber, he is the reigning AL Cy Young award winner and no worse than the second best right-handed pitcher in baseball. ALDS issues notwithstanding (nine runs in two starts and 6 1/3 innings in the ALDS last year), he is on the short list of the best pitchers in baseball, and who doesn't love to watch great pitchers do their thing? Kluber's breaking ball is straight out of a video game:

The Kluber-Felix matchup is this year's only Opening Day matchup with two former Cy Young winners.

2. Carlos Martinez, Cardinals vs. Noah Syndergaard, Mets

I almost ranked this matchup No. 1 because I am so looking forward to seeing healthy Syndergaard again. A torn lat limited him to 30 1/3 innings last season, but he returned to full health this spring, striking out 23 with a 1.35 ERA in 20 Grapefruit League innings. Syndergaard also routinely topped 100 mph on the radar gun, which is good news after the lat injury.

Between the triple-digit fastballs and the knee-buckling secondary pitches and the long flowing hair, Syndergaard looks like a superhero out on the mound. Hard to see how he doesn't win a Cy Young one of these years, as long as he stays healthy.

Martinez actually had his worst season as a starter last year, though he was still really good, throwing 205 innings with a 3.64 ERA. Wouldn't be a shock to see both these pitchers in Washington for the All-Star Game in July.

3. Chris Sale, Red Sox vs. Chris Archer, Rays

Another matchup I considered ranking No. 1. Sale is the game's preeminent strikeout pitcher -- he fanned 36.2 percent of batters faced last season, the best rate by a starting pitcher since Hall of Famer Randy Johnson in 2001 (37.4 percent) -- and a little late season fade was the only thing that stopped him from winning the Cy Young last year. He's incredible.

Archer has a reputation for being an ace even though the results have been pretty average the last two seasons:

  • 2016: 100 ERA+
  • 2017: 101 ERA+

Still, Archer has the potential to be much better than that, and when he's on, he's as good as anyone in baseball. I feel the Sale-Archer matchup has the best chance for a Grade-A pitcher's duel among all Opening Day pitching matchups this year. Eight scoreless innings with double-digit strikeouts for both starters. That sort of thing.

4. Justin Verlander, Astros vs. Cole Hamels, Rangers

After 12 1/2 seasons in Detroit, Verlander is starting his first full season with the Astros, and he's making his 10th career Opening Day start. Only 13 pitchers have more. Now that he's won a World Series, Verlander has nothing left to accomplish in this game. Just continue to pad that Hall of Fame case and win more rings.

This will be Opening Day start No. 4 for Hamels and his second with Texas. I'm curious to see whether he can find all those missing strikeouts from a year ago. Hamels struck out 23.8 percent of batters faced from 2010-16, including 23.6 percent in 2016. In 2017 though, his strikeout rate dipped to 17.1 percent. Hmmm. Feels like just yesterday Verlander and Hamels were hot shot prospects breaking into the big leagues. Now they're grizzled veterans.

5. Luis Severino, Yankees vs. J.A. Happ, Blue Jays

This was a tough one to place. Severino finished third in the AL Cy Young voting last season and is one of the brightest young pitchers in the game. Happ has been reliably excellent in his two years since returning to the Blue Jays, throwing 340 1/3 innings with a 3.33 ERA. And yet, I've never felt compelled to turn on his starts like I am with so many other Opening Day starters. Maybe that's a me problem.

Anyway, yeah, Severino is a stud and Happ has been comfortably above-average the last two years. Can't deny his performance. At one point I had this matchup ranked a few spots lower. I also considered ranking it a spot or two higher. Fifth seems right to me. Ultimately, Severino and Happ are two very good pitchers, and the two offenses are in for a challenge on Thursday.

6. Aaron Nola, Phillies vs. Julio Teheran, Braves

New Phillies manager Gabe Kapler named Nola his Opening Day starter before the Jake Arrieta signing and he stuck to it even after Philadelphia reeled in Arrieta. This will be Nola's first career Opening Day start and he is one of the top up-and-coming young pitchers in baseball. Last season he threw 168 innings with a 3.54 ERA and 184 strikeouts. I'm guessing we'll see Nola a) at the All-Star Game, and b) get Cy Young votes this year.

Teheran is a tough pitcher to gauge. Is he an ace? League average? Something in the middle? None of the above? Look at his five full seasons in the big leagues:

  • 2013: 117 OPS+
  • 2014: 123 OPS+
  • 2015: 95 OPS+
  • 2016: 129 OPS+
  • 2017: 95 OPS+

I guess that means Teheran is due for a 120-something ERA+ season in 2018. This, believe it or not, will be Teheran's fifth straight Opening Day start for the Braves. Only Warren Spahn (10), Phil Niekro (8), and Greg Maddux (7) have started more season openers in franchise history. For real.

7. Ty Blach, Giants vs. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

Had a comebacker not broken Madison Bumgarner's hand last week, the Giants-Dodgers matchup would've ranked atop this list no questions asked. Kershaw, even with his back trouble, remains the best in the business. He'll be in the inner circle of the inner circle of the Hall of Fame, and he is the reason this matchup ranks so high, relatively speaking. This will be Kershaw's eighth consecutive Opening Day start, passing Don Sutton for the longest Opening Day start streak in franchise history.

Blach will not be in the inner circle of the inner circle of the Hall of Fame. Or even the outer circle. He's starting Opening Day because Bumgarner's injury happened late in the spring, and the Giants didn't have enough time to rearrange Johnny Cueto's schedule to give him the Opening Day start. So Blach it is. Here are the lowest strikeout rates by pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the batting title over the last five seasons:

  1. Ty Blach, 2017: 10.6 percent
  2. Mark Buehrle, 2015: 11.0 percent
  3. Mike Pelfrey, 2015: 12.0 percent
  4. Martin Perez, 2016: 12.1 percent
  5. Andrew Cashner, 2017: 12.2 percent

Welp. Now prepare for Blach to throw seven shutout innings and take Kershaw deep on Opening Day. You know it's happening.

8. Jon Gray, Rockies vs. Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks

The pitching matchup I am irrationally excited about. Gray is a beast, and if he weren't stuck pitching his home games in Coors Field, he'd get more attention for being one of the top young starters in the game. He struck out 112 with a 3.67 ERA in 110 1/3 innings around a foot problem last year. A 3.67 ERA at Coors Field with the juiced ball is pretty incredible. This is Gray's second straight Opening Day assignment.

Corbin is a personal favorite. I have a thing for lefties with good strikeout (21.6 percent) and ground ball (50.4 percent) rates. He is finally making his first career Opening Day start after having the 2014 season opener taken away from him by a torn elbow ligament in spring training. Corbin needed Tommy John surgery a few weeks before the season opener that year. Better late than never, I guess.

9. Garrett Richards, Angels vs. Kendall Graveman, Athletics  

This year's sneaky good pitching matchup. Richards can be utterly dominant on his best days and Graveman has emerged as a quietly solid ground ball pitcher. He throws sinker after sinker after sinker. I just wish I could bank on Richards staying healthy. Injuries have limited him to 62 1/3 innings the last two years. But, he'll be healthy for Opening Day, and that's all that matters as far as these rankings are concerned.

10. Max Scherzer, Nationals vs. Homer Bailey, Reds (on Friday)

I suppose this matchup should rank higher seeing how Scherzer has won back-to-back NL Cy Young awards and is on the very short list of the best pitchers in baseball. He's awesome. Bailey ... is not. Tommy John surgery and other lingering injuries have sabotaged his last three seasons, during which Bailey has thrown 125 1/3 innings with a 6.39 ERA. Egad. Hopefully he stays healthy this year and has a strong season after working so hard to overcome injuries the last few years.

11. Jon Lester, Cubs vs. Jose Urena, Marlins

Lester is coming off the second worst full season of his career -- he threw 180 2/3 innings with a 4.33 ERA, which tells you how good he's been throughout his career -- while Urena quietly had a 3.97 ERA in 154 1/3 innings as a starter last season. Still, he's not the type of pitcher fans tune in to watch on Opening Day, no offense to him. This is Urena's first career Opening Day start (duh) and Lester's seventh.

12. Jake Odorizzi, Twins vs. Dylan Bundy, Orioles

The Twins were able to nab Odorizzi from the Rays at a bargain price -- the prospect they surrendered, Jermaine Palacios, doesn't even rank among MLB.com's top 30 Rays prospects -- probably because his numbers have been trending in the wrong direction the last few years, and because he's starting to make real money through arbitration. Bundy had the first full healthy season of his career last year, throwing 169 2/3 innings with a 4.24 ERA. That qualifies as an ace in Baltimore these days. This will be the first Opening Day start for both Odorizzi and Bundy.

13. James Shields, White Sox vs. Danny Duffy, Royals

ChiSox pitching coach Don Cooper has saved many careers over the years, though turning around late career Shields might take a minor miracle. The former Rays workhorse has pitched to a 5.60 ERA in 298 2/3 innings the last two seasons. Hey, rebuilding teams need Opening Day starters too. Duffy, meanwhile, had a little injury scare a few weeks ago, but he'll be good to go for the season opener. It will be his second Opening Day start and the eighth -- eighth! -- for Shields.

14. Ivan Nova, Pirates vs. Jordan Zimmermann, Tigers (on Friday)

Zimmermann said he felt better this spring than he has in years, and the Tigers sure hope that is the case, because he had a 5.60 ERA the last two years and there's still $74 million remaining on his contract. He is the first pitcher not named Verlander to start Opening Day for the Tigers since ... David Price in 2015. Not that long ago. Zimmermann is the first right-handed pitcher not named Verlander to start Opening Day for the Tigers since Jeremy Bonderman in 2007. There you go. The perfectly cromulent Nova gets the first Opening Day start in the post-Gerrit Cole era for the Pirates.

15. Chase Anderson, Brewers vs. Clayton Richard, Padres

One Opening Day pitching matchup has to rank last, and this year it's Anderson-Richard. Anderson had a good year last season though. He threw 141 1/3 innings with a 2.74 ERA. He'll be the fifth Opening Day starter in the last five years for the Brew Crew. Richard led the league in losses (15), hits allowed (240), and batters faced (858) last year. Hey, someone has to start Opening Day. Richards is San Diego's sixth different Opening Day starter in the last six years.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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