Thursday, May 26, 2022

2022 MLB Opening Day pitching matchup rankings: Who takes No. 1 spot as aces open the season?

The 2022 MLB regular season is upon us. Despite the owner-imposed lockout necessitating a delayed start to the season, MLB will play a full 162 games this year, and we’ve got a new 12-team postseason format as well. 

Each year Opening Day brings a ton of quality pitching matchups. The 30 clubs start 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 are based on three factors:

  1. Pitcher Quality. The better the pitchers the better the matchup, right? Right.
  2. Storylines. Is someone making their first start with a new team? Facing his former team? Coming back from injury?
  3. Watchability. The most subjective factor. How fun is it to watch these guys pitch?

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The short spring training means most pitchers are not stretched out beyond 70 pitches or so, meaning these Opening Day pitching matchups will be shorter than usual. That’s a bummer, but what can you do? Here are our 2022 Opening Day pitching matchup rankings. There are four Cy Young awards and one MVP award among this year’s Opening Day starters. 

1. Framber Valdez, Astros vs. Shohei Ohtani, Angels

Once it was announced Valdez, not Justin Verlander, would start open day for the Astros, I assumed this matchup would slide down the rankings a bit. But no, after giving it a good short think, this is still the pitching matchup I most want to see on Opening Day.

The star is Ohtani, clearly. The reigning AL MVP had a 3.18 ERA with 156 strikeouts in 130 1/3 innings last season, and that was on top of the 46 home runs he hit. When Ohtani is on, he can be as dominant as anyone in the game, and I’m perfectly fine giving this ranking a little boost because we’ll get to see Ohtani at the plate too (with the new Shohei Ohtani Rule in effect).

Valdez is both very good (3.14 ERA in 134 2/3 innings in 2021) and highly watchable. His high-spin curveball bends in ways other curveballs do not, and both his sinker and changeup have tremendous run to his arm-side. In terms of pure watchability, Ohtani and Valdez are two of the most fun pitchers in the sport, so they top my ranking.

2. Sandy Alcantara, Marlins vs. Logan Webb, Giants

There are bigger names ranked lower on this list, no doubt, but Alcantara and Webb are two of the best young pitchers in the game and worthy of your attention. Webb jumped into the spotlight last postseason (14 2/3 IP, 9 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 17 K) and is poised to make the jump to ace-hood in 2022. Alcantara has a nearly unmatched power arsenal. I present to you his 95-mph changeup:

For me, Alcantara vs. Webb is appointment viewing. Two of the best, most enjoyable 20-somethings in the game today.

3. Nathan Eovaldi, Red Sox vs. Gerrit Cole, Yankees

This is a rematch of last year’s AL Wild Card Game, in which Cole didn’t make it out of the third inning and Eovaldi earned the win. There’s the historic rivalry, of course, plus Eovaldi and Cole are just really good. Two really good pitchers and a big-time rivalry with recent history makes for a good viewing experience. The smart money is on these two having the highest combined average fastball velocity on Opening Day.

4. Corbin Burnes, Brewers vs. Kyle Hendricks, Cubs

Here is the “there’s more than one way to succeed in baseball” pitching matchup. Burnes, the reigning NL Cy Young winner, throws everything hard and overwhelms hitters. Hendricks is the game’s preeminent soft-tosser, and I mean that affectionately. The game can be stale when everyone is throwing 95+. Hendricks provides variety and lulls hitters to sleep with his upper-80s sinker and dead fish changeup. A matchup of contrasts, these two.

5. Robbie Ray, Mariners vs. Joe Ryan, Twins

It’s the reigning AL Cy Young winner with his new team and a kid with five career big league starts. Ryan came over in the Nelson Cruz trade and was surprisingly given the Opening Day assignment. He will be the first pitcher since Jose Guzman with the 1986 Rangers to make an Opening Day start within his first six career starts. The Twins really believe in Ryan. Fun storylines in this one. The Cy Young winner is debuting with his new club and a rookie’s starting on the other side. Neat.

6. Shane Bieber, Guardians vs. Zack Greinke, Royals

I’m a sucker for players returning to their original team for a farewell season, so Greinke’s return to Kansas City is right up my alley. He’s no longer the pitcher he was in his prime (or even two years ago), but his craftiness makes him an enjoyable watch, as does knowing you’re watching a possible Hall of Famer. Bieber missed much of last season with shoulder problems and has looked very good in camp. I have no rooting interest, though I’d love to see a Greinke resurgence.

7. RHP Walker Buehler, Dodgers vs. Kyle Freeland, Rockies

Freeland has been unable to repeat this 2018 season, which was one of the best pitching seasons in Rockies history and earned him a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young voting. He’s been rock solid the last two years though, and he’s a bit unconventional as a weak-contact guy rather than a high-strikeout guy. Buehler is simply one of the best pitchers in baseball and on the short list of NL Cy Young candidates. Coors Field threatens to turn Opening Day in a tough one for the two starters. 

8. Frankie Montas, Athletics vs. Aaron Nola, Phillies

Montas is the last Athletic standing. Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea (and Matt Chapman and Matt Olson) have been traded away, and it feels like only a matter of time until Montas moves too. For now, he’s still with Oakland and their obvious Opening Day starter. Nola is starting in place of NL Cy Young runner-up Zack Wheeler, who’s been slowed in spring training by a shoulder issue. This is kinda sorta a matchup of Plan Bs. Nola is starting in place of Wheeler and Montas is starting because the A’s traded everyone else.

9. Yu Darvish, Padres vs. Madison Bumgarner, Diamondbacks

A few years ago this pitching matchup would have topped the rankings. Darvish had a substandard 2021 season though, and Bumgarner is into his decline phase. That takes some of the shine off this matchup. Decent chance I’m ranking Darvish vs. Bumgarner too low and these former All-Stars and Cy Young contenders wow in the season opener.

10. Jon Gray, Rangers vs. José Berríos, Blue Jays

I’m looking forward to seeing what Gray can do at sea level. Coors Field has held back a pitcher with pretty lively stuff, so even though he’s already 30 and has 151 big-league starts under his belt, Gray still has untapped potential. Berríos signed a contract extension prior to the lockout and, at 27, is about to enter what should be the best seasons of his career. Toronto has a track record of getting pitchers to level up (see: Ray, Robbie) and Berríos could be next.

11. Lucas Giolito, White Sox vs. Eduardo Rodriguez, Tigers

Two rock solid major-league pitchers, including one debuting with his new team. It’s also the reigning AL Central champs against an up-and-coming team hoping to make a run at the division crown. Good matchup. No further notes.

12. Tyler Mahle, Reds vs. Max Fried, Braves

I’m a Mahle fan and think whichever team trades for him (he’s not guaranteed to be traded the way Montas is, but come on, look at how the Reds behaved this offseason) is going to get a pitcher who still has another level in his game. Fried did something no other pitcher did in 2021: he won the World Series clincher, and that’s pretty cool. 

13. John Means, Orioles vs. Shane McClanahan, Rays

McClanahan is the model Rays pitcher as an analytics dude with excellent pitch traits (velocity, spin, approach angle, etc.). He is the hardest-throwing lefty starter in the sport. Means is a changeup master who should benefit greatly from the new large left field at Camden Yards, though this game will be played at Tropicana Field. This has a chance to be a sneaky-good duel. 

14. JT Brubaker, Pirates vs. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals

The rules say someone has to start on Opening Day and that someone is Brubaker for the Pirates. He has some interesting pitch characteristics and I commend the Pirates for not taking the easy way out and giving the ball to veteran José Quintana. Wainwright is making the Opening Day start in his farewell season, which, honestly, is about the only thing notable about this matchup.

15. Tylor Megill, Mets vs. Patrick Corbin, Nationals

Jacob deGrom is injured and Max Scherzer is on track to start Friday because of a hamstring issue. So the Mets have been forced to go with Megill, the most unlikely Opening Day starter of the bunch. That said, the weather forecast indicates Thursday may be rained out, in which case Scherzer would start the new Opening Day on Friday.

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