Ultimate opening day starters: Ranking all 30 MLB teams' all-time ace

Mark TownsendYahoo Sports Contributor
Yahoo Sports

March 26 has arrived.   

Baseball, unfortunately, has not. 

The coronavirus pandemic has forced Major League Baseball to delay opening day until mid-May at the earliest, meaning the pomp, circumstance and season-opening traditions we all love have been put on hold. 

One of our favorite traditions here at Yahoo Sports is the annual ranking of the current season’s opening day starting pitchers. That should be what we’re presenting to you right now. Since that’s not possible, we’ve decided to improvise and rank the best pitcher in each franchise’s history as if he were the ultimate opening day starter.

The only requirements being that the selected pitcher must have made at least one opening day start with the team he’s representing, and the pitcher must come from the current incarnation of each franchise. For example: Pitchers from New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers are considered since the franchise moved but didn’t rebrand. The Washington Senators and Montreal Expos, on the other hand, no longer exist. Sorry, folks. 

With those perimeters in place, here are the ultimate opening day starting pitcher rankings.

1. Christy Mathewson - San Francisco Giants

The Giants have a rich pitching history going back to their New York days. Despite that, the choice here is easy. Though Mathewson benefited from playing in the dead-ball era, the numbers are still incredible. Mathewson ranks third all-time in wins (373) and shutouts (79), while ranking ninth in career ERA (2.13).  

Opening day starts: 3 

Best opening day start: Mathewson went the distance in 1904, allowing one run on three hits in a win against the Brooklyn Superbas.   

2. Pedro Martínez - Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox might have the best 1-2 punch with Pedro Martínez and Cy Young. Yes, that's the same Cy Young with a prestigious pitching award named after him. Martínez gets the nod because he dominated during an era in which PEDs were allegedly running rampant.  

Starts: 8 (Red Sox 7, Mets 1)

Best: In 2000, he bested Mariners left-hander Jamie Moyer by tossing seven scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts

3. Sandy Koufax - Los Angeles Dodgers

Sandy Koufax introduced the Dodgers to Los Angeles with one of the most accomplished pitching runs in baseball history. (Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images)
Sandy Koufax introduced the Dodgers to Los Angeles with one of the most accomplished pitching runs in baseball history. (Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

Koufax’s 12-year career bridged the Dodgers' time in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. He was at his best in L.A., earning All-Star selections in each of his final six seasons. During those final six years, he won three Cy Young awards, an MVP, 129 games, while posting a collective 2.19 ERA and 1,713 strikeouts over 1,632 ⅔ innings. 

Starts: 1

Best: In what was surprisingly his only opening day start, Koufax not so surprisingly pitched a five-hit shutout against Ernie Broglio and the St. Louis Cardinals

4. Bob Feller - Cleveland Indians

On April 16, 1940, Feller pitched the first and only opening day no-hitter against the White Sox. He later missed nearly four full seasons serving his country in World War II. When he returned, he resumed his dominance, securing his spot as one of baseball’s most most respected pitchers and a Hall of Famer.  

Starts: 7

Best: No-hitter aside, Feller tossed opening-day shutouts in 1946 and 1948. In 1939, he struck out 10 in a complete game win against the Tigers

5. Bob Gibson - St. Louis Cardinals 

Gibson was a dominant force throughout the 60s and early 70s, earning two Cy Young awards, two World Series MVPs, nine All-Star selections and nine Gold Gloves. In 1968, he had what might be the best season ever for a pitcher, posting a 1.12 ERA in 304 ⅔ innings. 

Starts: 10

Best: In 1967, Gibson pitched a five-hit shutout against the Giants. Willie Mays and Willie McCovey went a combined 0-for-8 with four strikeouts. 

6. Greg Maddux - Atlanta Braves

Maddux was the consummate pitcher. He didn’t intimidate batters. He certainly did not overpower them. Instead, Maddux used pinpoint control and a variety of pitches and speeds to keep batters off balance. Maddux rode those talents to four National League Cy Young awards and a Hall of Fame induction.

Starts: 9 (Braves 7, Cubs 2)    

Best: In 1994, an efficient Maddux held the Padres scoreless over eight innings in a 4-1 win

7. Tom Seaver - New York Mets

Tom Terrific posted a 2.48 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 2,530 strikeouts during his initial 11-season run in New York. He earned Rookie of the Year honors, 10 All-Star selections and three National League Cy Young awards. He would pitch another nine seasons with the Reds, White Sox and Red Sox before landing in Cooperstown. 

Starts: 16 (Mets 11, Reds 3, White Sox 2) 

Best: In 1975, he struck out nine and allowed one run in a 2-1 win against Steve Carlton’s Phillies. Three of those strikeouts were against fellow Hall of Famer Mike Schimdt. 

[Past and present MLB stars recall their favorite opening day memories]

8. Randy Johnson - Arizona Diamondbacks

The Big Unit is arguably the best pitcher in Mariners history as well. Seattle is where Johnson made his name and won the most games (130). In 1995, he won the first of his five Cy Young awards with the Mariners and may have even saved baseball in Seattle. However, Johnson won four Cy Young awards and a World Series championship with Arizona. 

Starts: 14 (D-backs 6, Mariners 6, Yankees 2)

Best: In 2002, he pitched a six-hit shutout as Arizona topped the Padres, 2-0.

9. Steve Carlton - Philadelphia Phillies

Carlton won 27 games for a 59-win Phillies team in 1972. Fittingly, he was a hero eight seasons later when they won the World Series. Carlton was a five-time strikeout champion and currently sits fourth on the all-time strikeout list. Oh, and he was MLB's first four-time Cy Young winner. 

Starts: 14

Best: In 1984, a 39-year-old Carlton struck out six and allowed two hits over scoreless seven innings against the Braves. The Phillies won 5-0

10. Whitey Ford - New York Yankees

Ford did it all in 16 seasons with the Yankees. He was a six-time World Series champion. He won the AL Cy Young in 1961. He led the AL in ERA and innings pitched twice each. He also holds the record for most consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series with 33.

Starts: 9

Best: Ford pitched complete games in 1955 and 1957, allowing one run in each. Despite losing, his most impressive may have come In 1964. Ford allowed four runs in 11 ⅔ innings against the Red Sox. 

11. Nolan Ryan - Texas Rangers

Strikeout master Nolan Ryan notched three opening day starts for three different franchises. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Strikeout master Nolan Ryan notched three opening day starts for three different franchises. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The Ryan Express went from New York to California to Texas over its 27 seasons in service. While Ryan’s best seasons actually came in L.A., the Rangers are represented on his Hall of Fame plaque. We’ll honor that here. After all, he did win his 300th game as a Ranger. He pitched the last of his seven no-hitters there. And he made Robin Ventura famous, too. 

Starts: 9 (Rangers 3, Astros 3, Angels 3)

Best: That actually came with the Angels in 1973. Ryan struck out 12 and allowed two runs in a complete game win against the Royals.

12. Jim Palmer - Baltimore Orioles

Palmer led the Orioles to six World Series appearances and three championships during his 19-year career. He was an eight-time 20-game winner at a time when wins mattered a little bit. The Hall of Famer also did underwear commercials in his spare time.  

Starts: 6

Best: In 1975, the Orioles scored 10 runs on opening day. Palmer only needed one after shutting out the Tigers on three hits

13. Fergie Jenkins - Chicago Cubs

Jenkins was the Cubs ace during some lean years in the 1970s. That didn't stop him from winning the Cy Young award in 1971 and reaching 20 wins in six different seasons with Chicago. Like Greg Maddux, Jenkins succeeded with his excellent command and ability to keep batters guessing. 

Starts: 11 (Cubs 7, Red Sox 2, Rangers 1, A’s 1)

Best: In 1971, Jenkins pitched 10 innings of one-run ball to top Bob Gibson and the Cardinals, 2-1. 

14. Roy Halladay - Toronto Blue Jays

Halladay anchored the Jays rotation for 12 seasons while developing into a Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher. Halladay won the AL Cy Young in 2003, before winning the NL version with the Phillies in 2010. More importantly, he left a lasting legacy in both cities. 

Starts: 10 (Blue Jays 7, Phillies 3)

Best: It happened with the Phillies in 2012. Halladay held the Pirates to two hits over eight scoreless in a 2-0 win.    

15. Justin Verlander - Detroit Tigers

Detroit has some interesting candidates, ranging from Hal Newhouser to Denny McLain to Jack Morris. We can’t forget Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, either. But Verlander was arguably the best pitcher in baseball from 2010-2012. Though he's now in Houston, he's still bringing it 10 years later. 

Starts: 11 (Tigers 9, Astros 2)

Best: In 2012, Verlander limited a loaded Red Sox lineup to two hits over eight scoreless innings. He struck out seven

16. Jim “Catfish” Hunter - Oakland Athletics 

The Hall of Famer has a long list of accolades. Most of those came during 10 seasons with the A’s, but his brilliance continued for five more seasons with the Yankees. Hunter pitched a perfect game in 1968, won the Cy Young in 1974, was selected to eight All-Star games and appeared in five World Series. 

Starts: 6 (A’s 4, Yankees 2)

Best: It happened with the Yankees in 1977. Hunter pitched scoreless innings against the Brewers lineup that included Paul Molitor and Robin Yount.  

17. Max Scherzer - Washington Nationals

Now a World Series champion, Max Scherzer likely has at least one more opening day start ahead of him. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Now a World Series champion, Max Scherzer likely has at least one more opening day start ahead of him. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

The Expos had some good pitchers during their time, but they never had a Max Scherzer. Since joining the Nationals in 2015, Scherzer has won his second and third Cy Young awards, posted a 2.74 ERA, racked up 1,371 strikeouts and won a World Series. That’s pretty, pretty good.

Starts: 4 

Best: In 2018, Scherzer struck out 10 Reds over six scoreless innings. Washington won 2-0

18. Bucky Walters - Cincinnati Reds

Many believe Walters belongs in the Hall of Fame. He won an MVP award and the pitching triple crown in 1939. He made six All-Star teams, five of which came with the Reds. 

Starts: 4

Best: Walters had tough luck on opening day, pitching two complete games in losing efforts. In 1944, he allowed three runs and struck out three against the Cubs

19. Bert Blyleven - Minnesota Twins

In his 22 seasons, Blyleven pitched for five teams. He started on opening day at least once for each. Half of his Hall of Fame career was spent in Minnesota. He amassed 2,035 strikeouts during that time, which helped him reach fifth on the all-time list.  

Starts: 12 (Twins 6, Pirates 2, Indians 2, Rangers 1, Angels 1) 

Best: In 1976, Blyleven took a tough no-decision despite pitching nine innings of one-run ball in Texas. The Rangers won 2-1 in 11 innings. 

20. Félix Hernández - Seattle Mariners

King Félix owned Seattle for nearly 15 years. He won a Cy Young award in 2010. He pitched a perfect game. He did everything there except for pitch in a postseason game. 

Starts: 11 

Best: In 2007, Hernández dominated the A’s, pitching eight scoreless while striking out 12 in his first opening day assignment. 

21. Babe Adams - Pittsburgh Pirates

Known for his impeccable control, Adams averaged 24 walks per season in 18 years for the Pirates. Of his 353 starts for Pittsburgh, 205 were complete games. Of those, 44 were shutouts. That’s good.  

Starts: 6

Best: In 1911, Adams pitched a complete game shutout and scored two runs in a 14-0 win against the Reds.  

22. Ted Lyons - Chicago White Sox

Lyons, Mark Buehrle, Ed Walsh, Billy Pierce and even Chris Sale all deserve consideration. Lyons did it the longest, lasting 21 seasons (1923-1946) despite missing three seasons for military service. He did it the best, too, racking up 356 complete games in 484 starts.  

Starts:

Best: In 1926, Lyons pitched all nine against the St. Louis Browns, holding them to one run while striking out five. 

23. Roy Oswalt - Houston Astros

Roy Oswalt was the mainstay for the Astros in the 2000s, making eight opening day starts. (Photo by Aaron M. Sprecher/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)
Roy Oswalt was the mainstay for the Astros in the 2000s, making eight opening day starts. (Photo by Aaron M. Sprecher/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)

Oswalt was a steady hand for 10 seasons in Houston, posting a 3.24 ERA. His biggest moment was Game 6 of the 2005 NLCS when he helped Houston clinch its first and only NL pennant.

Starts: 8

Best: In 2006, Oswalt dueled with Dontrelle Willis in the Astros’ 1-0 win, He struck out eight over eight innings of five-hit ball. 

24. Bret Saberhagen - Kansas City Royals

Saberhagen pitched in 252 games for the Royals over eight seasons, racking up 1,093 strikeouts. He won the Cy Young award in 1985 and 1989. Most importantly to Royals fans, he was the MVP of the 1985 World Series. 

Starts: 3

Best: In 1991, Saberhagen allowed two runs (one earned) in seven innings against the Indians. He struck out five in Kansas City’s 4-2 win

25. Chuck Finley - Los Angeles Angels

The 6-foot-6 left-hander spent 14 seasons in L.A. He's the franchise's all-time leader in wins (165) and innings pitched (2,675), and is second only to Nolan Ryan in strikeouts (2,151). He’s also the only pitcher with multiple four-strikeout innings in MLB history.  

Starts: 4

Best: In 1991, Finley pitched 7 ⅓ innings of two-run ball in a 3-2 win against Seattle

26. David Price - Tampa Bay Rays

Fun fact: Price started three straight opening days for three teams between 2014-2016. Price hit his stride in 2010, finishing second in the AL Cy Young voting. Two years later, he became the Rays’ first Cy Young winner after posting a league-best 20 wins and 2.56 ERA. 

Starts: 5 (Rays 3, Tigers 1, Red Sox 1)

Best: That came during his brief stint in Detroit. In 2015, Price pitched 8 ⅔  scoreless innings in a win against the Twins. 

27. Jake Peavy - San Diego Padres

If we needed a closer, we’d know exactly who to call here. As for an opening day starter, we give Jake Peavy the slight nod over Randy Jones. With the Padres, Peavy won two ERA titles, a pitching triple crown and the Cy Young award in 2007.  

Starts: 4

Best: In 2008, Peavy silenced the Astros with seven scoreless innings in a 4-0 win

28. José Fernández - Miami Marlins

When Fernández died in a boating accident on Sept. 25, 2016, he was already a superstar despite being only 24 years old. In 76 starts, he compiled a 2.58 ERA while striking out 11.2 batters per nine innings. In 2016, his 12.5 K/9 led baseball. The Marlins have had some really good pitchers. Fernández was going to be great. 

Best: His only opening day start was a gem. In 2014, Fernández fanned nine Rockies over six innings of one-run ball. Miami won 10-1.

29. Teddy Higuera - Milwaukee Brewers

From 1985-1988, Higuera was among the best pitchers in MLB. During that stretch he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting and second in the Cy Young award voting respectively. He also pitched 10 shutouts while posting a 3.25 ERA.   

Starts: 3

Best: In 1988, Higuera started the Orioles on their way to a season-opening 21-game losing streak with seven scoreless innings

30. Ubaldo Jiménez - Colorado Rockies

Ubaldo Jiménez pitched the franchise’s only no-hitter back in 2010 and was selected to start that season's All-Star game. Given the thin options, those achievements alone earn him the nod. 

Starts: 2

Best: Jiménez started his 2010 season with a gem in Milwaukee, limiting the Brewers to one run over six innings. He struck out six in a 5-3 win

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