Opening Day is nominally for aces, though not every team has the luxury of putting a true No. 1 on the mound for Game 1—looking at you, San Diego and Jhoulys Chacin. But the first two days of the season did give fans an early look at four pitchers who should be in the thick of what should be a massively entertaining year-long National League Cy Young race—one featuring a three-time winner, one of the best postseason pitchers of all time, and two 25-and-under flamethrowers. It’s too soon to speculate on which of these star pitchers will end up as the year’s best, but on Sunday and Monday, at least, these aces looked awards-worthy.
The Favorite: Clayton Kershaw
Before diving into Kershaw’s 2017 debut, it’s worth noting that it came against a Padres lineup that looked more like a Triple A squad than a real major league team. But with that sizable pinch of salt accounted for, the Dodgers’ lefty was still mighty impressive in his first turn of the season. Over seven effortless innings, Kershaw limited the punchless Padres to two runs (one earned), striking out eight and at one point retiring 19 straight hitters.
Needing just 83 pitches to slice and dice the Padres over his seven frames (he was pulled with the Dodgers comfortably ahead, 14–2), Kershaw flashed his usual stuff against San Diego: hard fastballs, darting sliders and looping, dancing curveballs. The latter in particular was lethal, finishing three of Kershaw’s eight punchouts.
Just as important as the win for the Dodgers, though, was the fact that Kershaw got through the start with zero problems. Despite the notable depth the team has assembled in its rotation, Los Angeles needs its ace lefty healthy and hale to contend for a World Series. And while the next 30 or so starts won’t be as easy as Monday’s, Kershaw already looks to have the form back to break his two-year Cy Young drought.
The Top Contender: Noah Syndergaard
I could use a lot of words to talk about Syndergaard’s terrific 2017 debut against the Braves, or I could just give you some screenshots of how a bunch of professional hitters looked in their at-bats against him on Monday.
(You’ll notice a lot of these flails come courtesy Matt Kemp. That’s because the real Kemp died sometime in 2015 and was secretly replaced by an arthritic version of Rob Deer.)
Syndergaard’s stuff against Atlanta was awe-inspiring: a fastball that averaged 99 mph; a changeup that sat at 89 mph and got five swings and misses on just 11 offerings; a slider that repeatedly turned Kemp and the rest of the Braves’ lineup into dust. The final product: six shutout innings, seven strikeouts, and 13 swings and misses on Syndergaard’s 86 pitches—and had it not been for a blister that caused him to be pulled early, he likely would’ve gone further.
All the pieces are there for Syndergaard to dethrone reigning NL Cy Young Max Scherzer and steal the award out from under Kershaw. He showed off why he’s been such a popular pick with Monday’s virtuoso performance.
Next Man Up: Madison Bumgarner
All of the focus on Bumgarner’s season debut was on the pair of prodigious home runs he hit against the Diamondbacks, both no-doubters. That may have overshadowed his strong turn on the mound—five perfect innings to start and 11 punchouts over seven innings all told (albeit with three runs allowed)—and while the power display at the plate won’t make Bumgarner any better of a Cy Young candidate, here’s the thing: It can’t hurt. For as good as he is and as memorable as his 2015 postseason run was, Bumgarner doesn’t showcase the same kind of smooth, effortless dominance that Kershaw does. The latter cuts through lineups with a hook and a hitch; the former is a herky-jerky tangle of long limbs, a thick beard and a sweeping, violent slider. Nor does Bumgarner produce the same kind of eye-popping numbers (or GIFs) that Syndergaard can. His power is his calling card, and it’s the kind of attribute that will hopefully help bring deserved attention to his perennially excellent pitching.
Bumgarner won’t go deep every time out (unless opposing pitchers commit to a questionable “throw him nothing but fastballs at the belt or letters every single time” approach). But he is now one of the rare pitchers whom you stop to watch at the plate and on the mound. He’s as intriguing a name as exists in the Cy Young conversation, as Sunday’s two-way display proved.
The Dark Horse: Carlos Martinez
Given the toughest assignment of any starter on Opening Day, Martinez excelled, shutting out the mighty Cubs over 7 1/3 spotless innings and striking out 10. Martinez had everything working: a fastball hovering at 95 and touching 99; a changeup that seemed to vanish under Chicago’s bats; a slider that produced eight swings and misses on 24 pitches. That was the theme of the night: Martinez got a staggering 21 whiffs on his 105 offerings on the night, and it felt like he racked up twice that many.
Martinez’s raw stuff is right there with Syndergaard’s, and when he’s on, he can match Kershaw in terms of choking the life out of a lineup. But the 25-year-old righty has had trouble being consistent from outing to outing, and while last year’s results were overall excellent (a 3.04 ERA, 135 ERA+ and 8.0 strikeouts per nine in 195 1/3 innings), he didn’t get past the sixth inning in 16 of his 31 starts thanks to high pitch counts and poor control. With Alex Reyes out for the year, Adam Wainwright getting older and Michael Wacha still an enigma, the Cardinals more than ever need Martinez to be an ace if they want to contend.
St. Louis clearly thinks Martinez is capable of being that true No. 1: Over the off-season, the club gave him a five-year, $51 million extension that includes a pair of options for 2022 and ’23. Sunday night made that look already like a very smart investment and announced that 2017 may be a special year for him.