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Player Review: Camilo Doval

He might’ve been the most important player on the team...

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San Francisco Giants v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Andy Kuno/San Francisco Giants/Getty Images

2023 stats: 69 G, 6-6, 39/47 SV, 67.2 IP, 2.93 ERA, 2.77 FIP, 87 K, 26 BB, 1.9 fWAR

Notable: Four consecutive blown saves. Something no Giants closer had done before.

What can you say about the closer who was everything for the San Francisco Giants? A stalwart. A star. Young. Pre-arbitration.

Camilo Doval’s 2023 kicked off with a strong showing the World Baseball Classic...

... and despite some concerns about his ability to adapt to the pitch clock which seemed to be supported by a rocky start to the regular season of Major League Baseball (1-2 with a blown save and 7 runs allowed — 4 earned — in 11 April innings), Doval really locked it down once the calendar flipped to May.

That’s the moment the season turned around for the Giants, too. They went 35-20 over their next two months following an 11-16 start to the season — was Doval’s performance a part of that turnaround or was he alone the reason for it?

A few days ago, Jeff Passan tweeted out Josh Hader’s free agency video for which he got Trevor Hoffman to do voiceover.

Here’s a transcript:

As a closer, we’re given the most important opportunity for our team: finish the game and secure the victory.

The greatest closers in baseball are wired differently. Our heart rate stays level when the crowd noise decibels are booming. Our adrenaline pumps only when we need that extra edge.

The game’s greatest closers? You don’t need to see the back of their jersey to know the name. Their presence is steady. their presence is dominating. their presence is defining.

Our existence isn’t defined by analytics or matchups. We strike fear in opposing lineups when we begin our jog out from the bullpen.

Josh Hader defines the modern closer with his style, stuff, and toughness. He’s been an all-star five times in seven years. He’s the all-time major league leader in K per 9. He’s the all-time major league leader in opponents’ batting average. He’s quite literally the hardest pitcher to hit in Baseball history.

There’s a reason he’s won my award three times. On behalf of all closers who have come before us, we pass the torch to the next generation of greatness.

Now, at no point this season was Camilo Doval actually better than Josh Hader, but for most of the season he pitched like part of the next generation of greatness. His 26-save first half (41 IP) earned him a spot on the All-Star team. He ended last season as the best reliever in the NL and didn’t disappoint in that regard throughout most of this season.

Role on this year’s team

He was Mr. Game Over. The Spanish language broadcasting team gave him the nickname Tranquilo because of how calm he appears on the mound even as he buzzes 100+ mph pitches by opponents, and that certainly fits his mound persona, but from a performance standpoint, he’s the reason the Giants went 35-20 across May & June.

In 27 innings, he allowed just 5 runs (4 earned) and struck out 38 against 11 walks. His 21 saves were the most in MLB over this two-month stretch as well — and I was wrong! He was a little bit better than Josh Hader during this stretch: Doval had a 1.33 ERA to Hader’s 1.62.

At the time of his All-Star selection:

Through 82 games this season, Doval has been one of the top 15 relievers in baseball (1.0 fWAR) and leads the National League in saves with 24. It’s also true that his cutter mph average of 100.2 leads all pitchers in that category. His 1.89 ERA / 2.91 FIP with a 1.05 WHIP and 12.6 K/9 are better than his final line from last season, too: 2.53 ERA / 2.98 FIP with a 1.24 WHIP and 10.6 K/9.

The formula was pretty simple for a while there: get the ball to Doval and the Giants would get the win. Maybe this certainty is what led to the team selecting him to be their player representative in the ill-fated ad for their new jersey patch for autonomous vehicle company Cruise.

He was on such a hot streak that it soon became apparent that we needed to consider already whether or not he was the best closer in team history.

And then the rest of the season happened.

I wrote back in September how he slumped at the worst time:

There’s some defensible stuff in all this, of course. The team went 8-1 in his August appearances despite the blown saves. They’re 5-2 in his September, and one of those losses (not to his record, but attached to his appearance) was just because he needed the work because he’d missed out on game action for so long.

But for three months he was as automatic as any pitcher could be, and his incredible performance coincided with the best run of baseball from the 2023 Giants. From May 2nd through July 31, he had a 2.37 ERA (2.37 FIP) in 38 IP with a 52-10 K-BB. He was not the best closer in baseball (Felix Bautista of the Orioles and Tanner Scott of the Marlins were better), but he was the closing line of a beautifully written bullpen, which was the absolute best bullpen in Major League Baseball and the strongest part of the team.

Those four consecutive blown saves he had back in August had exigent circumstances that led to them, of course, but it seems clear in retrospect that as carefully as the Giants tried to use him, the competitive usage at the top of the calendar with the WBC through the All-Star Game and festivities, extending to usage in three consecutive days to close out July added up to a pitcher faltering down the stretch. We saw wild pitches, “Meltdowns,” diminished velocity and troubling indicators from his slider.

Doval proved this season that he’s not just some reliever. Not even just some elite closer. He’s the pitcher. Maybe a pitcher more important to the Giants than any of us realized. Was his slump the reason why the team fell apart over the final two months or did Doval slump because the team fell apart over the final two months? A real cutter and the egg.

WBC, All-Star, team spokesperson, elite closer — it was quite a season for Camilo Doval.

Role on next year’s team

It’s a little funny to suggest that he’ll need to take another step forward if the Giants plan to go anywhere next season, but that’s exactly the case. No WBC will give him as much rest as that arm needs, but even if his elbow has calmed down after all that usage — and, to be clear, I’m flagging the slider usage and effectiveness as a sign that his health impacted performance down the stretch — figuring out a way to improve that two-seamer will be important.

If the team manages to luck its way into improving itself (either through free agency, trades, or just developmental improvement), then they’ll go as far as Camilo Doval takes them.