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Camilo Doval slumped at the worst time

The Giants are trying to climb out of the toilet, but their All-Star closer can’t stop flushing.

San Francisco Giants v Colorado Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Closers aren’t perfectly and they often slump. Their gimmick is being The Final Boss. Well, sometimes, The Final Boss loses. Camilo Doval has been an incredible pitcher for most of his San Francisco Giants tenure. An All-Star this season, it looked like he was on his way to cementing his status as the greatest closer in franchise history — just in his third season!

Alas. It was not meant to be. At least, not this year.

Legacy isn’t important three seasons into a pro career anyway, so that’s mostly fan talk, I think; but from a performance standpoint, his August was the worst fears of April realized. Do you remember how shaky he looked in that first month? A 3.27 ERA (3.35 FIP) in 11 IP, a pair of losses, a blown save, pitch clock violations. Oh, but we had it good!

August was the biggest test of the season for the franchise and they failed miserably. 12-15, including a two-game sweep at the hands of the A’s and a series loss against the Angels. Camilo Doval, the team’s All-Star closer who was awarded the win at this year’s All-Star Game in Seattle, famously blew four consecutive saves.

The Giants won the first two in that quartet, and a week passed between BS1 and BS2, but still — for a guy who was on his way to being the best closer in franchise history, he terminated his case: A 5.40 ERA (4.58 FIP) in 8.1 IP, the four blown saves (paired with four saves). And it hasn’t been much better here into September. In 6.2 IP, a 4.05 ERA (2.81 FIP) with a blown save that became a loss.

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.

For most of the season he was on his way to surpassing his phenomenal 2022 season, but now it’s looking like he’s on track to be about as good as he was in 2021 — still good, just not quite the heights he’d reached for the half the season, which is where the Giants had counted on him to remain.

Inspecting the hows and whys of all this is limited by the available information. Based on all the public-facing information, it’s not injury or overuse. While he’s on pace to set a new innings pitched total, his usage pattern has been pretty consistent, with the only real red flag being end of July/beginning of August, when he pitched in three consecutive games (July 29-31) and then in back-to-back games August 2nd and 3rd.

I note on Statcast that his cutter’s average velocity through July 31st was 100.1 mph. Since August 1st, it’s 99.2 mph. To me, that’s a distinction without a difference (especially since it’s 56 cutters thrown vs. 26). So, is there something going on or is this really just an extended reliever slump?

His 10 wild pitches on the season concern me. That ranks 8th in Major League Baseball, behind 7 starting pitchers. Still, only two of them have come since August 1st (both in the last 10 days). 7 of them came during his most successful stretch of the season. So, I guess I shouldn’t be concerned at all.

Then there’s this stat on FanGraphs called Meltdowns:

Shutdowns (SD) and Meltdowns (MD) are counting statistics for relievers that credit pitchers for their impact on their team’s chance of winning and are based on Win Probability Added (WPA). If a reliever records a WPA above 0.06 in a game, they earn a Shutdown. If a reliever records a WPA below -0.06, they earn a Meltdown. [...] more useful than saves because they are directly tied to the team’s odds of winning a game, and because they allow you to measure all relievers, not simply pitchers who are called upon to pitch in “save situations.”

On the season, Doval has just 12 meltdowns. Remember, though, he was unbelievably good for three months of the season, so it’s hardly surprising. Since August 1st, though, he was 5 meltdowns, ranked 25th-most in MLB (that’s bad). He’s had just 6 shutdowns, which you can chalk up to having fewer opportunities given the state of the lineup, but you see how his negative performance has all but erased his positive performance over the past six weeks.

Then you check out pitchers ahead of him and it gets a little nerve-wracking. Using this list, I detect three “closers” who’ve been a little bit worse than Doval in the Meltdown category:

Justin Lawrence, Rockies (6 Meltdowns)
Andres Munoz, Mariners (6)
John Schreiber, Red Sox (5)

Munoz, a closer on a good team, surprised me a bit, and after reading this post on Lookout Landing, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that it’s a sequencing and pitch arsenal issue. Four-seamers are easier to hit than sinkers, that’s why Seattle tried to get him to use a sinker. Being a two-pitch guy where one of the pitches is much easier for major league hitters to hit is a tough reality for a reliever. Doval’s cutter-sinker-slider arsenal is more effective even when predictable, but what Statcast presupposes is, what if one of those pitches isn’t working?

Through July 31st, Camilo Doval threw 196 pitches: 50 sinkers (25.5%), 56 cutters (28.6%), 90 sliders (45.9%). Since August 1st, he’s thrown 66 pitches: 19 sinkers (28.8%) , 28 cutters (42.4%), 19 sliders (28.8%). RIP the slider? Also, please check my work: Statcast’s game log shows his two most recent sliders as velo of 96.5 mph and 97.8, so I’m calling those mislabeled cutters.

The damage on that pitch is really something else, too. Through July 31st, major league hitters had a .117 batting average against, a .131 expected batting average, 25% hard hit rate, 3 barreled balls, and struck out 47% of the time. Since August 1st: .353 batting average against, .246 expected, 31% hard hit, 3 barreled balls, and a 19% strikeout rate. Like the fastball, there’s about a tick of velocity difference between the two segments: about 90 mph with it through July and 87.8 mph since August 1st.

Yeah, so, maybe Doval’s elbow’s barking a little bit and there’s some load management going on here. If that’s the case, the timing couldn’t be worse. The Giants have depth but they also have very specific roles that they need filled and Doval’s ace reliever spot can’t be replaced by anyone else in the organization. Few teams could survive these circumstances, which aren’t actually that terrible or unforeseeable —Oh no! A pitcher’s arm getting tired over the course of a long season! A guy who throws 100 could have health issues that sometimes hinders his performance! — it’s just that the Giants can’t afford this setback.

It’s to the enormous credit of Major League Baseball that they’ve fueled so much mediocrity that it’s made fans okay with a Wild Card, then an expanded Wild Card, and then a third Wild Card, because otherwise, nobody would be talking about the Giants at this point. They stink but they’re still in the chase for the turd Wild Card spot. But without their All-Star closer pitching at peak efficiency, they’re destined to miss out.