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How Giants’ emerging long reliever has made it very difficult to send him down

Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

The Giants sent down a pitcher with a 0.49 ERA in 18 1/3 innings on Sunday because the bullpen is stocked with both performing relievers and a few who have been solid and are without options. It was unfortunate for Caleb Baragar, who should be seen again soon, but reflective of a unit that has begun to define itself.

In June, the Giants’ bullpen has posted a 0.92 ERA, which is the same mark as Tampa’s and beaten by no other club. The group has allowed just 10 walks this month, which is second only to Oakland’s, but the A’s bullpen has thrown about 14 fewer innings. The Giants bullpen’s .157 batting average against in June is No. 3 in MLB; its 0.73 WHIP No. 1.

Matt Wisler is gone and Baragar in Triple-A, while Zack Littell, Dominic Leone and Jimmy Sherfy have been added. And the reliever whose work has been the most impressive would stand out more if Littell’s beard did not match his.

Conner Menez has taken down 10 innings this season and still does not have an ERA. In five two-inning appearances, the lefty has struck out 11 and allowed just four baserunners. He was solid last year, too, and is four outs away from matching his total from 2020, and yet he’s succeeding in a different way.

Last year he threw his fastball a bit more than half the time, 54.4 percent, and mixed in sliders and curveballs. The fastball is down, the curveball nearly out and slider often untouchable.

“Coming to spring training, [Giants coaches] were like, they’d really like to see 50 percent sliders, 50 percent fastballs,” Menez said before Monday’s win over the Diamondbacks at Oracle Park. “They thought it was going to be a lot more effective for me, which it definitely has.”

He is throwing his slider 63.5 percent of the time, and no one’s figured it out yet. In at-bats that end with sliders, opponents are 3-for-24 (.125) with seven strikeouts. Opposing batters were 1-for-9 in limited action against the offering last year, and Menez said he’s not doing anything differently with the pitch.

He thinks his cross-fire delivery lends itself well to the slider, which looks just like his fastball out of his hand.

“It helps me lock in my fastball because I’m such an extension guy,” said the 26-year-old from Hollister. “So my hand already kind of turns a little bit, so I’m already almost in a slider grip mode anyways because I get so much extension out there on the mound. So it makes it easier for me to place a slider for strikes than fastballs.”

The different pitch usage has also lent itself to contact that is better for Menez. He hasn’t given up a homer this year and barely a flyball; his groundball rate is 77.3 percent, which would be the league leader if he qualified.

And that would mean overthrowing Tyler Rogers, whose 68.2 percent groundball rate is best among pitchers with at least 30 innings.

“With the depth of the slider, I’m getting a lot more ground balls and a lot more weak contact, which I’m loving,” said Menez, who is the lefty, and not righty, out of the pen with an Amish-looking red beard.

The stuff is playing better than it did in 2020, but he still pitched well enough (2.38 ERA in 11 1/3 innings) to have had some justified confusion about why the Giants did not use him more often. Gabe Kapler has cited the mechanics tweaks that Menez was working on as well as control he needed to hone; he walked five last year.

Those appear to be fixed, as does a bullpen that might need a ninth-inning man but has “solidified some of those middle innings,” Kapler said this weekend. Menez is not the only one to emerge, but a 0.00 ERA is hard to beat.

And a tough one to option.

Next up for Menez, he said, is “just keep fighting for my job and keep on showing the Giants that I belong here.”


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