Rays' Menendez attacking hitters from all angles in AFL

October 18th, 2022

MESA, Ariz. -- What began as a fun, quirky way to throw the ball as a youngster has developed into a legitimate three-pronged weapon for Rays right-handed pitching prospect Antonio Menendez.

And there’s a seven-time All-Star closer at the root of the development.

“I would randomly drop down at about 12 years old and just pitch from the side and get ooh’s and aah’s from the crowd,” Menendez said. “And then  was my travel coach when I was 13, and he said, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good at that, you should start doing that a little bit more,’ and it developed into my three arm slots that I have now.”

Menendez, a 14th-round selection by the Rays in the 2021 MLB Draft out of Wake Forest, is immediately recognizable when on the mound due to the oddity of his submarine-style pitching. But depending on the batter, count or situation, he also has his side-arm slot and a traditional motion over the top. He is, for all intents and purposes, three hurlers in one.

“To me, it all feels the same,” Menendez said. “It feels natural. It just feels like I’m throwing. It just comes all as one delivery I guess, and a lot of people see it as three unique, different things. But to me, it all blends together. I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s not anything new to me.”

The 6-foot-4 right-hander made his fourth appearance in relief for Mesa in the Arizona Fall League on Monday night and worked 2 1/3 hitless frames in the Solar Sox’s 6-3 loss to the Desert Dogs at Sloan Park. He stranded a pair of inherited runners in the fourth, ultimately retiring six consecutive batters.

After the COVID shutdown cut short his 2020 collegiate campaign, Menendez underwent Tommy John surgery, which hurt his Draft stock. Tampa Bay rolled the dice on a hurler with a 5.17 ERA over three seasons with the Demon Deacons.

Menendez returned to the mound for his pro debut this summer and stymied batters at three levels, notching a 1.70 ERA and limiting opposing batters to a .540 OPS over 37 innings. Across 20 appearances in the Florida Complex League, Single-A Charleston and High-A Bowling Green, he whiffed 48 batters and also recorded the final out of the Hot Rods’ South Atlantic League title clincher.

That a pitcher with these particular idiosyncrasies wound up with the Rays appears to be no coincidence. The organization has long cherished off-beat ways of confounding hitters with a variety of arm slots and pitch mixes.

“I think because of how unique I am with my different arm angles, the Rays specifically as an organization love stuff like that,” Menendez said. “And I think it was a great pick for me and a great fit for me. I think they love seeing what I can develop with all my different pitches.”

About those pitches -- there are six of them in total, according to Menendez. From the side, he features a fastball-slider-changeup mix, whereas from the submarine angle, he is purely a two-seam or four-seam fastball pitcher. When he goes the conventional over-the-top route, he mixes in a curveball with his heater.

The sidearm and submarine aspects of Menendez’s pitching persona make him particularly lethal against right-handed hitters: he held them to just a .167 batting average this year with a 35.9% K rate. Lefties fared slightly better, an aspect of his all-around arsenal that he hopes to fine-tune during Fall League action.

“Being a sidearm guy, typically they say that, you know, ‘You’re a right-handed specialist,’ and I want to try and prove that I can get lefties out as well,” Menendez said. “So with my different arm slots, I want to learn how these really good left-handed hitters think.”