For San Francisco Giants prospect Tyler Mizenko, explaining how he pitched 20 consecutive scoreless innings to begin the 2013 season was simple: defense.
From April 5 to May 25, a string of 20 games in which the Augusta GreenJackets closer racked up 12 saves, Mizenko didn't allow a single runner to cross home plate, but the Wallingford, Conn. native was quick to dish the praise on to his fellow teammates.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the defense," Mizenko said. "We had a great defensive team and I pride myself on getting ground balls."
Mizenko's sinker, which he throws with a two-seam type grip, is the foundation of his success. His 2.09 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio is the highest among all Giants minor league pitchers since Mizenko was drafted in June, 2011. Mizenko estimates he throws his sinker 90 percent of the time, countering with a low-80s slider in two-strike counts.
(Here's how Mizenko looked Saturday at minor league camp, where he forced three ground balls)
One year of starting proves beneficial for Mizenko
A closer for his first two years at Winthrop University in South Carolina, team dynamics transitioned Mizenko into a starter for his third and final collegiate season. Having been given only eight chances to close a game his sophomore year, Mizenko and newly hired head coach Tom Riginos discussed becoming a starting pitcher in order to give his team the best chance to win.
The result was Mizenko throwing over 90 innings in 2011, winning five games, and ultimately attributing his positive progression as a pitcher to his junior-year workload.
"It helped me become a 10-times better pitcher," Mizenko said. "It taught me how to control my pitches better, how to be more efficient, and how to get ground balls.
"As a closer beforehand, I was just going out there and throwing the ball as hard as I could," he said. "It helped me become a better pitcher and not just a thrower."
Now professionally as a closer, Mizenko has saved 38 games since joining the Giants organization, including a South Atlantic League-leading 25 a year ago.
Offseason tip from friend helps tighten slider
When Mizenko isn't forcing batted balls into the ground with his low-90s sinker, he throws a slider, used mostly as an out pitch. That pitch could be even better in 2014 thanks to a small grip suggestion from a friend.
"I tinkered with my slider because of a grip my buddy was showing me and I think it made it sharper," Mizenko said. "There's always something to learn and always something you can do to get better."
Though Mizenko doesn't consider himself a strikeout guy, he's totaled 79 in 84 professional innings thanks to sharp, downward movement on sinker and a tight slider. But the ground balls are what Mizenko wants.
"I'm not expecting strikeouts," Mizenko said. "I'm going out there trying to locate pitches and let my defense work for me."
Mizenko, along with Stephen Johnson and Steven Okert, are likely to anchor a bullpen that will try to live up to the "Dog Pound" group that dominated the California League for San Jose in 2013.
BONUS QUESTIONS: Gettin' Personal
Tell me about Wallingford, Connecticut. What do you love so much about your hometown?
It's home, which is always great. I think the biggest thing is that it's a very big athletic town. Everyone plays sports and everyone knows each other. Friends that I met in elementary school I am still friends with now. It's a tight-knit community but it's pretty big. It has a small town feel in a big city.
Your Twitter bio says that you live in Boston. Are you a big Boston sports fan?
I'm a huge [New England] Patriots fan. I lived there during the offseason, which was definitely an adventure. There was a lot of snow. When it got up to 30 degrees, I was pumped. I came out here 10 days early because I wanted to get to the nicer weather. I also wanted to get back into baseball. It was hard to stay in Boston with that weather and appreciate what was going on.
Who was your favorite baseball player to watch growing up?
Derek Jeter. By far. My first game I ever went to was Yankees/Indians in 1996 and before the game Jeter was signing autographs. I got his autograph and he hit a walk-off homer in the 10th inning and I was like, "This is my favorite player." Just because he took his time to come over and sign a ball. He's a great guy. He carries himself on the field and off the field very respectfully. To do what he does on a big time stage like New York City is incredible. I respect that a lot because when I'm done with baseball, even now, I want people to think that I carry myself well on and off the field. He's a great role model to look up to. It was a pleasure to watch him for all these years.
I was going to ask you what your most vivid childhood memory was but I think that might have been it.
For big league stuff, that is definitely it. But playing at Dreams Park as a kid was great. Cooperstown was awesome. A lot of it too was traveling around with the family playing baseball. I lived my junior year of high school, that summer, in Atlanta, Georgia so I didn't even have a summer at home but my family would come down all the time. I played for a travel team down there. A lot of the memories I have are just my family and baseball. They've been huge supporters forever. They've done everything for me. This past season in Augusta they came down almost every other weekend. It's a pretty cool thing being able to have your family at all your games. Just the support that my family and friends have given ... it's unbelievable.