The Ballad of Austin Bibens-Dirkx

The Texas Rangers have disappointed thus far in 2017. Expected to be right there with Houston in a tight AL West, the club has scrambled to get back over .500 and find themselves seven games behind Houston.

While the offense is chugging along (fourth in the AL just .01 run per game behind Boston), the pitching staff has struggled, as has their defense. Texas has given up the 5th most runs in the AL, and has given up 22 unearned runs already, are 13th in errors and 12th in zone rating.

Add in the problems that Texas has had with their bullpen with injuries (Jose LeClerc), mild insubordination (Keone Kela), and ineffectiveness (Tony Barnette, Jeremy Jeffress, Mike Hauschild, Sam Dyson), there’s been a need for arms.

Looking down to Round Rock, Texas first tried Anthony Bass, who spent 2016 in Japan, but he gave up 14 hits in 5 2/3 innings, which is even bad for you BABIP junkies. There were some former MLB players toiling there (Dillon Gee, Preston Claiborne, and Wesley Wright for instance), Texas plucked a career minor leaguer for their last bullpen slot.

Austin Bibens-Dirkx, welcome to the big leagues.

It’s been a long road for ABD (that’s what I’m going with for the most part going forward) since being drafted in the 16th round of the 2006 draft by the Mariners. He jumped from the University of Portland (go Pilots!) to the Pioneer League, then the Midwest League, and did so well he pitched two innings in Tacoma that summer, striking out five.

Then ABD ran headlong into the fun and games of High Desert. That place can give even the best pitchers the willies, and in his 63 games he compiled a 6.28 ERA and gave up nine home runs in 2008 in just 43 innings. He also spent time on the DL and rehabbed in the Arizona league.

He didn’t make it out of spring training in 2009, though, and so ABD signed with Victoria of the Golden Baseball League. After fanning 54 in 48 2/3 innings, the Cubs signed him away and sent him to the Midwest League, where he started eight games and had a 2.04 ERA.

Things were looking up. As a 25-year old in AA, he pitched well and moved up to the PCL. There, he struggled a bit, but pitched well in the Venezuelan Winter League and made AAA out of spring training.

2011 wasn’t so good, though, with high ERAs and low strikeout rates in both AAA and on his demotion back to AA. The Cubs didn’t resign him, but after another great trip to Zulia he wound up garnering an invite to Spring Training in Washington.

But his struggles in AAA continued, leading to his release. A short stint in Colorado Springs was even worse. His only solace was that he pitched well again in Venezuela in the winter.

2013 found ABD in Dunedin, the Blue Jays Florida State League team. It’s not usual to see a 28-year old in the FSL, and he lasted a half season there before moving on to the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. In 2014 and 2015, the righty split time between New Hampshire and Buffalo, with diminishing returns.

After 2015, he found himself a minor league free-agent again. Another successful winter in Venezuela (in Aragua), he found himself at a crossroads. You’re 31, you’ve spent 10 years in the minors. You’ve played on 17 different teams, in every level except the majors. Do you keep going or find something that you can use your education? He’s already beat the odds, coming from a fringe Division 1 program that has had no real success.

He made his choice, jumping back to independent ball, with Lancaster of the Atlantic League. After 10 starts, Texas came calling and he found himself back in the PCL, adding to the staff depth at Round Rock. He resigned with Texas in 2017, and started the year back down in the minors.

But with Texas needing someone to eat some bullpen innings, the call went out to ABD to come up and fill a roster spot on May 6th.

He spent 10 days on the big league roster, and then, it happened. On May 17th, he was sent to the mound with the Rangers ahead 9-2 against Philadelphia.

His second pitch hit Aaron Altherr. He then fanned Tommy Joseph and got Michael Saunders to foul out to the catcher. Maikel Franco then lined a single to center, and somehow center fielder Jared Hoying allowed Altherr to score. Daniel Nava then lined out to first, and ABD finished his first big league games.

In this time of pitchers being designated for assignment at the drop of a hat (Seattle has used 26 pitchers already), it may have been reasonable to think that was it for him. However, on the 20th, AJ Griffin was lambasted by the Tigers, giving up nine runs in just 3 1/3 innings. If there’s ever a need for a long reliever, it was this situation.

Over the next 4 2/3 innings, ABD gave up one hit and two walks, and no runs. Not a bad nights work.

Last night (May 24th), the Rangers called on him to put out a huge fire. Up 3-1 against Boston, starter Martin Perez got an out, then gave up two singles. Sam Dyson came on, and his problems re-appeared. Single, single, intentional walk (grr), wild pitch, single, double, intentional walk (double grr), and walk, and it was 7-3 Boston.

ABD came on board, and got Andrew Benintendi to foul out to first. Well, he would have had Mike Napoli caught the ball. After that error, Benintendi hit a sac fly, and then ABD got Sam Travis to strike out looking. One more inning followed, and he gave up a run.

After three games, ABD has pitched 7 1/3 innings, given up just seven base runners, and allowed just two runs.

Texas’s columnists and fans are up in arms over the bullpen situation. Several have struggled, and there was talk of other callups from Round Rock.

No one mentioned Austin Bibens-Dirkx as a problem. That may be the best news of them all.

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