Bibens-Dirkx Thrives with Second Chance

Austin Bibens-Dirkx (PHOTO/TENNESSEE SMOKIES)

When Austin Bibens-Dirkx was released by the Seattle Mariners in the spring of 2009, he didn't want to just give up baseball. Fortunately for Bibens-Dirkx, the Chicago Cubs gave the right-hander a workout and later agreed to give him a second chance in pro ball.

The Cubs liked what they saw out of Bibens-Dirkx, and once a spot opened up in their farm system in July of last year, Chicago signed the pitcher and assigned him to Class-A Peoria of the Midwest League. He rewarded them by going 7-2 with a 2.04 ERA in 70 2/3 innings. Bibens-Dirkx struck out 50 batters and walked nine in 12 games (eight starts) with the Chiefs.

He left Spring Training 2010 having secured a roster spot at Class AA Tennessee, where he's been arguably the most consistent member of the Smokies' starting rotation. Through 12 starts, Bibens-Dirkx is 5-2 with a 3.00 ERA in 66 innings.

None of it would have happened if not for the Cubs' belief that Bibens-Dirkx, a 16th-round Mariners pick in the 2006 draft from the University of Portland (Ore.), still had something in the tank following a tough 2008 season – his last with Seattle.

"I was with the Mariners for three years and had some success," said Bibens-Dirkx. "I had surgery in '07 and my last season with them, I struggled a bit. Ultimately that led to my release. I didn't want to give up baseball, so I went to play independent ball. A scout for the Cubs said that if a spot came up, he would put his reputation on the line for me. [Cubs Farm Director] Oneri Fleita called me up and said ‘OK, here's your chance.'"

It's turned out to be a smart decision. Since making his first start in the Cubs' farm system on July 6 of last year, Bibens-Dirkx has gone 12-4 with a 2.51 ERA.

"Austin has been a steady performer every fifth day," Fleita said. "He takes the ball, throws strikes and competes. He's a real gamer."

A winner of five of his last six outings at Tennessee, Bibens-Dirkx ranks second in the Southern League in WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched). He has held opposing hitters to a .183 batting average, which ranks first in the league. He also places second in the league in fewest base-runners per nine innings.

Bibens-Dirkx, whose fastball is 88-91 mph (he has topped out at 93 mph), says the key to his success is location of pitches. With a fastball-slider-changeup repertoire, he has walked 19 batters in 66 innings, or 2.6 per nine innings.

"I don't have that Nolan Ryan arm where you can chuck it as hard as you want and blow it by people," Bibens-Dirkx said. "I have to be a little more careful with how I throw pitches. The biggest thing for me is being able to spot up my fastball and throw my changeup and slider for strikes."

Since undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his elbow in 2007, Bibens-Dirkx says he has had to somewhat re-invent himself as a pitcher. He came to the Mariners as a sidearm pitcher, but the club made a change in his throwing motion in an effort to convert him to an over-the-top delivery. Now he has rediscovered his lower arm angle and the results have been encouraging.

The confidence Bibens-Dirkx has in his delivery now has played a big part in his success with the Cubs, he said.

"Before the surgery, the Mariners tweaked my arm angle and my mechanics and I didn't really have confidence in it, and that's what I think the biggest issue was," Bibens-Dirkx recalled. "I had trouble throwing a certain way for however long. It's much better when you have confidence on the mound. You know you can make the pitch because you've felt that your entire life basically.

"Having confidence on the mound is the biggest part of pitching," he added. "If you have no confidence, you're either likely going to nibble and walk a lot of guys, or you're going to start leaving pitches over the middle of the plate."

The pitch Bibens-Dirkx has spent the most amount of time working on this year is his changeup. It's become an effective two-strike pitch, he said.

"A lot of pitching coaches say the changeup is the best pitch in baseball," Bibens-Dirkx said. "Finally, I have a good feel for it and it's helped me a lot this year."

In a recent outing on June 11 against West Tennessee at Smokies Park, Bibens-Dirkx scattered three runs on five hits in six innings. He tied a season-high with eight strikeouts.

That outing was a welcome relief for Bibens-Dirkx, who was coming off a start against Huntsville in which he was tagged for a season-high six earned runs and seven hits in three innings. In his previous outing against the Stars on May 15, Bibens-Dirkx had stifled Huntsville to the tune of six innings of one-run, two-hit ball.

His struggles the second time out against the Stars was a reminder of the importance of not getting complacent.

"I might have gotten a little complacent," Bibens-Dirkx admitted. "Sometimes when you've had success against a team, you think it's going to be that easy again. It is Double-A, and if you make a mistake, they're going to hit it. That's basically what I did. I didn't locate very well and it was just one of those days."

But those types of outings have generally been few and far between for Bibens-Dirkx, who turned in seven quality starts in his first 12 outings. As a result of his consistency, the Salem, Ore., native could receive a promotion to Triple-A Iowa some time later this season.

For now, his focus is on helping the Smokies clinch a playoff spot. The team entered play Thursday with a magic number of three to clinch the Southern League North Division for the first half.

Bibens-Dirkx recognizes that promotions aren't necessarily up to him.

"I just have to go out there and keep battling and trying to be successful and do what I can to help my team win and let everything else kind of take care of itself," he said. "We get told in spring training – and I've been told in the Mariners' system, every organization says it – that you don't really control where you go. You just have to produce where you're at and things will take care of themselves.

"I don't really worry about it too much. We're fighting for the first-half right now, so we're trying to win and guarantee that spot in the playoffs. I've just tried to focus on that instead of worrying about if I get called up and when."

Bibens-Dirkx has found inspiration in being a member of the Cubs organization and has plenty of incentive to pitch well and keep on the right track.

"The organization is great, the coaches are all great and they care about their players a lot here. It's a fun organization to play for," Bibens-Dirkx said. "There is a lot of tradition that makes it even more exciting, like being able to hopefully play in Wrigley Field. That's an incentive just because of the tradition and history there."

Away from the field, Bibens-Dirkx has made a name for himself in music. In 2007, he released a self-titled album, an eclectic mix of tracks ranging from slow-rock songs to up-tempo beats. The album is available for download on iTunes and elsewhere.

He has a second album in the works, a collection of mostly Christian Rock songs. Bibens-Dirkx says his music roots date back to his high school days.

"My mother sings and I was in the choir through high school," he said. "I did plays and musicals in high school. It's always been something that I enjoyed. In high school, there are always those cliques. The athletes hang out with the athletes. I played sports and did choir and musicals to create more of a wider friend base."

But don't look for Bibens-Dirkx to trade in his spot on the pitcher's mound to focus on music full-time any time soon. With the success he's had since joining the Cubs, he has too much going for him on the baseball field right now.

"It's a hobby right now," Bibens-Dirkx said of his music. "I'd rather focus on baseball and work to get to the big leagues, but it's always fun to sit down and write a song, play something and sing. It's a stress reliever. After a rough outing, I sit down and play guitar and try to get stuff out of my head and move on. It's a nice relief tool."

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