Gift Ngoepe began 2014 as the Altoona Curve’s starting second baseman, because of the Pirates’ desire to have Alen Hanson as an everyday shortstop. Hanson went on to commit 29 errors as Altoona’s shortstop (100 games) which prompted the organization to flip Hanson and Ngoepe at second base and shortstop. Opposed to Hanson, Ngoepe only committed two errors and recorded a .988 fielding percentage in 44 games at shortstop in 2014. From a fielding perspective, he has continued to impress at the position in 2015.
Defensively, Gift is one of those players who passes the statistical test as well as the eye test. Statistically, he is second to all everyday shortstops in the Eastern League with a .974 fielding percentage (he was first until he committed an unlikely error last night). His 4.83 Range Factor would figure as second in the Eastern League compared to all everyday shortstops.
Now comes the eye test. He really has the look and feel of a defensively solid MLB shortstop. Gift consistently makes tough plays look routine. He has a very large range to the right and left. On one recent play in particular, Gift was not shifted, yet he was able to field a ground ball on the second base side of the bag. He has shown the range and speed to be a top defensive shortstop at the major league level. Honestly, it is a lot of fun watching him play the position.
Gift continues to develop a day-to-day routine of shifting and moving his feet to get in front of the ball when taking grounders, so he is prepared for anything to happen on any given play. He has also been focused on maximizing his range and extension every day, so difficult plays become more routine during games.
First baseman Josh Bell has been impressed with the way Gift plays the field, as well.
“The one thing about first base is that I’m taking off toward the bag, so I can’t really tell that he’s made a good play until the crowd ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’,” Bell said. “I turn around and see that he’s firing a baseball at me, and I hear the footsteps of the runner coming down the line. It’s a pretty cool feeling knowing that he’s made another spectacular play…I know that he’s got a crazy work ethic. He’s the best shortstop that I’ve seen in pro ball.”
Gift’s only roadblock to reaching the majors one day would be his hitting. He is a career .230/.325/.342 hitter. He is currently riding a four game hitting streak to raise his average over .200 for the first time this season to currently sit at .218. One good thing to see is that his strikeout rate is down so far this year (17.9%) compared to last year (27.1%). He also may not be the benefactor of luck so far this season with a .262 BABIP compared to .324 last season.
Gift feels he can continue to improve from the plate this season. He has been hitting more in the cage, taking a different approach by staying back on the ball, and working more on seeing the rotation of the pitch coming in.
The last question has to be: does Gift Ngoepe have the ability to be a major league shortstop? At this time, I’d say that he would be a great September call up if he found his way onto the 40-man roster because of his defense and speed. The Pirates have shown consistently that they like to make defensive replacements at the end of close games, and I think Gift could benefit from that. His bat needs a ton of work, but his defense certainly has what it takes to be a major league player.