Gift Ngoepe was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis on Monday, a move that was a long time coming for the South African shortstop. Gift began his time in Altoona in 2013, and he has jumped around between shortstop and second base despite being known as the best defensive infielder in the Pirates minor league system. He took a strong hold of the shortstop job this year in Altoona and never looked back, even when it looked as though he could lose playing time earlier in the season.
Before the season started, Gift made the decision the switch to becoming a full-time right-handed batter when he has been a switch hitter up until this point in his career. For him, batting left-handed felt like a roller coaster with many ups and downs.
“First of all, batting lefty was always a struggle for me,” Ngoepe said. “I was either hitting, or I wasn’t. It was like for one month, or one or two weeks, I’m squaring up balls and hitting them hard. Then for a month, I’m struggling and giving up on myself.”
The workload as a switch hitter was not advantageous for Gift. He felt that he could never get into a rhythm at practice, with coaches switching back and forth between giving him at-bats as a lefty then a righty, then back again. In the game, it showed. Pitchers knew that he struggled with going to the opposite field as a left-handed batter, so they would pound the outside of the zone.
He knew he had to make a change or his career wouldn’t be able to take off like he’d hope. He reached out to Ian Desmond, long-time coach Woody Huyke, and his mentor Barry Larkin about possibly switching to only batting right-handed. They all expressed to him that it was more beneficial for him to hit from both sides; however, he had to follow his heart and what he felt would be best for his career. Ultimately, Gift made the decision on his own to change his approach.
“My heart has been telling me to go strictly right-handed for the past two years. I finally made the switch,” Gift said.
“If they wanted me to compete at the plate, give the team better at bats, and become a better hitter, I know who I am right-handed. I can complete more from the right side. I knew it would be a difficult transition because now they are throwing sliders and curveballs away from me, but if I stay with my approach and make adjustments here and there, I knew I’d be fine.”
The switch has made a huge difference for Gift from the plate. Looking at his Double-A numbers over the past few years, Gift batted .177 with a .560 OPS in 2013, and he hit .238 with a .699 OPS last season for Altoona. On the season this year in Altoona, Gift hit .260 with a .700 OPS.
Digging a little deeper, you had to consider the fact that Gift has seen the majority of his at-bats against right-handed pitchers this season. He definitely had an adjustment period, only hitting .172/.232/.250 in April. At that point in time, Adam Frazier was coming off of the disabled list and getting promoted to Altoona, and Gift was struggling mightily from the plate, so one’s only though was that Gift could lose his job at shortstop for a young, up-and-coming infielder. From the beginning of May until Gift’s recent promotion, he hit .291/.374/.401 with a .775 OPS.
Gift says that he did not feel the pressure of having to perform; rather, he just didn’t have much luck in April. I would place the turnaround on an adjustment period of hitting right-handed pitchers as a right-handed batter. Gift admitted to struggling with curveballs and sliders, but he has progressed as the season wore on.
“I struggled to hit breaking balls that start in on me and just catch the inside corner of the plate,” Gift said. “I’m seeing the ones that are middle-to-away well right now. These guys throw very good sliders, though. I have to recognize which ones are strikes and which ones aren’t, but I’m beginning to see them well.”
It was well-known that if Gift’s hitting was at a respectable place, he would get moved up because of his outstanding defense. The Pirates made it well-known to him in the offseason that if the adjustments he made to his hitting worked, it would mean great things for him.
“In Spring Training, the Pirates told me that they wanted me to compete a little harder and be a more difficult out,” Ngoepe told me. “It basically goes back to my hitting. If I can successfully make this adjustment with my hitting, I think I can get the spotlight with the big team.”
I wrote in the beginning of May that I felt Gift’s defense was enough to get him to the majors, going as far to say he could find himself as a September call-up if a spot opened on the 40-man roster. I stand by that still, especially with the Pirates not having a legitimate defensive option coming off of the bench at shortstop or second base. For Pirates fans who don’t know much about Ngoepe, think Clint Barmes as a defensive replacement at the end of a game. He could be a very key piece to a September run for the Pirates, if they choose to bring him to Pittsburgh.
It will be interesting seeing how Gift’s promotion affects the current Double-A Altoona team, as well. Gift was well liked in the locker room, and it was well-known that he played a major role in Josh Bell’s defensive development. When I talked to Gift, he sounded more like a coach than a player talking about the defensive work of Max Moroff, Eric Wood, and Josh Bell.
As for Gift’s future, he will have a lot of fans cheering him on in Central PA, along with a whole country cheering him on from across the pond.