BRADENTON, Fl. – One of the players who created a buzz at the Black and Gold Game on Monday at McKechnie Field was shortstop Gift Ngoepe. Ngoepe, wearing number 61 and taking the field for Team Black, made multiple above average plays from the field.
Although those plays are nothing new to those who have watched Gift over the past few years in Altoona or Indianapolis, those from Bradenton (and who have run away from the cold up north) needed a little refresher of how good Ngoepe is in the field. As I was walking through the crowd during the game, it was obvious that many were seeing this “Gift” from South Africa for the first time. There was your typical buzz for the likes of Taillon, Glasnow, and Bell, but I could very clearly hear people asking each other who this shortstop was and how you say his name.
As most of you would know, Gift was the first black South African to sign a professional baseball contract when he signed with the Pirates in 2008 as an international free agent. He was 18 years old at the time, and the Pirates noticed him after he played in a tournament in Italy.
In November, Ngoepe was added to the Pirates’ 40-man roster to protect him from leaving the organization as a minor league free agent.
Throughout his time as a Pirate, Gift has been known as one of the hardest working players, both physically and mentally, in the system. This motivation and determined nature has led him to the place where he is today — as a possible depth option for the Pirates in 2016.
When I asked Gift what he would hope that people seeing him for the first time would notice, he didn’t hesitate to bring up his work ethic.
“I want people to see my everyday hard work and abilities,” Ngoepe said after the Black and Gold game. “I just go out there and do my thing. I don’t want to put any pressure on myself or try to do too much. I just go out there, have some fun, and play my game. That’s what I have to offer to this team.”
Gift has long been known as the best defensive shortstop in the Pirates’ system, with a plus glove combined with exceptional speed in the field. His defense alone was good enough to possibly push him through the system as a defensive-minded shortstop or utility infielder; however, it was his hitting that was always questionable.
That pressure that Gift speaks of is something that he may have been feeling a little too much last spring, and it all had to do with hitting. In an effort to improve from the plate, he made the decision to go from being a switch hitter to batting only from the right side. As a switch hitter, there was always that doubt that he wouldn’t be able to move any further forward professionally because of his lack of hitting. He knew he had to make some sort of change to get better.
Gift approached the organization last spring with his reasons as to why he wanted to go from a switch hitter to hitting strictly from the right side, and the coaches agreed that he should make the change.
“We have coaches that just listened [to Gift],” said Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle following the Black & Gold Game. “We asked him ‘why’ and he had a good ‘why’. He said, ‘I think I’m at a point in time where I need to eliminate some clutter, and I’d like to just keep it on one side that I feel strong and confident on, work from there, and go with it. At the end of the day, we all talked about it and said ‘yeah, that’s pretty good. Let’s go with it.'”
The change was not an easy one, but it was one that Gift felt was necessary.
“Last year, I was kind of freaking out a little bit,” Gift said. “I didn’t know what I can or can’t do, how am I going to play, this or that, and so on. All of this stress was on me that I didn’t need to have. I knew I needed to do something.”
The stressors showed last year once the season began, as Gift only hit .172 with a .482 OPS in the month of April for the Curve. As he began to feel more comfortable, though, Ngoepe began to find a rhythm at the plate that translated to success on the scorers’ sheet.
Making the move to only batting from the right side was one that took time; however, he has reaped the benefits once getting used to it. In May last year, Gift triple slashed .322/.413/.456 in Altoona before being promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis.
“I feel more confident on the right side,” Gift said. “I see the pitches better, and I’m able to make adjustments much quicker than I used to be able to when I was switch hitting. I’m a lot more confident, and I get to my hitting position in a much better way. I am able to minimize the inside and look outside or look inside and be able to turn on a ball. I have a lot of options to play with by focusing on hitting on one side.”
Dealing with a left oblique injury late last summer for Indianapolis, Gift was not quite able to get on the roll he established in Altoona, as he ended the season on injury reserved after only playing 21 games in Triple-A. The injury came last year as he was seeming to find his groove is all the more reason why this spring is important for the young South African to show off his skills both in the field and at the plate. This year, though, he doesn’t want the additional pressure he put on himself like last year.
“When I came in to Spring Training this year, I told myself to not put any additional pressure on myself that I don’t need — just go out and do my thing. I need to trust in my God-given ability and do the best I can. That’s all you can do. Whatever the outcome is, that’s the outcome. Don’t go home and take it with you. Leave it out on the field. I’m a lot more relaxed, more confident, and less stressed.”
As Gift tries to carve out his role in the organization, his presence has seemed to be an important one to another young prospect who will one day be playing at PNC Park — Josh Bell. They are throwing partners, and they are almost inseparable around the Pirates’ facilities.
“Josh and I are best friends,” Gift said. “This off-season, we kept up with each other to see what we were doing and how we can both get better.”
As Bell continues to improve his glove work at first base, Ngoepe seems to be an invaluable friend to the budding first baseman to help him improve in the field. Bell, on the other hand, provides Gift with hitting knowledge to help him become better at the plate.
“He asks me about fielding, and I ask him about hitting. We are both pushing each other, and it gets the best out of both of us. We motivate each other.”
Notes: It was enjoyable to go back and read this article from the Chicago Tribune about Gift that was written in March, 2009. The author mentions that Gift “eventually could play his way into being a leadoff hitter in the big leagues” or he “could fail to hit enough to get out of Class A”. Although that mindset is truth for most major league prospects, it was especially true for Gift, as he had to make adjustments last season to truly help his cause for advancement. The article also quotes Barry Larkin, who Gift says is one of his main baseball mentors.