Gift Ngoepe Hoping New Hitting Approach Will Be Enough to Make the Majors

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.

  • Gift seems like he has the focus to improve his game and possibly make it to the show. If that does not happen, I think the Pirates might be able to use him as minor league infield coach. I wish him the best.

  • Love this player good luck gift

  • Brian Gahagen
    March 1, 2016 8:01 pm

    It seems very easy to root for Gift to make it too the majors.

  • How much better at defense is Gift compared to Jordy Mercer? How much worse offense than what Jordy offers could the Pirates endure to play Gift instead of Jordy? I expect that if he gets off to a good April that Gift may end up with a .700 OPS in AAA which may equate to about a .600 OPS in MLB. But Mercer’s 2015 OPS was .613. So how much offense would they really be sacrificing to play Gift for better defense than playing Jordy. With Jordy there is more power, but with Gift there is more speed. Seems like the offense for a #8 hitter would be about the same. Why not play Gift at SS in 2017 if the bat even glimmers in AAA in 2016?

    • John Dreker
      March 1, 2016 4:26 pm

      The scenario you gave is best case for Ngoepe and worst case for Mercer. If they both happen, which is obviously unlikely, then they would probably go with either Ngoepe, or an upgrade from outside the organization. Mercer signed for $2.1M this year, but if he doesn’t hit again, then you’re probably not going to want to pay whatever he would get in arbitration after next season

      • We differ slightly. I think what I said is a reasonably expected case for NGoepe. My best case would be .750 OPS in AAA, .650 OPS in MLB, which he may do if he settles in to a all right hand approach. Not everybody is cut out to be a switch hitter.

    • While I’m not a Jordy fan and think the Pirates have a lot of room for improvement at SS…let’s not forget Jordy had a horrible spring, putting up a .471 OPS through April and May of 2015. From June on, his OPS was .683….which is just a hair off of his career mark of .686.

      In MiLB, Gift has only put up a .673. I just don’t see him ever being able to equal Jordy’s output at the major league level.

      EDIT:

      On this bright side…randomly checking out players and the Rangers are on the hook for another $103M to Andrus….who doesn’t hit as well as Jordy either 🙂

      • Giving up switch hitting may help his confidence and production. After all he was probably batting left handed 75% of the time, and apparently wasn’t comfortable doing it.

  • Fascinating article over on Fangraphs that comes up with projected team DRS for each for
    2016.
    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/previewing-the-best-and-worst-team-defenses/

    Royals are #1 with 44 – 32 come from their OF – and no position is negative…
    That is – I believe about 4 wins a year…

    The Bucs are tied with the Astros at 15th – with a total of 6 – and the OF is 10 – which includes a team worst -5 for Cutch.

    SS is projected at -1.

    My question is how much better do scouts thing Gift is defensively than Mercer?

    Andrelton Simmons leads the position – do scouts think Gift is closer to Simmons or Mercer – or perhaps someone like Lindor – projected at 9 DRS.

    If Gift gets off to a good start at Indy and Mercer has his normal early season funk it could be interesting to see if the Bucs give him a chance at some point.

    I do think that unless Floriman has a great spring it is hard to see him being worth a 40 man roster spot.

    • I don’t want to be critical of Mercer, he has been doing in MLB. But Ngoepe is the best SS I have ever seen the organization send through Altoona. And when he stopped hitting LH, he improved offensively almost immediately.

  • With his change to hitting on the right side, could he eventually become more than a “possible depth option”?

    • John Dreker
      March 1, 2016 4:07 pm

      Not many 26-year-old players with no AAA success at the plate yet, turn into something more than a depth option. His glove is great, so some team with a lot of offense at other spots could keep him in a lineup, but his best role is as a strong defender, who can be used as a pinch-runner as well. He can play 2B and 3B, so that helps his chances.

      • Would he be a better fit than Florimon? They seem like similar type players.

        • John Dreker
          March 1, 2016 4:16 pm

          Florimon provides the same flashy defense, but he’s faster and has a lot of MLB experience, so I wouldn’t put Ngoepe ahead of him at this point. We know what Florimon’s MLB value is, but you wouldn’t want to assume Ngoepe has reached his peak, just because the odds are against him becoming more. Since Florimon is the slightly better player now, it’s better to let Ngoepe continue to play everyday, rather than sit on the bench in the majors

      • Thanks! I didn’t realize that THE GIFT is 26.

      • still hoping someone could put the defense of mercer and Gift in conext – are they close?

        • John Dreker
          March 1, 2016 9:09 pm

          I would say they are close, with Ngoepe getting the edge for range and arm, but Mercer is a little more reliable at this point. You’re going to get more highlights with Ngoepe, but I’m not sure that would automatically translate to a better overall package. You could throw Florimon in that group as well and no matter who you choose, you’ll come up with a better than average defender.

  • You mention that Gift wasthe first ‘black’ South African player to sign a Major League contract. Does that mean that a ‘white’ South African player has signed one? If so, do you know who?

    • John Dreker
      March 1, 2016 3:26 pm

      He said to sign a professional contract. There have been a lot of white South African players. Vince Deyzel is one in the Pirates system

    • Keep stirring the pot. Are you sending me the PEROTTO/WILLIAMS double set card. lol
      If I ever see you in person I have a humorous Smizik/Perrotto story to tell you.

      • I have no idea what you’re talking about Bill.

        I was asking an honest question.

        I had never heard of ANY South Africans in the majors. In fact, I thought NGoepe was the first…black OR white.

        • There have been none in the majors, Gift included.

          • Good catch, Tim….:)

            I meant (can’t believe you couldn’t read my mind) that “In fact, I thought NGoepe was the first with a chance to reach the majors…black OR white.” 🙂 🙂

            • John Dreker
              March 1, 2016 4:23 pm

              You’re still missing the fact Sean said “sign a professional contract”, which means when he signed his minor league contract back in 2008. Ngoepe is the first South African player to be put on a 40-man roster

              • John…..No….I get that point. My original question states that.

                I think I confused you (AND Tim) with my reply to Bill, which, muddled the pot.

                To sum up:
                Gift – First Black South African to sign a contract and maybe the first South African of any color, to make it to the majors. Right?

                Other than Deyzel which you mentioned below, I know of no others on any ballclub.
                🙂

                • John Dreker
                  March 1, 2016 4:30 pm

                  There have been at least 20 players from South Africa, who are either currently in the minors or have been in the minors before. You should know at least one other player from South Africa, Gift’s brother.

                  • Yes…I know about Gift’s brother. I can’t believe I foogot him.

                    And thanks for that info about South African players. Interesting stuff.

                    • John Dreker
                      March 1, 2016 4:36 pm

                      The Pirates signed Brett Willemburg at the same time they signed Ngoepe. I think it was to have someone from his own country around while he was 18. Willemburg was in the minors a few years earlier, but wasn’t a prospect at the time.

            • Yeah, I think that could be the case. Some have made it to Double-A, but were pretty much filler.

              • John Dreker
                March 1, 2016 4:34 pm

                Dylan Unsworth is a 23-year-old starter in the Mariners organization and he spent half the season in AA with decent results in a tough ballpark for pitchers. He could follow Ngoepe shortly after to the majors, or beat him depending on how their 2016 seasons go(and what their teams do of course). Basically, he’s within reach of the majors now and almost three years younger than Gift

          • Geof Hileman
            March 2, 2016 12:48 pm

            There’s not been any African-born players in the majors period, right?

        • I put the ephemeral lol in my comment which I assume means Im busting your chops.

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