BRADENTON, Fla. – When the Pirates signed Gift Ngoepe in 2008, it was a big story. It wasn’t quite a big signing, but more of a novelty at the time. Gift was the first black player signed by a professional team out of South Africa. Not much was expected of his career, and it was a long shot that he would make the majors.
Fast forward almost eight years later, and Gift is on the verge of making the majors. He could be a September call-up next week, making him the first player from South Africa to play in the majors. And with his elite defense and plus speed, it’s almost a guarantee that he will eventually make it to the big leagues.
So when the Pirates signed his younger brother, Victor, prior to the 2016 season, the same “long shot” label didn’t apply. This time around, it was easy to envision a player named Ngoepe having a shot at the big leagues, especially if Victor flashed the same defense that his older brother had.
And so far, that has been the case.
Victor started playing baseball at a young age, picking up the game at the age of four. He had a bit of an advantage in that his older brother was already playing. So while Gift had to resort to practicing by throwing a ball off the wall, his brother had someone to practice with.
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“Like my brother, I grew up at the fields,” Ngoepe said. “I started playing with him, and just from there, from the get-go, that’s where it started.”
The Pirates obviously had their eyes on Victor early, due to his brother playing in their organization. Their interest picked up last year after his campaign in Cape Town, and they signed him when he became eligible, after finishing school. Victor was able to get some advice from his brother on what to expect in pro ball, giving him an advantage that Gift didn’t have.
“He told me just be myself and I’ll be okay,” Ngoepe said. “He just told me just keep doing what I’m doing, and I’ll be fine. Not let my mental game get to me. It’s a big jump for me from playing back home to here. Everything is quicker. Everything is much better. So I just had to adjust to that, and he told me if I adjust to that quicker, that I’ll be fine.”
Despite the quickness of pro ball, Victor doesn’t seem to have any issues adjusting defensively. He’s quick, with smooth moves, good hands, and a strong arm. He looks very much like his brother in that regard, looking like a natural and making the toughest position on the field look easy, despite a lack of a traditional baseball background.
“I guess it’s just in me. It runs in the family,” Ngoepe said of his shortstop abilities. “I just learned to control the controllables. The faster the game gets, I just keep myself calm and let the game flow.”
Also like his brother, the offense has struggled. Victor currently has a .216/.301/.270 line in 148 at-bats in the GCL at the age of 18. By comparison, Gift had a .238/.341/.281 line in 160 at-bats in the GCL at the age of 19. Both had high walk rates and high strikeout rates, although Victor is slightly lower with the walks (8.6% vs 10.9%) and also lower with the strikeouts (22.8% vs 26.9%).
“It’s been a big jump for me,” Ngoepe said. “So I just have to slow everything down. Everything is coming quicker than back home. I try not to get ahead of anything. Just stay in my zone.”
Victor described the difference as a combination of the fastballs being much quicker, and the breaking pitches being better quality. That can be a big adjustment for players making the jump from high school ball in the United States to the GCL, so you’d expect it to be very difficult going from South Africa to the GCL.
One other way the Ngoepe brothers are the same is that baseball is their entire life in Bradenton. When Ngoepe is not on the field at Pirate City, you can catch him taking in a Marauders game that night. He’ll go down and say hello to the players on the High-A squad each night, while taking in the game with a few other players from the Pirates’ rookie team. Perhaps that approach of immersing themselves so deeply into the game is what makes the Ngoepe brothers so good on the field.
His brother will eventually be the first player from South Africa to play in the majors. Victor has the defensive skills to stick at shortstop, and has the potential for plus speed on the bases, adding additional value, and giving an overall profile like his brother. If Gift could make it to Triple-A and eventually to the majors with that profile, then Victor has a shot as well.
That would be impressive, getting two players from South Africa to the big leagues in the same organization. It is also something that Victor hopes would help grow the game in his home country.
“I’m hoping it inspires more people back home to try to get the opportunity and start getting more people to play,” Victor said. “Therefore, our baseball and everything else will get better.”
I’m sure that after Gift makes the majors, those players will become more inspired. And after that happens, all of the focus will turn to Victor to see if he can be next.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.
Tim, do these brothers go by ‘Gift’ and ‘Victor’ because that’s their preference or because people are too lazy to learn to say Mpho and Tlou?
#FreeGiftNgoepe (with the purchase of one regularly-priced Ngoepe)