INDIANAPOLIS — Gift Ngoepe hit a home run in the season opener, but in an odd way that could have been an ominous sign.

He’s not a power hitter. Ngoepe has enough power to hit home runs on occasion, but in the past that has gotten him in trouble because he starts swinging for them more frequently. The average drops. The strikeouts rise. The productivity falls. That’s not the type of hitter Ngoepe needs to be in order to reach his future potential. And that’s not the hitter he has been so far this season.

Ngoepe is hitting .263, opened the season with a six-game hitting streak and has reached base safely in eight of 10 games. That follows a spring training when he hit .429 in 42 at-bats over 21 games.

This is a stark difference from last season when Ngoepe hit .217. His ineffectiveness at the plate was so extreme that then-Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor batted the pitcher in the No. 8 spot and Ngoepe in the No. 9 spot for a few games.

Not this season. Ngoepe is producing and has been used exclusively in the No. 2 spot of the lineup. He’s found his “Pirates identity.”

“Gift has really bought into it and I’ve seen a kid that has really grown up a lot over the winter maturity-wise,” Indianapolis hitting coach Butch Wynegar said. “He’s now buying into what he needs to do to get to the big leagues. Now, it’s my job to try to keep him there.”

That job comes down to maintaining one key component: the mental approach.

“A lot of it is realizing what he did [hitting a home run] — he has the capability of doing by accident,” Wynegar said. “It’s when he starts to try to do that, that problems begin.”

Ngoepe is on the Pirates’ 40-man roster and could make himself an even more attractive prospect if he can find any sort of consistent offense. That’s because his play in the field is not in question. Ngoepe was one of the best shortstops in the International League last season and his range and fielding ability would enable him to play the position at the major leagues at a high level.

“We have one of the best defenders in all of baseball,” Indianapolis manager Andy Barkett said.

So, the key is to turn Ngoepe’s early offensive production into a full, consistent season. One portion of Spring Training may be used to achieve that result. The organization plays the “execution game,” where batters hit off a pitching machine, needing to perform a certain task, such as advancing a runner, hit-and-run, or hitting the ball to the right side.

“His swing is so much noticeably shorter when he does that game,” Wynegar said. “That’s a game where I’m going to keep doing with him during the summer. Not every day, but every now and then. He’s bought into it and had a great spring.”

Ngoepe also noticed his swing is shorter when he plays the “execution game,” and has tried to carry that into actual games. He’s getting into better hitting position earlier. Not necessarily to play small ball, but rather looking to keep more swings on the ground instead of trying to lift balls out of the park.

“Most of it is just trusting my hands and using them the way you’re supposed to use them,” Ngoepe said. “In the past seasons I used a lot of my body and I got in trouble with that. The execution game keeps me thinking about a man on second base means stay short [with the swing] and hit a nice groundball. Just the little things like that are playing a big role in my swing right now.”

The advice given to Ngoepe this season isn’t much different from what he heard last season, but it’s just now starting to take. Ngoepe didn’t seem willing to change a lot with his swing during last season. But he worked with Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson in the offseason and a new mentality was found.

“The things I’ve tried to stress to him last year, he was either stubborn or afraid to change mid-season but he came back to Spring Training doing some things and I was like, ‘That’s nice,’” Wynegar said.

And if anything will convince Ngoepe to stay the course with his new approach at the plate, a stretch of ongoing success should do the trick. Especially if he considers his past struggles at the plate.

“Yeah, there’s a huge confidence boost from last year,” Ngoepe said. “Last year I was fighting myself a lot and I’ve learned to calm down, just relax at the plate and not put so much pressure on myself. Just staying in my approach, seeing it middle away and trying to drive it the other way and not do too much. Just be satisfied with the line drive, whether it’s caught or hit — just staying there the whole time and keeping your poise the whole time.

Ngoepe has also made adjustments defensively, getting more time at third base. He’s made three starts at the position this season in the Indians’ first 10 games, after making three starts there in his previous eight years as a minor leaguer.

He has made one error at third base this year, making an errant throw on a grounder he had to charge. There’s no disputing Ngoepe’s abilty to play shortstop, but the organization wants to develop him into more of a utility player if possible. And while third base is just a few feet away, there’s a big difference in adjusting to the timing and speed of which plays happen there.

“I’m used to reading the ball and reading which hop I want,” Ngoepe said, “and at third base you don’t have that time anymore. You either have to go or stay back.”

Improving his play at third base would push Ngoepe closer to being a utility player, adding value to his prospect status. But he’s already a major league-ready shortstop in the field and is more than adept to play second base. With that being said, offense has long been the one aspect holding Ngoepe back. If he continues to take the right approach at the plate and produce in a consistent and solid manner, Ngoepe might finally become the first South African player to reach the major leagues.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. “There’s no disputing Ngoepe’s abilty to play shortstop, but the
    organization wants to develop him into more of a utility player if
    possible.” You could replace Ngoepe’s name with virtually any hitter in the Buc’s system b/c they want to make everyone into a utility player. As if Ngoepe is going to gain enough proficiency at 3B this year to be useful there in the bigs. I’m sure they’ll mix in some OF starts too. I suppose it makes sense but it strikes me as kinda funny at the same time. I’m not convinced that they end up with a better overall defensive team by doing this kind of stuff.

    • It seems that’s all Hurdle wants, you only need a couple on the bench. You also need a couple of hitters on the bench. The Bucco’s bench this year is horrible & I don’t even blame Hanson being out of options. Goslin brings nothing to this team that you don’t already have an abundance of. I’d rather see Rogers & I don’t even care for him. If this team is going to contend They need a couple of bench bats. Goslin & even Jaso needs to go. Boy do they miss Kang. I know Freese has been awesome, but it just really shortens the bench BATS.

      • When you can’t afford (or won’t spend for) the proper tools, you’re stuck trying to do the job with a butter knife.

        • Sorry but that’s BS, they target flexibility on defense. Offense is secondary. Goslin money could’ve been spent on 1 hitter as a bench bat. Hurdle is in love with slap hitters who watch a bunch of pitches. That’s all they’ve been drafting & signing. There was a bunch of bats available well into spring training.

          • And that “love” manifested itself last night by having an .089 hitting Phil Gosselin pinch hitting in the bottom of the 9th with the bases loaded. The outcome could have been predicted in spring training.

    • If Ngoepe is exclusively a shortstop, his only chance to get to the majors this year is if Mercer gets hurt.

      If he can play shortstop or second base, he’s useful in at least twice as many situations (a Mercer injury, a Harrison injury, or possibly a Hanson injury).

      If he can also play third base, then an injury to Mercer, Harrison, Hanson, Freese, or possibly Frazier could result in him getting called up.

  2. Gift’s glove is fantastic, but you’ll forgive me if I am hesitant to usher praise on his bat. Still a 31% K rate, his ‘improvements’ so far this year (and its only 10 games) are driven by an ISO increase (70 points over his career Milb number) and a .375 babip. If that K rate remains unchanged, its hard to see this as meaningful, and it won’t play at the MLB level.

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