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.