Gift Ngoepe’s Promotion Was a Long Time Coming

Gift Ngoepe was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis on Monday, a move that was a long time coming for the South African shortstop. Gift began his time in Altoona in 2013, and he has jumped around between shortstop and second base despite being known as the best defensive infielder in the Pirates minor league system. He took a strong hold of the shortstop job this year in Altoona and never looked back, even when it looked as though he could lose playing time earlier in the season.

Before the season started, Gift made the decision the switch to becoming a full-time right-handed batter when he has been a switch hitter up until this point in his career. For him, batting left-handed felt like a roller coaster with many ups and downs.

“First of all, batting lefty was always a struggle for me,” Ngoepe said. “I was either hitting, or I wasn’t. It was like for one month, or one or two weeks, I’m squaring up balls and hitting them hard. Then for a month, I’m struggling and giving up on myself.”

The workload as a switch hitter was not advantageous for Gift. He felt that he could never get into a rhythm at practice, with coaches switching back and forth between giving him at-bats as a lefty then a righty, then back again. In the game, it showed. Pitchers knew that he struggled with going to the opposite field as a left-handed batter, so they would pound the outside of the zone.

He knew he had to make a change or his career wouldn’t be able to take off like he’d hope. He reached out to Ian Desmond, long-time coach Woody Huyke, and his mentor Barry Larkin about possibly switching to only batting right-handed. They all expressed to him that it was more beneficial for him to hit from both sides; however, he had to follow his heart and what he felt would be best for his career. Ultimately, Gift made the decision on his own to change his approach.

“My heart has been telling me to go strictly right-handed for the past two years. I finally made the switch,” Gift said.

“If they wanted me to compete at the plate, give the team better at bats, and become a better hitter, I know who I am right-handed. I can complete more from the right side. I knew it would be a difficult transition because now they are throwing sliders and curveballs away from me, but if I stay with my approach and make adjustments here and there, I knew I’d be fine.”

The switch has made a huge difference for Gift from the plate. Looking at his Double-A numbers over the past few years, Gift batted .177 with a .560 OPS in 2013, and he hit .238 with a .699 OPS last season for Altoona. On the season this year in Altoona, Gift hit .260 with a .700 OPS.

Digging a little deeper, you had to consider the fact that Gift has seen the majority of his at-bats against right-handed pitchers this season. He definitely had an adjustment period, only hitting .172/.232/.250 in April. At that point in time, Adam Frazier was coming off of the disabled list and getting promoted to Altoona, and Gift was struggling mightily from the plate, so one’s only though was that Gift could lose his job at shortstop for a young, up-and-coming infielder. From the beginning of May until Gift’s recent promotion, he hit .291/.374/.401 with a .775 OPS.

Gift says that he did not feel the pressure of having to perform; rather, he just didn’t have much luck in April. I would place the turnaround on an adjustment period of hitting right-handed pitchers as a right-handed batter. Gift admitted to struggling with curveballs and sliders, but he has progressed as the season wore on.

“I struggled to hit breaking balls that start in on me and just catch the inside corner of the plate,” Gift said. “I’m seeing the ones that are middle-to-away well right now. These guys throw very good sliders, though. I have to recognize which ones are strikes and which ones aren’t, but I’m beginning to see them well.”

It was well-known that if Gift’s hitting was at a respectable place, he would get moved up because of his outstanding defense. The Pirates made it well-known to him in the offseason that if the adjustments he made to his hitting worked, it would mean great things for him.

“In Spring Training, the Pirates told me that they wanted me to compete a little harder and be a more difficult out,” Ngoepe told me. “It basically goes back to my hitting. If I can successfully make this adjustment with my hitting, I think I can get the spotlight with the big team.”

I wrote in the beginning of May that I felt Gift’s defense was enough to get him to the majors, going as far to say he could find himself as a September call-up if a spot opened on the 40-man roster. I stand by that still, especially with the Pirates not having a legitimate defensive option coming off of the bench at shortstop or second base. For Pirates fans who don’t know much about Ngoepe, think Clint Barmes as a defensive replacement at the end of a game. He could be a very key piece to a September run for the Pirates, if they choose to bring him to Pittsburgh.

It will be interesting seeing how Gift’s promotion affects the current Double-A Altoona team, as well. Gift was well liked in the locker room, and it was well-known that he played a major role in Josh Bell’s defensive development. When I talked to Gift, he sounded more like a coach than a player talking about the defensive work of Max Moroff, Eric Wood, and Josh Bell.

As for Gift’s future, he will have a lot of fans cheering him on in Central PA, along with a whole country cheering him on from across the pond.

  • Darkstone42
    July 1, 2015 6:03 pm

    I can’t wait to see this kid flash the leather in Pittsburgh some day. If we fill the lineup otherwise with good hitters, we could suffer a glove-first light-hitting starting shortstop, and with the emphasis on ground balls, having an elite defender at short would be a boon to our pitching staff.

    • D42: There is nothing worthwhile at SS in AAA to keep from promoting Ngoepe (same argument for Bell at 1B), but last year he only had 11 errors all year (130 games), but has 12 already in only 70 games.

      As the story goes, he helped Moroff and Bell on their defense at AA this year, so is it possible he will do the same thing at AAA with Hanson (having an excellent year at 2B with only 5 errors) and possibly Bell if he gets promoted? I would hate to break the developmental mold, but does that not make good baseball sense?

      • Bell’s defense has a long way to go. He isn’t even in Pedro’s league yet. The number of errors in AA can be deceiving, as scorekeepers can leave a lot to be desired. As an example, Ngoepe’s last error in Altoona was an in between bad hop that would have been called a basehit in Pittsburgh.

      • Darkstone42
        July 2, 2015 10:17 am

        Ngoepe’s going to start next year in AAA, I have to imagine, so he’ll still be around to help Bell out. Bell needs the lower pressure of AA to continue his development as a 1B. I fear it will stunt him if we also force him to adjust to better, more polished pitching in AAA before he’s comfortable at the position.

    • He was the best defensive Shortstop the Pirates sent through Altoona in the 17 seasons I have been watching them….and it isn’t even close. He can make plays that Jose Iglesias has trouble making.

      • Leo, how real is Gift’s improvement at the plate? Is he making more contact, or just having better Babip?

  • Should we expect Ngoepe to be called up when September comes around?

  • Pgh is rooting for you Gift.

  • While I’m happy for gift and wish him well. Gift’s comment on having to ask people outside the organization points at something I have been saying for sometime, that is the lack of talented hitting coaches throughout the entire system, if the training and teaching of young hitters was anywhere near as good as it is with pitchers the pirates would be in the same class as the cardinals who as we know churn out both.methinks the pirates are stuck on the three true outcomes approach which was just fine when everyone had a needle stuck in da butt, now all three true outcomes combined with sabre does is make for some pretty darn boring baseball, not exactly the approach to use if your trying to attract young fans with the attention spans of gnats. Psst! Psst!, hey guys look at kc, they really get it, exciting baseball while still being analytic.

    • I don’t agree. 🙂

      • Don’t agree with what? That 3 true outcomes combined with sabre makes for some darn boring baseball or that the pirates stink at developing hitters?

    • For all the grief the offense gets, i actually think to this point the team has been better at developing useful position players/hitters. Partially due to drafting HS arms that take longer, but the offense was slightly to well above average the last two years.

      I dont think STL doing well makes PIT bad at it, since we have roughly 6 starters we developed that helped build a good offense in 2013 and 2014. 2013 was 12th in wRC+, 2014 was 4th.

      We sit currently at 92 wRC+, STL finished last year at 95. I think that may go to show that even an offense with talent can have a bad year. I dont like everything about how they go about the development process, but i see it as having been successful thus far.

      • It’s not just the pirates it’s most of baseball, the 3 true and sabre baseball reminds me of the new jersey devils and the left wing lock, did they win with it yes, did they win championships with it yes, was it exciting to watch NO. My point is that while these two things win baseball games they make for some boring baseball games, there has to be a way to use analytics and still have an exciting game on the field.

    • If you think the Pirates and are focused on three true outcomes, I have to ask how closely you follow the Pirates and how many of the articles you have read on this site?

      I’m sorry if that is mean, but the change in the Pirates approach team wide from grip and rip Jay Bell to Jeff Branson, and Jeff Livesey, who was the minor league hitting coordinator for the Pirates, couldn’t have been more stark.

      • Don’t know or care if that’s the coaches approach, the big team goes on these swings where they actually look like what they are, a contact hitting team with some pop, then bang every guy on the team starts swinging for the fence on every pitch. A most inexplicable development.

        • The Pirates have been the 2nd most productive team in the NL in hitting to the opposite field over the last two seasons.

          And this year, are NL average in strikeouts, below average in BB and power, they aren’t close to a 3 true outcome team. If you want to watch one, watch the Astros.

          • I did not say that’s what the pirates want to be , what I said is that whwn they hit like the contact team with a bit of pop they win more often than not. Then inexplicably they go into everybody wants to be the hero mode (which is the pirates impression of three true)and start swinging for the fence, when they do that they lose more often than not. Why they do this I don’t know it really makes no sense.

            • When the Pirates don’t hit, they don’t score runs and lose more often than not.

              I can’t really argue with that and don’t know anyone who would, I just see the connection you were attempting to make to the Pirate’s hitting coaches and advanced stats in your initial comment, with this simple statement of fact.

              • When it’s an entire team where else are you going to lay the blame except on the coaching staff? And just for the record andy, most things really are simple, it’s humans that complicate them. K.I.S.S.

  • I grew up in Altoona, but have been gone since 1981. Have never seen a Rail Kings/Curve game. That said. I have been a fan of Ngoepe for a long time. May he enjoy the clubhouse in Pittsburgh come September!

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