Gift Ngoepe’s Unique Path Has Him One Step From the Majors

INDIANAPOLIS — He didn’t live near a cutting-edge baseball training facility and there wasn’t a high school nearby producing elite baseball prospects every year.

Indianapolis shortstop Gift Ngoepe simply made do with what he had growing up in South Africa: an imagination, some various sport balls, and the walls of his home. And he also found a curtain handy sometimes.

Gift is eight years older than his younger brother Victor, also an infielder in the Pirates organization. So, growing up, Gift found his own unique ways to improve his skill set.

ALSO READ:  Victor Ngoepe Shows That Strong Defense at Shortstop Runs in the Family

“We had a window and it had a flat angled part to it, so I would practice throwing the golf ball at the little angle and it would hit and would be a pop up for me,” he said.

Ngoepe would throw a rubber ball against the wall to simulate fast grounders. At other times, he would put a curtain over his head, throw ball in the air, wait a few seconds, remove the curtain, and track down the flyball.

On the back side of his home, Ngoepe painted a catcher on the wall and used the surrounding area to simulate different scenarios in a game. Seemingly all of the scenarios he mentioned involved playing defense.

There were times Ngoepe pretended the game was in the bottom of the ninth and he started a double play by fielding a grounder and flipping the ball to second base. Then he would throw the ball to the wall, simulating the throw from second to first. And then he would field that bounce back, pretending he was the first baseman making the pick.

“I did different stuff to help my hands and my brain to coordinate together,” Ngoepe said. “I just played games because for the a long time it was just me by myself. I used my imagination to play different games and do different stuff.”

As he got older, Ngoepe remembers his little league coach Stan Peach for his unique way of helping him improve.

“He used to squeeze our ears if we weren’t listening to the directions he was giving us on how to catch the ball,” Ngoepe said.

As the years went on and the older Ngoepe got, he received more advanced help. One of the biggest impacts occurred while attending a Major League Baseball Academy event in Italy in 2007, where he met Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin. One of the first questions Larkin asked seemed to puzzle Ngoepe for its simplicity.

“The first question he asked me was, ‘How do you catch a ground ball,’” Ngoepe said.

The answer seemed easy Ngoepe thought: You move to the ball, catch the ball, and throw it to first for the out. Wrong answer, responded Larkin. He told Ngoepe you catch the groundball with your feet.

“He told me if you move your feet to the ball and you run through the ball and you’re in rhythm with everything, everything becomes much easier,” Ngoepe said. “It’ a smooth transaction. If your feet stop, your hands get hard, So if your feet are moving your hands are soft and you can move them according to where the ball bounces, so if it has a bad bounce or late bounce, you can still move it and be able to catch the ball.”

One year later Ngoepe signed with the Pirates as an international free agent, getting a $15,000 signing bonus. Growing up in South Africa didn’t make his path to Triple-A any easier, but Ngoepe wears his journey with pride.

His mother, brother, and country are his motivation.

“My mother was my motivational person that always drove me every single day to do the best that I can,” Ngoepe said. “She taught me whatever I start I better finish.”

He may be close to taking the next step in finishing what he started. Ngoepe is on the 40-man roster and is a strong candidate to be called up to the Pirates when rosters expand on September 1st.

“My country is another motivational thing that keeps me going – knowing that I’m representing them and I’m flying the flag high,” Ngoepe said. “No matter how I do they’re always behind me pushing me and giving me encouragement to get better, and keep doing the things that I’m doing and not to give up at any point of my life.”

Ngoepe is struggling at the plate this season, hitting just .212 with a .283 on-base percentage. But in the field he’s a major league ready player. And that may be enough to get the promotion, based on recent comments made by Pirates general manager Neal Huntington.

“It’s just depth and options,” Huntington said on the approach in September. “The first handful of years here, it was guys that we were taking a look at for the future and/or maybe wanted to reward for having a great season. Now, it’s about how can someone help us win a game? Is it two innings out of the bullpen, a spot start, a pinch run, another defensive option that Clint can get aggressive with a double switch late in the game? The guys that we bring up, we’ll bring up because in some way, shape or form, we think they can help us win a game because of an asset or skill set that they have.”

The assets that Ngoepe would bring is simple: he has quick hands, a good first jump to either side, and a strong and accurate arm. He’s good on charging plays and can smoothly turn double plays. Ngoepe leads the International League with his .984 fielding percentage at shortstop.

“I’ve seen him make some plays this year that makes your jaw drop,” Indianapolis hitting coach Butch Wynegar said. “His defense will play everyday in the big leagues, no doubt about it.”

But it’s the hitting side of Ngoepe’s game that holds him back, with 130 strikeouts and just 30 walks in 101 games. Part of his problem: he has eight home runs. If Ngoepe had 150 singles this season he would be in the major leagues, Wynegar said.

“We’re not looking for him to go out and try to hit home runs,” Wynegar said. “He knows he has some pop in his bat, so there is battle between being the type of hitter he needs to be and what he wants to be. That’s part of it.”

The problem is not that uncommon, as Alen Hanson has dealt with the same issues at times. Once Ngoepe can consistently use an approach looking for singles and keeping the ball on the ground, his average will rise and he will become less of a liability at the plate. Earlier this season, Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor even went as far as to bat the pitcher in the eighth spot and Ngoepe in the ninth spot for a few games. That was the first time in Treanor’s long career he didn’t bat the pitcher in the ninth spot.

“In the back of his mind he would like to hit home runs,” Wynegar said. “But if you want to get to the big leagues bad enough you have to make that decision, that choice: what type of hitter am I? If you don’t make that choice you’re always going to flounder right in the middle somewhere, not sure where you are.”

Ngoepe started to bat exclusively from the right side this season instead of being a switch hitter, which has led to some of his struggles. But one main reason lies within his promotion to the Triple-A level. But not because of the improved quality of pitching, but because that put him one step away from the major leagues.

“It’s exciting but at the same time it can be pressurizing,” Ngoepe said. “For me, one of the biggest things was I need to make it to the big leagues. I wasn’t focused on what I need to take care of here at this moment in time. Knowing I was a phone call away, I had to do more, I had to push myself a little extra and be a superstar. I tried to do more and tried to get that phone call as quick as possible.”

Ngoepe admitted he wanted to make it to the major leagues by the end of April. Then he wanted to make it by the end of May. He hit .212 and .217 in those two months.

“I wanted to be in the big leagues by that time so I had to work a little harder and do a little more and keep pushing,” Ngoepe said. “I’ve got to do this or I’ve got to do this. By the time I realized it, I dug myself a huge hole. Then I had a feeling of, ‘What do I do now?’”

The month of June was his best, hitting .247 with an on-base percentage of .345. But the month of July was rough for Ngoepe, hitting just .159 with a .205 on-base percentage.

“As soon as I threw in the towel about thinking about the future and being in the present, things started to get a little bit better for me,” Ngoepe said. “I started competing better at the plate and was being who I am and not someone I’m not.”

The future success of Ngoepe is easy to break down. If he develops not just a consistent approach, but the right approach at the plate, he will be an everyday major league shortstop. But if he remains a liability at the plate, the most Ngoepe can likely hope for is to be a backup. Ngoepe is on the team’s 40-man roster and could quite likely be promoted when major league rosters expand next week. If that happens, Ngoepe would become the first player from South Africa to play in the major leagues, and would become an even more remarkable story.

  • It is a great story and I hope he gets called up.

  • This kid is fun to watch.

    If Mercer hit as bad this year as he did in ’15, Gift would have to be a consideration. But between the two, Ngoepe isn’t progressing offensively. Next year should be a reckoning for him.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 28, 2016 11:10 pm

    Well, it looks like the Julio and Michael De la Cruz careers may be coming to an end soon. Both are barely hitting above the Mendoza line, despite playing in Bristol again. They are now 21 and 20 and will soon be considered old for their levels. They have not earned a promotion to justify a move up, and they haven’t shown the ability to succeed at the lowest levels of the organization. So, where do they go in 2017? I think they both got pretty big bonuses, so they along with Heredia look to be investment losses.

  • This might be my new favorite article on the site. The stories about how Gift practiced while he was alone are awesome, like Bartolo Colon becoming so accurate by throwing rocks at trees to knock down fruit awesome.

    I’m really pulling for this kid. I would love for him to pan out.

  • piraterican21
    August 28, 2016 2:26 pm

    The 40 will lose SRod, Joyce, Nova, Volgenson, Locke, Partch, Hughes, Garcia, Lobstein, and Rogers. But we have needs on the rotation and many rule 5 eligible like Williams, Barnes, Nevaruaskus, Holmes, David Whitehead, and others. Can’t see holding a spot for Ngope.

  • piraterican21
    August 28, 2016 1:11 pm

    He’ll get a token MLB appearance, and then get remove from the 40 in the off season. Hopefully he’ll stay with the org.

  • John Ciccotelli
    August 28, 2016 11:29 am

    Great kid compelling story, what a gift.

Menu