After ditching switch-hitting, South African prospect Ngoepe moves closer to majors
March 16, 2016 12:00 AM
Pirates prospect Gift Ngoepe of South Africa bats in a spring-training game recently at McKechnie Field Bradenton, Fla.
By Bill Brink / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. — Gift Ngoepe, an ebullient and talented middle infielder in the Pirates’ minor league system, found himself stressed.
The stress inherent in nearing the top of the minor league ladder, he could deal with. He had dealt for years with the pressure of his story, that of a black South African who grew up in a baseball clubhouse before finding his way to the Pirates as a teen.
But this was different. This was causing clutter.
In spring 2015, when the Pirates reassigned Ngoepe to minor league camp, he walked into manager Clint Hurdle’s office. General manager Neal Huntington was there, as were assistant general manager Kyle Stark and minor league director Larry Broadway. Save for 100 plate appearances in the low minors in 2011, Ngoepe’s offense always had lagged far behind his glove work. Knowing he needed to improve, Ngoepe, who had hit from both sides of the plate since 2009, told the Pirates he wanted to bat only right-handed, his natural side.
“When a lefty was [pitching], I had this confidence where I knew I was going to get a base hit or I knew I was going to get two base hits,” Ngoepe, 26, said. “Right-hander came up, I was a little bit like, what does he throw, what’s he going to throw me? I started putting so much stress, so much pressure on myself. I made things harder than what it seemed to be.”
Ngoepe (pronounced n-GO-pay) doesn’t need any more pressure. He already hears from his friends and family that he is the ambassador of South African baseball, and he thinks about what it would mean to become the first black South African to play Major League Baseball.
“I do think about how close I am and where I come from, where I started and where I am today,” Ngoepe said. “The opportunities are there to make the team, either break with the squad or get called up during the year.”
What of it if he has to face a couple of breaking balls that start at his head before curving into the strike zone?
“We just listened, and then we asked him why,” Hurdle said. “And he had a good why. He said, I just think I’m at the point in time when I need to eliminate some clutter.”
In 2015, Ngoepe batted .257 with a .333 on-base percentage, nothing earth-shattering. But considering he kept up his offensive performance after the Pirates promoted him to Class AAA Indianapolis, and considering he reduced his strikeout rate in the process, it represented progress.
“Solidifying his approach from one side makes it a lot easier for him to zone in on certain pitches and focus on his approach on a daily basis,” said first baseman Josh Bell, one of Ngoepe’s close friends in the organization who, as a switch-hitter, understood the challenges.
The change took time. Ngoepe hit .172 with a .482 on-base plus slugging percentage in April. In May, he hit .322 with an .869 OPS. The Eastern League pitchers adjusted in June, and his OPS dropped to .681, but his performance earned a promotion to Class AAA. He hit .246 with a .625 OPS before a strained oblique ended his season July 26.
“I didn’t put any pressure on myself whatsoever,” Ngoepe said. “I just said, go out there and do your best. That’s all you can do.”
Ngoepe is an elite defender, possibly the best defensive infielder in the system.
“For the most part, when he makes his nasty plays, I don’t see him make them, because I’m running [to first base],” Bell said. “I gotta take my eye off the ball. But I hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the crowd, and I’ll watch it on the replay.”
Despite his defensive skills, Ngoepe went unselected in previous Rule 5 drafts, even though the Pirates did not protect him. This past November, the Pirates added him to their 40-man roster, which protected him from Rule 5 selection and kept him from reaching minor league free agency.
“That’s what I wanted,” he said. “It’s just a blessing.”
The Pirates signed David Freese to play third base until Jung Ho Kang comes off the disabled list, meaning there are one or two bench spots available at the start the season. Ngoepe could be a candidate for the final spot, along with Cole Figueroa, Jason Rogers, Pedro Florimon and Alen Hanson.
“I’m never out of touch of it,” Ngoepe said. “Sometimes it could be pressurized. You’re representing the country. You are the ambassador of South African baseball, and you are this or that. I try and keep my head as clear as possible and keep things simple.”
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrinkPG.
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