Ngoepe Proves Great Gift For Pirates Organization
Before he ever put on a Pirates uniform for a game, Gift Ngoepe had already earned his own little slice of fame.
One of the first South Africans to sign a professional contract, Ngoepe was the subject of a lengthy Sports Illustrated feature in August 2009 when he was just getting established in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. At the time, Ngoepe's fame came from his story: A black South African who was born into aparthied, Ngope learned the game because his mother worked for a South African club baseball team and lived with her in the team's clubhouse.
Three years later, the 22-year-old Ngoepe is still a great story, but the tone of the tale is starting to change. Once a novelty, Ngoepe is showing signs that he is becoming a legitimate big league prospect. In Florida State League Best Tools balloting, Ngoepe was voted the best defensive shortstop in the high Class A circuit by league managers. He fell just short of also being named the league's most exciting player.
"You see him play with the same energy all the time in the field. Plays that you think no one would make, he makes them," Bradenton manager Carlos Garcia said. "As soon as he catches the ball, forget about it, he's going to be out. Defensively, I haven't seen anyone like him during my time as a coach . . . Making the routine play, making the extended play. He's got to continue to develop himself as a complete package, but his glove is way ahead of the whole league. This guy is a real deal with the glove."
Ngoepe leads all Florida State League shortstops in total chances, double-plays turned and range factor.
At the plate, Ngoepe has further to go. With above-average speed, Ngoepe's hope is to end up as a top-of-the-lineup hitter if he's not banished to the bottom of a lineup.
Ngoepe was hitting .254/.355/.376 with 22 extra-base hits (including eight home runs) in 354 at-bats. After missing most of last year with a broken hamate bone, Ngoepe, a relatively recent convert to switch-hitting, has shown significant improvement from the left side of the plate. After posting sub .600 on-base-plus-slugging percentages from the right side in his first two full seasons, Ngoepe has a .735 OPS from the right side this year.
"He has to keep growing as a hitter. You won't see the full development on the hitting side for him at this level," Garcia said. "He has to cut down the punchouts because he's a contact hitter. He's got some aggressiveness with two strikes. We've talked about hitting the ball the other way in those situations. Sometimes he tries to do too much. That's the part of development he has to get better at. I'm confident he'll get better."
The Pirates have confidence that Ngoepe will continue to improve because they've seen that come true throughout his development. It's not just the amazing circumstances that brought him to pro baseball, it's also the way he's worked on the baseball field.
"When you watched him, he grew on you," said Pirates scout Jack Bowen, who scouted Ngoepe as an amateur at a tournament in Italy. "The more you see, the more you like. There was always something he was doing, you could tell he was the favorite of the coaches. He would always make you notice him, whether it was on the field or the way he handled himself."
Garcia sees the same thing every day on the sun-baked fields of the Florida State League.
"The workaholics (like Ngoepe), the most special part is they know what their weaknesses are," Garcia said. "This is a tough league to play because of the heat, but they work and work and work."