BRADENTON, Florida (SportRadio 93-7 The Fan) – There has been a lot of trailblazing for Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Gift Ngoepe.
As the first black South African to sign a professional baseball contract, he is setting a new standard with each level that he moves up. And if his bat ever catches up to his glove, he will reach the pinnacle of his sport.
Last year playing mostly shortstop, the 27 year-old made 8 errors in 461 chances. However, Ngoepe only hit .217 in Triple-A with a .289 on base percentage.
“I believe you will see that high-level glove wherever you put him,” said Manager Clint Hurdle. “The opportunity for him is to be better with the bat, situationally, small game, better contact, controlling the zone. He’s making some progress around those lines.”
“Offensively, I’m still working on it, it’s still a work in progress,” Ngoepe said. “Just simplifying everything right now with the hitting coaches that I’m working with and I’m starting to see results.”
It looked promising early in 2015, when Ngoepe hit .260 in Double-A Altoona, was promoted to Triple-A and had 15 hits in 61 at-bats in Indy. But, last year was a struggle for the 5-foot-8-inch righty.
“It gets a little frustrating when you are trying something new and it’s not going your way,” Ngoepe said. “I’m reading the ball better, I’m starting to recognize what pitches I can hit, which ones I can lay off, which ones are strikes, which ones are not strikes. So, I’m not swinging at everything out there.”
Ngoepe got a shot in the arm on Thursday with three hits against the Red Sox. Two of them came of veteran lefty Chris Sale.
“It gives me a lot of confidence moving forward,” Ngoepe said. “I feel like I’m ready for the season because I bought into this process and getting more confident as Spring Training is going.”
Ngoepe said he must trust the process and he is starting to see it pay off. With the hits against Boston, Ngoepe is hitting .333 this spring with a .419 on base percentage.
The process for getting good on defense started back home in Randburg, South Africa, where Ngoepe would throw baseballs, bouncy balls, golf balls, whatever he had against the wall and learn how to field it.
“I used to do it on cement, on grass and I would get different kinds of bounces,” Ngoepe said. “I really worked hard on my hands and my feet working together, and that’s helped me a lot.”
Ngoepe’s mom was a clubhouse manager for a baseball team in South Africa, so he grew up around the game. Ngoepe was also helped by a camp he attended in Italy in 2007, where one of the instructors was Hall of Famer Barry Larkin.
He said the lesson from Larkin was there are no easy ground balls, you have to treat each one as difficult and Ngoepe keeps that philosophy.
Competition will be fierce for Ngoepe, even in the minors where the Pirates have shortstops Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker (both are first-round picks) and a pair of first-round picks at third in Ke’Bryan Hayes and Will Craig.
“My opportunity is whenever the call comes in,” Ngoepe said. “Wherever they see I can help the team, I will be ready to take that opportunity. Whatever they need, shortstop, second base, third base, utility guy, I will be ready for the task.”