By Jason Shetler
In the early part of Neal Huntington’s tenure as Pirates General Manager, there was a big emphasis on signing players from different countries, even those that really weren’t a hotbed for baseball talent. The most notable example was Rinku Singh and Danish Patel, who participated in a contest in India called “The Million Dollar Arm”. Both Singh and Patel had never played baseball prior to being signed by the Pirates in 2008.
Another interesting player signing that year, which didn’t receive as much attention, was Gift Ngoepe, a switch-hitting shortstop, who became the first black South African player to sign a professional baseball contract. During his time in the Pirates organization, Ngoepe has drawn rave reviews for his defense. So much so, that most baseball publications have considered him the best defensive infielder in the system. While the defense has been nothing short of stellar, the offense leaves quite a bit to be desired.
In Spring Training of 2015, Ngoepe informed Pirates management that he was no longer going to be a switch-hitter, admitting that he feels much more comfortable as a right-handed batter. The change seemed to do some good, as he put a .333 on base percentage that year combined with the Altoona Curve and the Indianapolis Indians. However, he was unable to adjust to a full season of AAA pitching last year, posting a woeful .289 on base with the Indians.
Although Ngoepe was a long shot to make the Pirates out of Spring Training this year, he made a strong impression at the plate, as he posted a .500 OBP in 48 plate appearances. That performance has carried over in the early going of the season for Indianapolis, with an OBP of .387. The BABIP however is at .471, so that on base mark will come back down to earth. The league average OBP for a player is about .330, so if Ngoepe can keep it around there or better, to go along with his elite level defense, then he would be deserving of a call up to Pittsburgh at some point this season, and perhaps a legitimate opportunity to make the Pirates bench out of Spring Training next year.