For a franchise that has been around since Andrew Carnegie ruled over the Pittsburgh steel mills, the Pirates have had their fair share of historical impact on Major League baseball. Last week, the team debuted two players who were each the first to play in the MLB from their respective countries. Right handed reliever Dovydas Neverauskas became the first player from Lithuania when he finished the final two innings of a lopsided loss to the Chicago Cubs. Though Neverauskas did make some headlines for his debut, he came nowhere close to receiving the attention his rookie counterpart got days later.
Infielder Gift Ngoepe became not only the first major league player from South Africa, but he is the first man to ever to make it the MLB from the continent of Africa. It is hard to imagine being the first to represent your country in a certain sport, representing an entire continent is something only a few people in history can claim. In the fourth inning of the Pirates’ 6-5 win over the Cubs April 26, Ngoepe entered his first major league ball game as part of a double switch replacing Phil Gosselin at second base. Leading off the bottom half of the frame, the South African singled to center in his first ever major league at-bat off one of the best in the game in Jon Lester. To finish off his incredible debut, Ngoepe was a part of the game ending double play that sealed the victory, a fitting end to a history making night. And unlike his Lithuanian teammate’s one off appearance in the majors, the African rookie has been able to make a greater impact on the Pirates than previously expected.
The reports on Ngoepe as he came up thru the minor league system were centered on his ability with the glove, as he primarily played excellent second base and shortstop in his nine seasons on the farm, and his bat was weak. Being able to call up a player with the skills on defense as the South African native is indeed, no pun intended sort of, a gift, especially with the way the Pirates have played in the field this season. Their 24 errors so far this year are tied for the third worst in baseball and some mistakes have looked down right awful, as sometimes it is a play you would expect even a little leaguer to make. In over 40 innings including 5 starts in the field, Ngoepe has yet to record an error at either second or shortstop. By comparison, Adam Frazier, Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer all have three errors in the infield so far this season. Though his glove work has satisfied the coaching staff, it has been the Gift from Africa’s production at the plate that has impressed Clint Hurdle and company the most.
In 16 at-bats into his major league career, Ngoepe is hitting .375 on 6 hits while driving in 4 runs. On top of that, his .545 on-base percentage is in part to the 6 walks he has already drawn in his short time with the Pirates. Why this fast start is so surprising for Ngoepe is he was not even hitting that well at AAA Indianapolis to begin the year. He hit only .241 in 58 at-bats while he had exactly as many RBIs and walks as he already has in the majors. To drive the fact home even more, Gift has not hit above .250 in a season since 2015 when he played in 71 games AA Altoona before moving up to AAA. No one in their right mind expects the rookie to hit at this clip for much longer, but with Frazier and David Freese coming off the disabled list sooner or later, where does this leave the immediate future of the African infielder? In my view, he needs to stay in the majors.
Right now there is no position player on the Pirates playing more consistently than Ngoepe, which is something hard to come by with this group. Yes his bat is going to come back down to Earth eventually, but have you considered the other infielders behind Gift? All Alen Hanson can do is run and beyond that he is useless. After being considered one of the top infield prospects coming up through the Pirates system, he has never taken the next step in his development to become a legit major league player. Now he can only get into the game in special situations when his speed is required. While Hanson has his speed going for him, Gosselin is just a turd. He is hitting under .150 and is blander than Clint Barmes. Despite being praised for his glove by Neal Huntington after acquiring the infielder in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Gosselin committed a critical error that led to an Adam Duvall three run home against the Cincinnati Reds Monday night. The Goose was coming off a season where he was error free in 2016 and during his career he only made 6 errors coming into this year.
Honestly the Pirates would be better off sending either of these guys to AAA or designating them for assignment in the upcoming weeks. Ngoepe basically has all the good traits of Hanson and Gosselin without any of the negatives that come with them. More importantly, he proves a spark to this lineup and team that they desperately need with some many guys out. Though I am not calling for Gift to become the regular second baseman even once Frazier and Freese return, he needs to be given a few starts a week in order to get the most out of his ability. As far as being a defensive replacement late in games, this will more than likely be Ngoepe’s role if he should remain with the Pirates. He is definitely in my opinion a better sub than John Jaso, who is drawing on my last nerve (I’ll address him next week). If Hurdle wants to keep this team from sinking more than it already is before the All-Star break, using the Gift he was granted will go along in helping keep the team afloat. That’s enough Gift puns for one day.