The Continuing Search for Baseball Talent All Over the World

This is Alex Stumpf’s second piece as part of his May residency at FanGraphs. Stumpf covers the Pirates and also Duquesne basketball for The Point of Pittsburgh. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read the work of previous residents here.

For the last six years, Tom Gillespie has been scouring the world looking for future Pirates. He says it’s the same as normal scouting: getting a name from beating a bush or a word from a trusted coach. It just happens over in Europe and Africa.

In 2012, his new job with the Pirates brought him to South Africa’s National Baseball Championship, a state vs. state tournament where the country’s best players come to compete. It is one of the most heavily scouted affairs across the Atlantic outside of the officially sanctioned MLB events. By Gillespie’s estimate, upwards of 20 teams will attend. About half of them are there just for this event, the other half are in Africa or Europe year round. His employers were the latter.

A 14 year old player for Gauteng caught his eye that year. His name is Victor Ngoepe, the younger brother of Gift Ngoepe, who was with the Pirates’ high A affiliate in Bradenton at the time. A year later, Ngoepe and Gillespie returned to the same tournament, as they did again in 2014. Their paths crossed once more at the MLB Elite Academy after that third tournament.

The academies are three week camps for the best 40 to 60 players aged 15-18 on the continent. A select few of that group used to be invited to make the trip to Italy for the European Academies from 2005 to 2010, but Major League Baseball added one in Africa in 2011. There, they will practice every morning and play games every afternoon. Gillespie described it as “full on, 24 hour baseball.”

By that point, Victor had improved significantly as a player, and Gillespie still saw the positive energy and work ethic that made Gift a darling among coaches and teammates in the Pirates’ system.

“I had the same feeling he was going to maximize his potential,” Gillespie said.

Over the course of those three years, Gillespie had seen Victor play in 30-40 games. It was time to get another set of eyes on him. Dave Turgeon, the club’s coordinator of instruction, came to watch him play while on a scouting trip. He had a positive review. Video was sent to the front office. They agreed. Gift’s contract was selected by the club in November of 2015, so his development helped the higher ups decide to give the green light on Victor.

On January 13, 2016, Ngoepe signed a minor league deal with the Pirates.

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On April 28, 2017, Victor sat in Marlins Park to watch Gift make his first major league start. Two days earlier, Gift was promoted to the Pirates, becoming the first African-born player in the major leagues. When Gift was told he was promoted, Victor was the first person he called.

As Gift documented in a must-read piece for the Player’s Tribune, he and Victor grew up with their Mom, Maureen, in a room inside the clubhouse for her employer, the Randburg Mets. He fell in love with the game there, and in 2008, the Mets raised the money to send him to an academy in Italy. Nine years and 704 minor league games later, he reached the majors. In his first at-bat, he hit a crisp single up the middle against Jon Lester, fighting back tears while standing at first base.

Ngoepe said the day lived up to the dream he had for it. His teammates almost had as much fun. Shortstop Jordy Mercer kept reminding Ngoepe that he was representing 1.62 billion people (Mercer was a bit off. Africa’s population is currently 1.216 billion). After his hit, Ngoepe looked to the dugout to see his teammates scream “for the motherland!” Clint Hurdle joked that he felt like Bono leaving his presser that day.

If there was anyway to make Gift’s journey to the majors a tad more improbable, it was because his promotion coincided with Dovydas Neverauskas being demoted back to the club’s AAA affiliate Indianapolis Indians. Two days earlier, Neverauskas was the first Lithuanian born player to reach the majors. When the Indians’ manager Andy Barkett got the call that his second baseman was being promoted, Ngoepe said the skipper told the team “Well, we sent the European, and now they’re looking for the African.”

Neverauskas and Ngoepe were both signed by Tom Randolph in 2008 after attending the same academy. Neverauskas returned again in 2009 for more instruction before coming stateside in 2010. With a 97 MPH heater complimented by a cutter, slider and curve, the righty is almost destined to a longer stint with the club and to do his country proud.

When asked what his debut meant for his country after his debut April 24, Neverauskas said he hoped it would lead to better opportunities to play baseball in Lithuania. “Someone can follow in my footstep.”

Ngoepe echoed the sentiment after his first game.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from,” Ngoepe said the day of his debut. “No matter where you are or who you are, you can still make it.”

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Ever since Neal Huntington took over as GM for the Pirates, the club has not shied away from going into untapped markets for players. Before Gift and Neverauskas, there was Jung Ho Kang, John Holdzkom (the first New Zealand born MLBer), and the million dollar arms of Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh. Those unknowns came with varying levels of success. When Kang is on the field, he is the team’s best pure power hitter. Holdzkom was a quality reliever in his only month in the majors. Singh is currently trying out as a professional wrestler for the WWE.

Manfred said during a trip to Pittsburgh April 25 that the best way to grow the game is to have an athlete from the country play in the majors. For Neverauskas’ home, there is plenty of room to grow. Lithuania has three teams but no formal fields. Gillespie said a couple players may go on to play college ball in the states, but they have not and probably will not been heavily scouted.

Players from 59 countries have reached the major leagues, ranging from Afghanistan to West Germany. The next country to be represented or have its output increase is up in the air. Fangraphs’ own Eric Longenhagen suggests Brazil as a future hotbed, citing high ranking prospects like Thyago Vieira and Luiz Gohara as players who could break through to the majors and join the national popularity of Yan Gomes and Paulo Orlando. The academies in Australia have yielded several players. Longenhagen also brought up Italy, but that may be fueled by the academies and some scouts’ desires to get a vacation in the country.

Gillespie does not know where the next pocket of major league talent is coming from. He joked that he should be well placed to answer that after over 15 years of trying to expand the game, but he thinks it is something that cannot be predicted or forced.

“It’s not something MLB can put their finger on and point at. It’s going to happen organically,” Gillespie said. “Hopefully we have more players like Dovydas and Gift from the different parts of the world showing kids and coaches and parents that it may be a long shot dream, but a dream that can become a reality.”





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Gillespie should check out the offspring of ballet dancers in central Europe.