Friday, October 10, 2014

Card #119: Joe Pittman

Who Can It Be Now?
Joseph Wayne Pittman was born on January 1, 1953, in Houston, Texas.  Joe attended Kashmere High School in Houston, but he went undrafted directly out of high school. As a result, he eventually enrolled at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and played baseball for the Jaguars. 

His last year at Southern, he hit .447/.512/.582, which got the Houston Astros interested in him and led the Astros to select Pittman in the 5th Round of the 1975 June Draft with the 110th pick overall. After he signed, the Astros sent him to Double-A Columbus (Georgia) for his initial professional assignment.

Much of Pittman's value as a batter was wrapped up in his ability to hit for average. He had little power, and getting on base was not his forte. He struggled for a long time to get to the major leagues, as the back of his card shows us. At Columbus, he hit a very empty .268 -- with a .278 OBP and a .296 SLG, I'd be challenged to call it anything but empty. He had 19 hits in 71 at bats -- 17 singles and 2 doubles. 

So, when 1976 rolled around, Houston dropped him a level to Dubuque in the Midwest League. At Dubuque, he played a little short and third while mostly playing second and making 30 errors in just 99 games at that position. His hitting showed some signs of improvement -- more walks and a few more extra base hits led to a slash of .278/.333/.362. But, he was a 23-year-old who was 2.1 years older than the average player in the Midwest League -- he should be hitting better than that. 

1977 led Pittman back to Columbus for a while with a highly unsuccessful stop in the Florida State League. Pittman's 1977 season was not successful at all -- a combined total of .223/.283/.249 over two leagues, 84 games, and 261 plate appearances. Not to be too harsh, but I wonder why Houston kept him in their organization at this point. Pittman had all the appearances of a guy who would never progress at this point because, once again, he was old for both the leagues in which he was struggling to hit.

But, give it to the Astros -- they kept giving the hometown guy Pittman chances to prove himself in Double-A. In 1978, he stayed in Columbus for the entire year. He was not entirely successful as a hitter there -- .255/.300/.291 -- but it was an improvement over the previous year's totals. 

Then, in 1979, Pittman turned 26. As John Benson has pointed out in the context of projecting for fantasy baseball, the types of guys who seem to succeed "suddenly" as major leaguers are guys who are 26 and have played a couple of years in the majors. Around that age is when players' athletic abilities and progress combine with the experience that the players have gained playing in their life to lead to what often is the pinnacle of their abilities as players.  Ron Shandler's team at Baseball HQ will tell you that the 26-year-old threshold does not apply only in the majors, either -- sometimes, guys have their breakout years at that age in the minors.

Such was the case for Pittman. In his fourth season playing at Columbus, it seemed like a light went on for him. His batting average rose to .283, his OBP was up to .341, and his SLG rose to .366.  It appeared that Pittman had finally mastered Double-A, so the Astros moved him up to Triple-A for a taste there in 1979 before assigning him to Tucson in 1980.

I've mentioned before when talking about Billy Sample and Tommy Boggs that the hitting environment in Tucson is conducive to putting up video-game numbers for hitters. Well, that held true for Pittman too. In his age-27 season, Pittman played like he had never played before -- .314/.381/.408 with 54 SB, just 13 CS, 23 doubles, 10 triples, and 61 RBI (with just 1 HR).  Then again, keep in mind that Tucson as a team hit .296/.369/.431 and stole 259 bases. 

Nonetheless, this put Pittman on the radar for the Astros in 1981 when the Astros needed help plugging gaps caused by injuries. He got his first major league at bat -- and first major league hit -- as a pinch hitter on April 25, 1981 against the Cincinnati Reds and pitcher Bruce Berenyi. 

He didn't start a game for the Astros, though, until May 26. Art Howe had been placed on the 15-day disabled list, so Pittman got the opportunity to start at third base. He went 3-for-3 with an RBI-triple to give the Astros and Nolan Ryan a 1-0 win over the San Diego Padres. He went on a hot streak in those next 14 games, hitting .304/.373/.391 in 46 at bats

Then the strike stopped baseball for two months.

When play resumed, Pittman played for nearly all of August as the starting second baseman for the Astros. His hitting wasn't great -- .265/.311/.324 -- but it wasn't the worst around on a team that hit .263/.324/.366 (not including pitchers) for the season. But, with Houston in a pennant race, the team decided that they would trade for a proven veteran -- Phil Garner -- to play second base on August 31. So, in September/October, Pittman saw action in just 6 games, all but one -- the last game of the season -- as a pinch-hitter. 

Nonetheless, 1981 was the year that Pittman received the most playing time in terms of at-bats that he ever saw as a major leaguer. In 1982, Pittman received just 11 plate appearances with the Astros. As a result, on June 8, the Astros traded Pittman to the San Diego Padres in exchange for pitcher Danny Boone. Pittman played a fair amount for the Padres in 1982 in the same role as for the Astros -- pinch hitter and utility player.

In 1983, the Padres sent Pittman to Triple-A Las Vegas straight out of spring training. Apparently, the Padres determined that they would rather go with the 27-year-olds Juan Bonilla (at 2B) and Luis Salazar (at 3B) over the 29-year-old Pittman. Bonilla was bad, but it's not like Pittman would have provided a significant upgrade (which Alan Wiggins provided in 1984). So, Pittman stayed in Triple-A for all of 1983 and waited.

The Padres, however, decided to move on. They traded Pittman with a minor leaguer to the Giants in exchange for outfielder Champ Summers. Pittman made the Giants out of spring training and played irregularly and infrequently, getting only 23 plate appearances in 17 games. He didn't exactly earn additional playing time, either -- his slash line of .227/.217/.227 (and that is not a misprint; a sac fly brought his OBP down lower than his AVG) does not earn you the right to start.

After that two-month performance, the Giants sent Pittman to Triple-A Phoenix. After the 1984 season, the Giants cut him. For 1985, the Detroit Tigers signed him as an insurance policy at Triple-A. Like most insurance policies, the Tigers never needed Pittman to play with the big club. Thus, at the age of 32 and outside of playing in the senior league later in the 1980s, Pittman's playing career came to an end.

Mustache Check: Joe gets us back on track for the title of most mustaches in a baseball card set.

Everybody Wants You
As I mentioned above, Joe Pittman was traded to the San Diego Padres during the 1982 season. 

And that's all I've got.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Joe Pittman is one of those players about whom I have no recollection whatsoever, except for the fact that I know he has a card in the 1982 Topps Traded set.

After Pittman retired as a player, he served as a scout for the Astros from 1988 to 2003. In his role as a scout, he was responsible for the Astros signing two players identified on The Baseball Cube as making the majors --  pitcher Brian Meyer, who made the majors for 34 games over 1988-1990, and pitcher Brian Williams, who was a first round pick out of South Carolina in 1990.

Pittman finished his degree at Southern in Business Administration, and worked later in life for Bill Heard Chevrolet, Legacy Chevrolet, Yellow Book, and Par Fab Industries. 

Pittman passed away on June 13, 2014. He was living in Columbus, Georgia, at the time, but he passed away while on a business trip in Lake Jackson, Texas. He was 61 years old.

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