I'll be completely honest. I had no idea who Joe Vitiello was before writing this article. I came across this outstanding short season when looking at OPS+ in small sample sizes. Vitiello had left MLB for NPB in 2000 after a solid but not noteworthy career with the Royals and Astros, but when he signed with the Montreal Expos in 2003, he surpassed all expectations in a short amount of time, only to never play in MLB again.
Historically, there have been several players who left MLB for Japan or Korea and upon their return to the states finally figured out how to hit a baseball or pitch better. Take Eric Thames for example. After toiling with Seattle and Toronto in 2011 and 2012, Thames went to the KBO and set the league on fire in three seasons, batting an astronomical .349/.451/.721 with 130 home runs in just three seasons. He returned to bat .247 but swatted 31 home runs-- also batting .345/.446/.810 with 11 home runs in his first month back in the bigs.
Vitiello was of the same ilk of Thames-- always hit well in the minors, but could never put it together at the major league level. In his minor league career, he batted .303/.380/.496 with 154 home runs and 697 RBI. Up to 2000, his career-high in batting average was .254 and the most home runs he hit in a season was eight. While he didn't pass the home run total in this abbreviated stint in the majors, Vitiello contributed much more in just three months.
Vitiello spent five seasons in the majors with Kansas City, the team that drafted him in 1991, before signing as a free agent with San Diego. After a season where he slashed .250/.365/.423 in 52 at-bats, Vitiello went unsigned the following offseason, so he took his talents to the Orix BlueWave of Nippon Professional Baseball.
In his lone season in Japan, Vitiello slashed .275/.351/.489 with 22 home runs and 83 RBI. He returned stateside for 2002, earning himself a deal with the Montreal Expos, where he found his hitting stroke, having the second-highest batting average of his career at .329, mashing 16 homers and slugging .520.
To this point in his career, Vitiello had never been worth positive fWAR, his highest wRC+ was 110 and OPS+ was 106. He started the 2003 season struggling in a new organization, batting just .216 in AAA Fresno, where he had signed a minor-league deal with San Francisco. The Giants dealt him back to Montreal, where he improved, and when Fernando Tatis went down with an injury in late June, Vitiello was finally recalled from AAA Edmonton. What I don't think the Expos anticipated was what Vitiello did over the next three months.
In his first game in the majors since September 30, 2000, Vitiello emerged as a pinch hitter for pitcher Joey Eischen in the eighth inning. He had finally made it back after years of trying, and despite grounding out in his first plate appearance, he was about to show why the Expos brought him up.
Over the next couple of weeks, Vitiello racked up some firsts since he last played in 2000. In his first start with the Expos against Pittsburgh on June 25, he had his first hit since September 20, 2000, a single. He then followed in his next game, a two-hit effort against Toronto, with his first RBI with the Expos. Finally, when the calendar turned to July, he socked his first home run since August 10, 2000. He pinch-hit for Livan Hernandez against the Mets at Shea Stadium on July 2 in the ninth inning and socked a home run off John Franco.
Vitiello's month of July was great. In 23 at-bats, he slashed .435/.462/.609 and was batting .448 in August. While he faded a little bit in August, he was still batting .391 as he picked up more starts. In September, he swatted two more home runs, going back-to-back with Todd Zeile against Mark Redman on September 5 against Florida and again off Jason Marquis on September 17 against the Braves.
By the time the end of the season rolled around, Vitiello contributed the best stretch and "season" of his career in terms of hitting. He set career-highs in all these categories*: AVG (.342), OBP (.407), SLG (.539), OPS (.946), ISO (.197), BABIP (.383), wOBA (.408), wRC+ (145), and OPS+ (140). He was worth positive fWAR for the first and only time in his career, contributing 0.6 fWAR in those 86 plate appearances. All of this coming from a guy who batted a fairly pedestrian .237 through parts of six seasons in the majors.
Vitiello never made it back to the major leagues, surprisingly, despite signing again with the Expos. He was released in early April 2004, signing with Detroit, and was released again at the end of the season.
It seemed like Vitiello had finally found his hitting stroke-- using his stint in Japan as medicine for his swing. While it is a shame he never got to show it over a full season, Joe Vitiello made his mark in a short time and saved his best for last.
*small sample, I know.