How does one define “clutch?”
Sometimes, we just know it when we see it. You know, the ‘ol eye test that everyone loves so much. It sure seemed like Derek Jeter, Big Papi, Randy Johnson and Mariano Rivera always came through when it mattered most, and I don’t need some newfangled nerdy metric to tell us what clutch is!
The good news is that we have a newfangled (well, it’s newfangled in that it didn’t exist for more than a century of baseball but it’s actually been around for a while now) nerdy metric to tell us what clutch is. It’s called Win Probability Added (WPA).
For the uninitiated, for each moment in a baseball game there is something called a “win expectancy,” a percentage chance each team has of winning or losing that game. For example, if Bryce Harper comes to the plate with the team down three runs in the bottom of the 9th and two out and the bases loaded, the Phillies might have a win expectancy of 15%. In other words, a 15% chance of winning that game, based on previous outcomes of teams in the same situation. And if Harper were to hit a home run to win the game, that win expectancy shoots to 100%, meaning Harper would have picked up 0.850 in Win Probability Added. If a player in a high leverage spot strikes out and decreases his team’s chances of winning, his overall WPA will drop.
Obviously, Harper has had a number of clutch hits since joining the Phillies four years ago, and given his incredible game-tying salami against the Angels on Sunday afternoon, here is where it ranks among his all-time clutchiest hits as a Phils, based on Wins Probability Added from Baseball Reference,
August 15, 2019 vs. Chicago Cubs — WPA 0.660
At 63-57 coming into the game, the Phillies were battling the 64-56 Cubs for their playoff lives and had won the first two games of this key three-game series, but the chances for a sweep were looking dim when Chicago took a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the 9th.
Of course, we’re talking about the Harper walk-off grand slam game game, so you know how this turned out.
With the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th and one out against Chicago closer Derek Holland, Harper launched a cloud-scraping rocket deep into the seats in right, finishing off an impressive sweep of the Cubs and giving Harper his first true, signature moment in a Phillies uniform.
July 16, 2019 vs. Los Angeles Dodgers — WPA 0.654
It wasn’t a walk-off homer, but it was just as effective.
The 48-46 Phillies had jumped out to a 6-1 lead in the 2nd inning but had seen that lead shrink to 6-5 in the 9th. The Dodgers then scored three runs in the top of the inning off Hector Neris and Ranger Suarez, putting the Phils in an 8-6 hole heading into the bottom of the 9th.
But the Phils weren’t done battling. After scoring a run to make it 8-7, Harper faced L.A. closer Kenley Jansen with runners on 1st and 2nd and one out and laced a double to center, scoring Cesar Hernandez and Scott Kingery for the improbable 9-8 victory.
May 24, 2022 vs. Atlanta Braves — WPA 0.629
This was likely the game in which former manager Joe Girardi lost the clubhouse and, in turn, lost his job.
The 20-22 Phils desperately needed a win against the equally struggling Braves, and Harper appeared ready to single-handedly deliver them one. He had already driven in three runs when he faced Kenley Jansen once again, trailing 4-3 in the top of the 9th. And once again, Harper took Jansen yard for a key two-run dinger that gave the Phillies a short-lived 5-4 lead. He had accounted for all five runs, a true climb-on-my-back moment for the reigning MVP.
Of course, Nick Nelson was asked by Girardi to pitch a wrap-around inning for his first career save, with Corey Knebel “unavailable” to pitch a third straight day (even though he begged Girardi to let him do it).
Still, the homer was cool.
June 5, 2022 vs. Los Angeles Angels — WPA 0.453
For most players, the grand slam Harper hit against the Angels in the 8th inning Sunday would have been the biggest hit of their careers. For Harper, it ranks as just the 7th-clutchiest hit of his career so far. And even though it didn’t ultimately “win” the game for the Phillies, it did “save” the game for them.
With the bases loaded, two out, and a full count on him, Harper launched a no-doubter into the upper deck in right field to tie things up at 6-6. Knebel did pitch the 9th inning this time and gave up a go-ahead run to the Angels in the process, setting up rookie Bryson Stott’s heroics in the 9th.
April 19, 2019 vs. Colorado Rockies — WPA 0.381
Facing closer Chad Bettis, Harper stepped to the plate in the top of the 12th with the score tied 2-2 and a runner on 1st, and launched this double to deep center field that scored Phillies legend Phil Gosselin to give the Phils a 3-2 lead.
Unfortunately, the Phillies would waste these heroics when Juan Nicasio allowed a two-run homer to Phillie-killer Charlie Blackmon in the bottom of the 12th in an ugly 4-3 loss.
I won’t post that highlight.
Interestingly enough, Harper’s highest leverage hit in his career came at the expense of the Phillies while he was still wearing a Nationals uniform.
It was on April 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. The Phillies led 4-3, but Harper came to the plate with runners on 1st and 2nd and two out. Joaquin Benoit was on the hill and gave up this tater to Harper to crush the Phils 6-4, for a WPA score of 0.822. It was awful.
Thankfully, the Phillies have the benefit of watching Harper do this in their uniforms now, and perhaps managers like Joe Maddon should take heed.
Don’t allow yourself to face him in the clutch. It’s not going to work out for you.