Bryce Harper’s Walkoff Grand Slam and Clutch Play

Last night, the Cubs entered the bottom the ninth inning with a 5-1 lead and a 98.3% chance of winning the game according to our Play Logs. After recording the first out, the win probability moved up to 99.4%, but after an error, three singles, and a hit batter, the Cubs’ lead was cut to 5-3 and Bryce Harper stepped up to the plate against Derek Holland with the bases loaded, and the Phillies’ win expectancy had moved up to 32.3%. Then it moved up to 100% when this happened:

As far as pitches go, it wasn’t necessarily a bad one. There have been over 500 pitches this season of at least 94 mph in a left-on-left matchup where the pitcher hit the inside corner or further inside. Only 35 such pitches resulted in base hits, with a .276 BABIP and .143 ISO. There were only four homers on pitches like that, and after last night, Harper has two of them, with another coming in June off Max Fried.

Harper’s homer last night took a long time to land.

For those Statcast aficionados out there, Harper hit the ball 113 mph with a launch angle of 40 degrees. There have only been 15 homers hit this season with an exit velocity of 110 mph or more with a launch angle of 35 degrees or more. Of those high-launch-angle swings, Harper’s homer was the hardest hit of the season. He seemed pretty pleased with himself.

The Win Expectancy Chart for the game looked like this:

Harper’s teammates also seemed to understand the importance of the chart.

With that one swing, Harper added 0.67 to his WPA on the season. While his 122 wRC+ is a good-not-great 45th out of 146 qualified batters, his WPA, which measures the direct results on the game that his hits and outs have impacted, ranks third.

Win Probability Added Leaders in 2019
Name Team wRC+ WPA
Christian Yelich Brewers 173 5.92
Mike Trout Angels 186 5.12
Bryce Harper Phillies 122 5.07
Cody Bellinger Dodgers 172 4.95
Freddie Freeman Braves 149 4.94
Ronald Acuña Jr. Braves 135 4.25
Michael Brantley Astros 147 4.07
Xander Bogaerts Red Sox 142 4.05
Max Muncy Dodgers 133 4.05
Juan Soto Nationals 142 3.75

Harper has sequenced his positive contributions in enough big moments that his overall batting line doesn’t reflect the contributions his hits have made to the Phillies’ wins and losses. It’s made a major difference for the team this season as they have allowed 19 more runs than they’ve scored, and their BaseRuns record, which takes sequencing out, is 55-66, eight games worse than their actual record of 63-58, which puts them just a game out of the wild card race.

The Phillies and Harper don’t have any particular skill when it comes these “clutch” hits. Harper’s 176 wRC+ in high-leverage situations ranks ninth among hitters with at least 40 PA in those situations. Harper has the skills necessary to put up a 176 wRC+ in all situations, but it just so happens he’s bunched up that level of play in big spots. He is very much an outlier this season when we compare wRC+ and WPA.

We have a Clutch stat at FanGraphs which essentially measures a hitter’s performance in important situations versus his normal production. Harper is far and away the leader this season.

Clutch Leaders in 2019
Name Team wRC+ WPA Clutch
Bryce Harper Phillies 122 5.07 2
Michael Brantley Astros 147 4.07 1.46
Paul Goldschmidt Cardinals 106 3.06 1.45
Alex Gordon Royals 94 1.53 1.42
Jean Segura Phillies 96 2.28 1.37
Mookie Betts Red Sox 126 3.5 1.18
Xander Bogaerts Red Sox 142 4.05 1.17
David Peralta D-backs 105 1.61 1.12
Marwin Gonzalez Twins 93 0.83 1.08
José Iglesias Reds 87 0.98 1.05
David Fletcher Angels 101 1.33 1.04

This likely isn’t a measure of Harper’s particular skills to perform better in important situations. If he could perform better in clutch situations, it would behoove him to play like that all of the time. In addition, Harper’s career clutch score is 0.63, which means he was negative entering the season and he’s right around all other players. To further demonstrate the lack of clutch ability — or at least the lack of clutch ability once a player has made it through years of training and playing pressure-packed games as an amateur and in the minors and has put together a decently long pro career — the graph below shows all players since 1974 with at least 3,000 plate appearances with their offensive runs above average, i.e. their normal offensive production, and their WPA.

Nearly everybody’s numbers end up mirroring themselves. Maybe there’s some guys’ type of game that can produce incremental positive Clutch scores over a long period of time, like the situational hitting of Tony Gwynn or Pete Rose that produces singles might be worth a handful of runs per year over a career, but those are very extreme cases. That doesn’t mean Harper’s season isn’t very unusual. The scatter plot below shows every qualified season since 1974 with a player’s Clutch score and their wRC+.

The giant blob should suggest that there’s not a correlation between good hitting and “Clutch” hitting at the major league level. That we can sort of make out where Harper’s season is in that giant blob indicates the season is a bit of an outlier. Out of around 6,500 qualified seasons, Harper’s clutch score as it stands today ranks 90th. Of the 90 players, Harper is currently one of only 32 players with a wRC+ of at least 120.

Good Hitters and Clutch Seasons
Name Season Team wRC+ Clutch WPA
Albert Pujols 2006 Cardinals 174 3.26 9.62
Todd Helton 2000 Rockies 162 2.22 8.87
David Ortiz 2005 Red Sox 157 3.31 8.66
Tony Gwynn 1997 Padres 153 2.03 7.12
Larry Walker 2002 Rockies 150 2.09 5.93
Bernie Williams 2002 Yankees 146 2.08 5.43
Eddie Murray 1985 Orioles 145 2.89 6.36
Tony Gwynn 1984 Padres 144 3.13 7.39
George Brett 1976 Royals 144 2.76 5.14
Vladimir Guerrero 2007 Angels 143 2.55 6.12
Ryan Howard 2009 Phillies 139 2.77 6.29
Ellis Burks 2002 Indians 139 2.23 4.26
Derek Jeter 2006 Yankees 138 2.33 6.09
Rusty Staub 1976 Tigers 135 2.58 5.65
Alan Trammell 1988 Tigers 134 2.38 4.8
Dwayne Murphy 1981 Athletics 132 2.14 4.62
Darren Daulton 1993 Phillies 132 2.01 5.08
Carlos Santana 2013 Indians 132 2 4.2
Mike Hargrove 1979 – – – 131 2.18 4.21
Miguel Tejada 2002 Athletics 129 2.87 5.04
Mark Grace 1993 Cubs 129 2.58 5.54
Rickey Henderson 1988 Yankees 127 2.86 6.76
Tony Gwynn 1988 Padres 127 2.83 5.16
Josh Hamilton 2011 Rangers 127 2.2 4.95
Eric Hosmer 2015 Royals 124 2.33 3.87
Bruce Bochte 1980 Mariners 123 2.43 4.14
Jason Giambi 1997 Athletics 123 2.37 2.63
Bryce Harper 2019 Phillies 122 2 5.07
Mark Grace 1999 Cubs 121 2.18 4.81
Mark Loretta 2003 Padres 121 2.11 3.8
Ray Knight 1986 Mets 120 2.5 4.23
Alex Gordon 2014 Royals 120 2.18 2.85

At the moment, Harper’s 5.07 WPA is the 231st-highest total since 1974. For comparison’s sake, the 231st-ranked wRC+ during that same time was 157 of Edgar Martinez in 2001. That’s the kind of production the Phillies have received from Harper in terms of results even though Harper hasn’t actually played that well. If Harper were to continue his torrid WPA pace and end up with 6.76 WPA on the season, that would be the 46th-highest mark of the last 46 seasons. The 46th-highest wRC+ during that time belongs to Mike Trout’s 2013 season, when he put up a 176 wRC+.

By results, the Phillies have received an MVP-level performance from Harper right there with Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger. He hasn’t actually been that good because of all the outs, and his performances in important situations can’t be projected into the future, but in terms of the Phillies’ season, last night showed why some hits matter more than others. If the Phillies do make the playoffs, Bryce Harper’s combination of immense talent plus some good fortune in big moments will be a big reason why they play in October.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 years ago

more importantly, where does his time around the bases rank for HR trot this year? I’ve never seen someone loss a helmet round first on a HR over the wall, wish he would have let it fall.