The towering, game-winning grand slam Bryce Harper smacked Thursday night made for arguably his greatest moment yet as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.
In one sense, that could be seen as a bit of a backhanded compliment for a superstar athlete whose underwhelming numbers in the first season of a 13-year, $330 million contract have prompted some booing and, more ominously, talk of a “bust” label. For the first time in five years, and for only the second time in his eight-year major league career, Harper was not named an all-star, and he came into Thursday’s game with averages in batting (.253), on-base percentage (.374) and slugging (.485) that were all below his career marks.
Those numbers dropped just a bit more during Thursday’s game against the Chicago Cubs when Harper started 0-for-3 at the plate with two strikeouts. Meanwhile, the Phillies fell behind, 5-0, and trailed in the bottom of the ninth, 5-1.
Philadelphia scored two runs, then loaded the bases for Harper, who was soon sprinting around the base paths toward a delirious celebration of an improbable 7-5 win.
The home run wasn’t just majestic; it completed a three-game sweep and pulled Philadelphia within a game of Chicago in the race for the final wild-card berth.
It also served as a reminder that while Harper may not have gotten off on exactly the right foot with the Phillies, at least by traditional metrics, he’s come through in the clutch for them more often this year than some boo-birds might realize.
Entering Thursday’s game, Harper was batting .378 with runners in scoring position, all the more crucial for a Phillies squad that has struggled in that department, batting .256 as a team. Make it two outs with runners in scoring position, and Harper had a .410 batting average, compared to .225 for his team overall (including his contributions).
That jibed with Harper’s batting average this season in what Baseball Reference has classified as at-bats in high-leverage situations, i.e., when major swings in win probability are at stake. Coming into Thursday, he was batting .315 in such situations, compared to .263 in medium-leverage and .216 in low-leverage at-bats.
In other words, while the 26-year-old outfielder’s numbers overall may be down this season, he’s been at his best at the plate when it’s mattered the most. But wait, there’s more!
Whereas Harper’s 2.1 WAR through Wednesday placed him just 143rd among major league players (per ESPN), his mark of 3.6 in WPA (win probability added, via Baseball Reference) was good for sixth, behind only Christian Yelich, Mike Trout, Clay Bellinger, Freddie Freeman and Xander Bogaerts.
According to numbers-crunchers Thursday evening, Harper’s grand slam actually vaulted him to second, behind Yelich alone, with a 5.07 WPA. And if you think Yelich has been a bust this season, you probably also think Aaron Rodgers can chug beer.
In a recent column for Sports Illustrated in which Tom Verducci said of Harper and Manny Machado, “Don’t call these guys busts,” he noted that Harper was posting a career-best slugging percentage in high-leverage situations and “driving in a higher percentage of runners than ever before.”
Then there are the folks at FanGraphs, whose Win Probability chart entering Thursday had Harper second overall in the Clutch category, behind only the St. Louis Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt.
Put all that together, and it’s fair to wonder why anyone might have thought anything else could have happened when Harper came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth.
“I think everyone who watches baseball expects him to do that every time he’s up,” Phillies starter Drew Smyly said. “He’s fun to watch.”
But were Harper’s own parents not optimistic enough about his chances at becoming the hero to stick around Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park for the ninth? That was the suggestion he jokingly made after the game in saying that he noticed the lights were off in the stadium suite his parents were using.
“So thanks, Mom and Dad, appreciate ya,” Harper added.
In comments after the game, Harper indicated that perhaps he wasn’t taking a better approach in clutch situations so much as refusing to let those moments overwhelm him.
“Before I went to the plate, I touched my heart and I was thinking to myself: Why am I not jittery? Why am I not excited? But that’s just how I am,” he said. “I go up there and each at-bat is the same. I don’t think about bases loaded. I try to get a pitch I can drive, and hopefully good things happen.
“I love those moments. I love those opportunities. I think it helped me a lot, from a young age, going through those emotions and having those opportunities at 8, 9, 10 years old in big-time games, going to different states and cities playing for a lot of teams.”
“I just love it,” he continued. “It’s a lot of fun. These fans do expect that, and I expect to do that for them on a nightly basis.
“And if I don’t, they’ll let me know, and I like that, too.”
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