Ranking Ben Francisco’s 3-Run Home Run By WPA

Ben Francisco slugged a pinch-hit 3-run home run for the Phillies in Game 3 of the NLDS Tuesday night. The home run was decisive as the Phillies beat the Cardinals 3-2 to take a two games to one lead in the best-of-five series. The specter of huge pinch-hits is ever present this postseason with the Diamondbacks in the playoffs for the first time under manager Kirk Gibson.

Gibson, of course, authored the most famous pinch-hit homer in the last 25 postseasons. An ailing Gibson, then with the Dodgers, slammed a walk-off, two-run jack off Athletics closer Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. As Gibson hobbled around the bases making exaggerated arm pumps, announcer Jack Buck exclaimed, “I don’t believe what I just saw.”

At .870, Gibson’s home run has the highest WPA (Win Probability Added) of any postseason pinch-hit at-bat in the last 25 years. After the Phillies-Cardinals game Tuesday night, I wondered how Francisco’s pinch-hit at-bat ranked in WPA as compared to Gibson’s home run and other high WPA postseason pinch-hit at-bats dating back to 1988.

Here’s what I found.

Beginning with the 1988 postseason through Tuesday’s games, there were 555 postseason pinch-hit at-bats by players whose team went on to win the game. Of those, 195 pinch hitters achieved a WPA greater than zero; fifty achieved a WPA of zero; and 310 players ended their at-bats with a WPA less than zero.

Ben Francisco’s pinch-hit 3-run home run for the Phillies in the top of the 7th inning of Tuesday’s Game 3 of the NLDS ranks 4th in WPA with a .407. The only two pinch-hit at-bats between Francisco’s home run and Gibson’s home run in WPA come from the 1992 postseason:

Francisco Cabrera‘s pinch-hit walk-off single for the Braves in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS against the Pirates, with a .737 WPA

In the bottom of the 9th inning, the Braves trailed 2-0 to the Pirates. Bucs starter Doug Drabek remained in the game and gave up a lead off double to Terry Pendleton. David Justice then reached on an error, putting runners on the corners. Drabek walked Sid Bream, loading the bases with no outs. Stan Belinda replaced Drabek. Ron Gant hit a line drive sacrifice fly to right, scoring Pendleton. Belinda walked Damon Berryhill to load the bases again.

Rafael Belliard was due up next, but Brian Hunter was sent up to pinch-hit for Belliard. On an 0-1 count, Hunter popped up to second base, leaving the bases loaded with two outs. With that popfly, Hunter recorded the lowest WPA of all 555 pinch-hit at-bats from 1988 through Tuesday’s games at -.263.

Hunter’s at-bat was immediately followed by Francisco Cabrera’s pinch-hit appearance. In the entire 1992 season, Cabrera had batted just 11 times, drawing 1 walk and getting 3 hits, 2 of them home runs. With the bases loaded and 2 outs, and the Pirates leading 2-1, Cabrera knocked a single to left field, scoring Justice and Bream on a very close play at the plate. The Braves won the NLCS and went on to face the Blue Jays in the World Series.

Ed Sprague‘s pinch-hit two-run home run for the Blue Jays in the top of the 9th of Game 2 of the 1992 World Series against the Braves, with a .669 WPA

Just four days after Francisco Cabrera’s series-winning pinch-hit single, the Braves faced off against the Blue Jays in Game 2 of the World Series. In the top of the 9th, the Blue Jays trailed 4-3. Braves pitcher Jeff Reardon was on the mound. Reardon was the player for whom Cabrera pinch hit in Game 7 of the NLCS and now he was facing pinch hitter Derek Bell with one out and one run lead. Bell drew a walk (giving him a .080 WPA for the at-bat). Ed Sprague then pinch-hit for Blue Jays pitcher Duane Ward.

Sprague had played in only 22 games for the Blue Jays in 1992, totaling 50 plate appearances. He posted a slash line of .234/.280/.340 with 1 home run. In Game 4 of the ALCS that year, against the Athletics, Sprague had pinch-hit in a crucial at-bat, with the Blue Jays trailing 6-4 in the top of the 8th, bases loaded and 2 outs. Sprague struck out, giving him a -.100 WPA for the at-bat. The Blue Jays eventually won the game in the 11th.

But in Game 2 of the 1992 World Series, Sprague delivered, launching the first pitch from Reardon for a home run to deep left, scoring Bell and giving the Blue Jays a 5-4 lead. The Blue Jays won that game and went on to win the World Series in 6 games.

As for Francisco’s heroics, the Phillies and Cardinals were knotted in a 0-0 game in the top of the 7th inning. Both starting pitchers–Jaime Garcia for the Cardinals and Cole Hamels for the Phillies–were still in the game.

Shane Victorino lead off with a single to center field and advanced to second on a passed ball. John Mayberry flew out and Placido Polanco grounded out, bringing up Carlos Ruiz. Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa elected to intentionally walk Ruiz, forcing Phillies’ skipper Charlie Manuel to pinch hit for Hamels.

Up to the plate strode Francisco. This would be Francisco’s 10th postseason pinch-hit at-bat with the Phillies, dating back to the 2009 NLDS. In his 9 previous opportunities, Francisco had recorded a positive WPA only 2 times: (1) when he was hit by a pitch in Game 2 of the 2010 NLDS against the Reds and (2) when he reached on an error in Game 5 of the 2010 NLCS against the Giants. In his 7 other postseason pinch-hit at-bats, Francisco had made an out.

On a 1-0 pitch from Jaime Garcia, Francisco launched a home run to deep left center field, scoring Victorino and Ruiz. Francisco didn’t fist pump around the bases like Gibson did in 1988, but Francisco’s home run will go down in history as one of the highest WPA postseason pinch-hit at-bats in the last 25 years.

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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

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