As a self confessed sports stats nerd of epic proportions forgive me if I'm a little bit late in making topical references to Moneyball. The book's been out for seven years, I never bought it until about two months ago when the movie suddenly turned up and it's been sitting in the "TO READ" pile since then and despite best intentions to read the actual in-depth stats bonanza in its purest form aside I ended up seeing the movie first.
Good movie it was too, nigh on impossible carrying off the subject matter while not completely alienating 99% of the audience (in this country at least) who don't give half a toss about baseball and couldn't pick Oakland on a map with 50 guesses. Didn't half help that they roped Brad Pitt in, also probably didn't hurt that they went relatively light on the stats. Good news for the general cinemagoer, bad news for the 1% of freaks like me who actually want to hear more about On Base Percentage and Slugging Average in the cinema but you can't fault them for wanting to make money instead of providing entertainment to three people as a tumbleweed rolls through the cinema. That's a job for the Australian movie industry.
Throughout the film I was distracted by the thought that since the first day the book hit shelves managers, administrators and fans must have been trying to adapt the concept to fit other sports. It's often said that recruiters have been extolling its virtues for years, and our own CEO is apparently a fan (though when anybody from Melbourne is quoted talking about 'small forwards who kick goals' you just have to laugh), but does it really have any relevance to our game or is it just a desperate attempt at trying to avoid looking like you're not up with the next big thing?
They say the Sydney Swans have been at it for years, but realistically that's just a case of not putting all their trust into the draft (rightfully so too in some cases) and trading for older, often less fashionable, players to fit roles rather than relying on raw stats as a guide to how they'll fit in. The Swans aren't hurt by having an extended salary cap either, actually putting them into the class (in the context of a league with an allegedly rigorously enforced cap) of the big spenders like the New York Yankees whom Moneyball was designed to tip out. It's teams paying 92.5% of the cap who are our version of the unloved Oakland A's. Even that article is forced to admit in its final paragraph that Paul Roos didn't operate based on stats. They're not stats wizards, they're expert turd polishers, and bless them for it. If we could do the same I'd be thrilled.
It's not to say that there aren't statistical geniuses at work, probably in every club across the league, but good luck really trying to adopt the Moneyball idea from baseball. What other sport has the luxury of statistical information broken down to such a minute level? Who else has a 162 game regular season in which to unleash a theory but still have time to alter course if it doesn't work after an appropriate period of reflection? Champion Data might be pumping away loggine very stat under the sun and making a fortune selling premium packages to league clubs with categories that nerds like me can only dream of but they're still working on a sample size of 22 games, plus finals and a pre-season cup which is played under such fanciful, unlikely rules that it's barely worth using them for comparative purposes.
Bear in mind that before the last Major League Baseball season the Spring Training schedule saw the teams play between 29 and 35 practice matches alone. That's an insane amount for putting together pre-season stats, and enough time to float even the most nutbag of positional or tactical theories and still have time to recover before the real stuff begins - and even then you can afford to get more than ten games behind the leader at the halfway mark of the season and still run them down in the home stretch. On September 1 this year the Atlanta Braves led the St Louis Cardinals by 8.5 games in the National League wildcard race and by September 28 they'd been eliminated from playoff contention.
These guys are operating in another world entirely. A world where this is a player's publicly accessible career statistical record. No doubt behind the scenes AFL clubs have access to incredible packages but as fans this is as good as it gets and that's only by the grace of somebody putting the information together off their own bat and expecting nothing in return. We simply don't put the same premium on statistical information as baseball do.
Maybe there are some geniuses out there with overflowing whiteboards who can give you a formula which shows how to take a team with three Mortons and use them to create one Lance Franklin but I'm suggesting there are far too many variables in our sport to create anything truly meaningful. Baseball essentially comes down to one man piffing a ball very quickly at another who tries to hit it. You can analyse performance of left handers vs righties, you can take into account the sort of pitches that are thrown and if you're really keen you can see one man's batting record against all pitchers who he's hit more than five home runs off during his career.
This is a sport that lends itself more purely to statistics than any other in the world and if you're not yet convinced that they're operating on a different planet let me introduce you to Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). Try and work this out without a university degree.
A statistic that demonstrates how much a hitter contributes offensively or how much a pitcher contributes to his team in comparison to a fictitious “replacement player,” who is an average fielder at his position and a below average hitter. A replacement player performs at “replacement level,” which is the level of performance an average team can expect when trying to replace a player at minimal cost, also known as “freely available talent.”
Multiply the league average runs per out by the player’s total outs; this provides the number of runs an average player would have produced given that certain number of outs to work with. Now multiply that number (of runs) by .8, or whatever level your replacement equations give you; this is the number of runs you could expect a “replacement player” to put up for that number of outs. Simply [Simply? They're taking the piss - Mercado] subtract the replacement’s runs created from the player’s actual runs created, then, and you have VORP. A word to the wise, though: while the replacement’s run total will be park-neutral (by definition), the player’s raw numbers won’t be. Before calculating the VORP, run the player stats through park factors, normalizing the numbers. The resultant VORP should give a pretty good estimate of how “valuable” the player in question is
Baseball is a game decided by one piece of scoring only, and at any given time there are no more than three or four people involved in any transaction. Australian Rules could very well end up with 30 players within five metres of the ball, which can then go in any direction and more often than not despite the best efforts of Demetriou and the *spit* rules committee ends up in a stoppage. It doesn't allow for the random fat porkies of baseball who make up for their uncouth physiques in other ways. It ruthlessly exposes gaps in fitness and skill under pressure.
So, could you build a competitive squad on a fiver based purely on their statistics, discounting negatives such as a injury history or on-field ill-discipline? Not in my book you couldn't, but that doesn't mean that some stats both obvious and obscure aren't still relevant. Here's some areas that I feel we have to address if we're going to improve enough to at least be able to take on non-crap Victorian teams.
(General disclaimers apply about being shit at analysing footy. Publish and be damned. You may violently disagree with much of what follows but please be aware that sending explosive devices through the post is a breach of the Australian Postal Corporation Act 1989)
Clearances from stoppages in general really, but out of the middle it's so crucial that our inability to get it right consistently was one of the most frustrating things about 2011.
Other than in certain exceptional circumstances (186) our backline is pretty good in repelling attacks but it's tempting fate to continually allow opposition sides to win the ball from the centre bounce and go forward expecting that one of our defenders will mop up the mess before one of their players has the chance to do any damage.
Jamar and Moloney might have been a lethal combination at times early in 2011 but by the time the Russian returned from injury every team in the competition had twigged what they were up to and spent the rest of the year persecuting Beamer at centre bounces. Moloney might still have had the 13th most clearances in a season since 1998 but with precious little backup we were tonked out of the middle again and again. There's a good reason that despite his big numbers we still finished 16th in the competition for total clearances.
Either we have to broaden our options or have somebody with a big body in there who can at least run interfence for Moloney. It's the most basic thing I can think of that we need to improve other than simply scoring more goals - and we're not going to be in any position to be kicking goals if the ball is going constantly going from the centre to the backline.
Disposal efficiency from clearances
When I see clearance stats at the end of a match I want them to remove every one that is just a panicked kick or wild handball out of a pack. They should be, and quite possibly already are, split into "quality clearances" (i.e ones that reach a teammate who has time to use it properly and does) and rubbish clearances where the ball is hacked desperately forward and ends up with an opponent. Then there's the neutral clearances where it either goes to space or leads immediately to another stoppage.
More realistic ball winning options at the drop and players who have the poise to use it properly when they do get it are the key. For instance you wouldn't expect Jordie McKenzie to be delivering huge numbers of quality clearances but as long as he can at least avoid the negatives and still get the ball we should get better. It's your Trengoves et al who are going to be crucial in getting decent use of the ball from stoppages.
It's become a cliche but at least it's one that makes sense. I'm sure Page 1 of the Neeld playbook is all about forward pressure but he's still got to have somebody to execute it. Preferably more than one, preferably a whole raft of forwards who put the opposition backline under siege every time they touch the ball.
Every once in a while we perfected this last year, for instance Petterd's forward 50 tackling masterclass against Richmond, but more often than not opposition sides rebound the ball out of defence with barely a sweat raised. The ball then goes down the other end where we're subject to utter terror watching our players try and clear it under intense pressure.
It's not just tackling, it's perceived pressure from being near somebody, it's not letting them take easy marks beyond 20 or 30m out from goal. If there's a stat for the amount of time that you keep the opposition inside their own defensive 50 I want us to rocket to the top of the rankings. Wear them down, make returning the ball from a kick-in or a defensive mark close to goal as difficult as possible. Give other fans a taste of what we've had for the last few years when any point conceded is automatically assumed to come back as a 7, 8, 9 point play over the next five minutes.
Rush the ball properly
Where did we rank for rushed behinds last year? Can it be split between rushed as part of a realistic contest and the ones that the umps were too scared to pay deliberate on? My hunch is that no team conceded as many scores as we did from failing to just knock the bloody thing through and take the kick-in. Stop trying to save one point, get the kick-ins right for the first time in living memory and don't wind up copping goals by trying to keep the ball alive.
Speaking of kick-ins...
Kick-ins to a mark
Absolutely crucial that we increase our rate of finding a target outside 50 from a kick-in. Whether it takes one kick or two to get there, and if you're taking more than two something's drastically wrong, it doesn't matter as long as eventually somebody ends up with the ball in their hands and the chance to go forward.
Too often we either kick to the same place time and time again or botch the second kick from the 15/20m line get belted going back the other way. Even when we get away with it it's usually at the cost of a behind, and it's fine to be conceding them at a million miles an hour when you're a rubbish side but if there's any aspiration to start winning close games we've got to save every point we can.
Handball efficiency inside defensive 50 and realistic targets
Nobody wants to see handball in the backline but like death and taxes it will always be with us. It goes without saying that every handball should hit the mark but we've got to eliminate the panic element which seems to go with every defensive handball. They've got to up the numbers in firstly getting it to the right man but secondly in making sure that you're not just selling him into trouble.
Ok, if he's tackled straight away and it winds up in a bounce then it's not the worst result ever but so often they're given the ball with that extra few seconds which oblige them to dispose of it and end up either giving away the free or indulging in another panic handball which starts the chain all over again.
Long kicking efficiency on rebound 50's
Not every defensive rebound is going to be from a score, and many of them are going to involve dinky little handballs and chip kicks that always seem seconds from disaster even when they come off but sometimes somebody's going to work free onto a wing - or god forbid down the middle - and a precise 30/40m pass will have them off towards our goal. Conversely if the kick misses or doesn't hit the target we're on the back foot again.
Tapscott's my number one choice for this but he can't be the only option. Frawley, Rivers and Garland are ok at it but you wouldn't put your life on them, Davey will hopefully be forward, Grimes would have to stay fit for more than 20 minutes and you can pretty much shut the gate on the rest of them so we need to find somebody else down there with the precise kicking skills to hit those targets. Ideally three or four of them. Easier said than done but if we can hit targets moving quickly out of defence it'll help the forwards get to it first. Which brings us to..
Quality inside 50's and marks inside 50
Again, raw stats may tell you that a team is going inside 50 plenty of times but how many of those entries provide opportunity for a scoring shot? If a player picks up the ball in the middle of the ground and hoofs it to 40m out straight into a nest of opposition defenders with not a teammate in sight why do we count it amongst important stats? Fans and journalists love to use inside 50's as the measure of all that is good and wrong with a team but surely coaches are looking for quality only and ignoring the rest.
I guarantee you that if you split our inside 50's into the type that a) either went to one of our players, went to a legitimate contest or into the open insde 30m with one of our players nearby and into the type that was just the ball rolling pathetically to the 49m mark and being run out again that it would be absolutely grim reading.
For once you can't blame the midfield. For most of the last two seasons they either won the ball in space and looked up to find the forward line standing next to them or backing back to the square en masse with no big body to take a grab and nobody half a chance of crumbing. If you've got access to the full stats package can you find out how many leads per game we made in comparison to other clubs? I dare say it would be on the lower end of the scale. We had our moments of glory with this sort of attack, and the odd piece of real leadage from Jurrah or Green, but it's telling that only once from 2008-2011 did we ever play a truly slashing attacking game against a decent side.
The mere presence of Mitch Clark at full forward should at least draw the heat off the medium sized forwards and allow them to move around more - and they'd better because without changing the plan from last year I fail to see how we are any chance of consistenly kicking winning scores against non-crisis sides. If Clark doesn't work consider swapping him with Jamar.
Last in 2011. Cannot be allowed to happen again. That we were 7th in uncontested shows where our heads were at that year, and while I'm absolutely certain that Neeld and Co are targeting this it's up to the players on the park to deliver on it.
I'd love to see stats on CP in the forward 50 to work out if we're any better or worse at it in attack. My gut feeling says worse. It also says that without any decent crumbers who are willing to put their body on the line (or the return of Forward Pressure Davey) that it's not going to get a great deal better other than that the ball should be down there a lot more.
Define the most efficient attacking player
Way back in 2007 when I was still convinced we were just going through a 'bit of a slump' I came up with a stat to measure the overall attacking value of a player.
Goals (6) + Goal Assists (4) + Behinds (1) + Marks inside 50 (2) + Effective disposals forward of centre (1) + effective inside 50's (1) + tackles inside forward 50 (1) minus ineffective disposals (1), Clangers/OOF (-2) and frees/50m penalties (-2)
It's highly weighted towards goalkickers but if somebody boots ten you don't need a stat to tell you they've had a big day it, this is designed to let you hold up a medium forward, a tall forward having an average day and a crumber (should your team have such a thing) and decide which one impacted more on your attacking performance.
So, roll on 2012. We can only guess what Neeld and his cavalcade of coaching have got in store for us but at the moment confidence is high. In an ideal world the natural progression of the squad fits in perfectly with his game plan and we're talking next year as a team who has played finals, in the worse case it doesn't work or the players as they are simply aren't capable of carrying it off. Either way patience is wearing thin so if we don't at least see some real, consistent improvement next year people are going to start cracking the sads. I'll be keeping an eye on the categories listed above to see if anything changes.
Either way it's going to be tense. I can't believe we have to wait another three months to see actual football. Prepare for much more idle speculation before now and then.