The 2017 season is wide open, if you are in the right tier of the league

One thing the HPN Team ratings tends to do by the end of a season is to break teams into different levels by the end of the season, diplomatically sorting the haves from the have-nots in a somewhat graphically pleasing manner.

Round 18 ratings.JPG

Using the magic of “the Snipping tool”, we can clearly demonstrate that this has likely already happened in 2017.

Round 18 ratings improved

This doesn’t indicate that a team from a lower tier can’t beat a team from a tier above – far from it. It instead indicates the average quality of the teams through a thoroughly chaotic season, whose ending is less clear than any in recent memory.

For this week’s column, let’s run through the tiers, with some help from other footy stats people on the web for clarity. FMI’s great CoSPYES is as good a place for footy stat nerds and newbies alike to dive in.

Tier 4: Not Making Finals This Year, But Not Hopeless

The five teams here are likely welded to the bottom of the ladder this season, but all (on their day) have shown glimpses of light.

Brisbane’s forward line has been a revelation this year, with the emergence of Eric Hipwood and the late career improvement of Dayne Zorko providing focal points that the Lions have been seeking since the days of Brown. The Lions remind us somewhat of those early Giants teams, with young focal points offset by a smattering of resourceful and wily older players. Most of Brisbane’s attacks are of a high risk, high reward nature – if they fall over before getting inside 50, they often concede a goal the other way. The problem moving forward for Brisbane is the near constant string of injuries to key players – Dayne Beams hasn’t been fit since wearing black and white, Christensen and Rockliff have also struggled to play full seasons – and the aging of their best players. Zorko turns 29 next year, Martin 31 and the Beams-Rockliff-Rich combo will be 28. None of these guys will likely be in the next Brisbane premiership side, or even finals team. Ryan Buckland wrote about the Lions in great depth earlier this week – have a read if you are keen for good takes.

Fremantle were predicted by one of HPN’s pre-season prediction methods to finish with the spoon, so their first two months of the season was a mild surprise built off close wins. Their next two months were less surprising. The Dockers have several players who can nearly single-handedly win games own their own (Fyfe, Mundy, Neale, Walters), but lack for depth.

HPN wrote about how Gold Coast’s draw opened up for a potential finals run, then in a throwback to previous seasons, several of their key players got hurt. Tom Lynch has a relatively quiet year (merely one of the best young key forwards in the comp, instead of the best), and Ablett remains a make-or-break character for the Suns.

The Blues’s GWS asset recycling program has had its ups and downs, but HPN favourite Caleb Marchbank nearly justifies its existence. For all the talk about the resurgence of Liam Jones, Marchbank is perhaps a more important cog down back, one for which they sorely missed in the loss last week to Brisbane. Carlton’s defence is alright, and Matty Kruezer is having a career year, but they look a couple of years from being a couple of years away from contention.

HPN generally tends to avoid citing the same writer twice in a column, but Ryan Buckland’s piece on North’s impending tank job merits linking. That is where North is at in a nutshell. They rate closer to the next tier than the other sides in this list, but they’re in fullscale “transition” mode for the moment.

By “transition”, we mean “tank”.

According to The Arc (and others), these sides have a combined 0.0% chance of making the finals. Like The Stabs, they are No Hopers

Tier 3 – There’s A Chance, Just Not Much Of One

The five teams here have at least a shot of making the finals, but in some cases the chances are very small. In brackets are the top 8% likelihood according to The Arc’s Elo modelling.

Hawthorn (6%) sold the boat down the river, and now sit on the outer banks of the finals. They paid a lot for O’Meara and a bit for Mitchell. This quality over quantity move may end up looking problematic if it turns out the Hawks need to find eight or ten new players for upcoming seasons, rather than just two, because they won’t have new draft resources for a while without culling their list further. The 2017 Hawks are barely familiar to those golden era teams, as even the players who remain sort of play different roles. The use of Hodge as a super versatile full back/half back flank hybrid is similar to what the Demons are doing with Nev Jetta, but more effective due to Hodge’s talent. Tim O’Brien has also quietly been turning into a tall target down the line (but 20cm smaller than, say, Rory Lobb), something the Hawks desperately needed. Jack Gunston is a halfback now. Finals are probably a step too far this year, but there’s a path there.

In Buckley’s do-or-die year, Collingwood (0.6%) has shown some fight. Their midfield is probably not “the best in the league” but we’ve got them second on inside-50 differential and the midfield is holding them together. Unfortunately Collingwood has significantly struggled at either ends of the ground, with Melbourne offcuts Jeremy Howe and Lynden Dunn playing critical roles down back (which is generally not a good sign). Up forward, Darcy Moore has continued his development, but lacks consistent support and a second tall forward to deflect attention.

St Kilda (18.4%) are as flaky as anyone this year. Over the year they’ve been modestly below average in all three areas of the HPN Team Ratings. This probably fairly reflects this year’s developing squad, and may simply suggest general across the park improvement and reducing the gap between their best and worst is the order of the day. Their top 8 destiny is in their own hands, because they mostly play teams immediately near them on the ladder.

The Bulldogs (34.8%) have played bursts of good footy this year, but mostly have been a disappointment to most punter’s expectations. This actually isn’t much of a change from last year where they also finished the year rating a fairly modest 7th (but just barely in the frame as a premiership-quality side) before an improbable finals run. Preseason, we had them finishing about 7th or 5th on our two projection methods and that may still end up around the mark, with the Arc giving them a 1 in 3 chance at finals.

It’s probably unfair to judge the Dogs for not living up to a crazy month last year where everything went as perfectly as it could. The biggest problem down at Whitten Oval is that the Dogs have an impotent attack, largely driven by a lack of continuity up forward. It has declined from being average last year to flat-out terrible this year – they are the second worst at converting inside-50s into points on the scoreboard.

West Coast (40.3%) have been dissected at length and it’s getting harder to reject the thesis that they just cannot work out how to travel well. The main evidence against that currently is some weaker 2017 efforts at home. West Coast’s vaunted forward line from previous years has suffered from the prolonged absence of Kennedy, and the decline of LeCras, whilst their midfield has seemed a little one-paced when both Priddis and Mitchell run through at the same time. One paced midfields can work; but usually when that pace is fast.

Mitchell and Priddis are not fast. And it doesn’t work being that slow, as potentially evidenced by Priddis’ shock retirement just a month after seemingly extending his career by a year.

Tier 2 – Can Make A Grand Final Run, If Everything Falls Into Place

Richmond (85.8%), simply put, have defended the best and scored the worst in the 2017 AFL season. It’s an amazing variance that’s quite a lot greater than most other historic contenders with defence-first approaches and ratings. Richmond’s defence of opponent inside-50s is better than all but about a dozen defences since 1998, but no other team in that bracket was so poor at converting their own inside-50s. The 2005 model Neil Craig Crows had both a better offence and very strong midfield. Peak 2011 St Kilda had a worse midfield but better offence and defence. Sydney in 20005 were more well-rounded, with a weaker defence but stronger forwards. The team the Tigers actually currently most resemble is the 2007 Adelaide Crows who narrowly lost an elimination final to a young Hawthorn.

As Rob from Figuring Footy pointed out earlier this year, Richmond’s defence has denied shots near the square extremely well – even if they have slipped a bit in recent weeks.

RichHM17

Melbourne (81%) have had a chaotic year personnel-wise and like GWS we probably haven’t seen their best 22 on the park all at once. More than nearly any other side, their best (wins over Adelaide and Port Adelaide) has been a long way from their worst (losses to Fremantle and North Melbourne), and to predict how they’ll perform in September is folly from here. Melbourne’s finals chances will largely depend on who they can put on the park and how well they have gelled. It is also worth noting here that they are one of only two sides to beat the top two, along with Geelong.

Essendon (56.8%) are outperforming a lot of expectations this year and should make finals if they can capitalise on a soft draw. That’s a big if for a side who smashed Port Adelaide then lost to Brisbane. Essendon have fantastic bookends and a weak but gradually improving midfield that doesn’t protect the defensive 50 particularly well or create a large volume of inside 50s. Their efficiency inside 50 is second only to the Crows, and their defence has been quite reasonable – both ends led by likely All Australians (Hurley and Daniher). Of the sides currently in the finals, they are the most likely to drop out.

Sydney (89.9%) are for many the form side right now, and a 10-1 record is very good, but after some bad luck early in the year they have benefited from the same since then. The Swans have racked up a couple of close wins against similar sides, and were able to encounter Melbourne and GWS while they were well and truly understrength. They are yet to play Adelaide and Geelong at their home bases, which will likely indicate if their recent run has been more luck or skill. The return of Dane Rampe has been incredibly important for the Swans – the rare Swiss Army knife of a defender that can play at an elite level as both a small and a tall. Matt Cowgill at ESPN took a good at Sydney’s post round 6 resurgence this week – well worth a read.

Like Melbourne, GWS (95.3%) have fielded a 2/3rds strength side for much of this year. As promising as Harry Perryman looks, he shouldn’t be playing for a top four side at this point of his career. Like Melbourne, it is impossible to assess how good the Giants are right now. There’s a fair chance that the Giants won’t get to field their best 22 before the finals this year – with Griffen still around a month away, and Deledio making slow but sure progress in the reserves. With a full-ish squad to pick from, the Giants might have a few selection issues, but the good kind instead of the bad. On paper, a full strength Giants side doesn’t have a weakness – which should scare all the sides above them on the ladder.

HPN covered Geelong (98.6%) in some depth a couple of weeks ago, so we’ll refrain from adding any more now.

Tier 1: The Premiership Favourites (if they can get everything together)

Port Adelaide (92.5%) get a lot of stick for not beating top sides, but according to the HPN Team Ratings they continue to be competition front runners. They’ve often been frustrating in 2017, but have been competitive in most of their losses to other top sides. They’ve also beaten up horribly on bottom sides, which may skew their ratings a little higher than what would truly be expected.

We still have them as the second strongest team based mostly on their dominant performance through the midfield. Much of that has been led by fringe candidate for “best ruckman in the league” Patrick Ryder, and the physically imposing Ollie Wines. Port dominate inside-50 entries, controlling the middle of the ground for lengthy periods, but are hampered by pretty average scoring power despite the strong performances of Robbie Gray and Charlie Dixon this year. Like several teams in lower tiers, the issue for Port appears to be one of depth and whether the marginal best 22 players can step up for finals. HPN understands the doubts about them, but we think the fundamentals are fine and they’re as likely as anyone to make a run in September in this chaotic season.

Adelaide (100%) are the likely minor premiers and the current premiership favourites. There is very good reason for this, as they look like the most complete side so far this year. They seem to have rediscovered some of their best form, and perhaps worked out some responses to the Sloane tag and the defensive strategies that caused them issues against Melbourne and Hawthorn.

The Crows’ loss to the Hawks was driven by the numbers Hawthorn placed behind the ball, with the weight of numbers making up for the haphazardness of the defensive setup. Melbourne did that as well, with the exploitation of the ‘plus two’ set-up at centre contests creating a forward thrust that the Crows found hard to counter. Both sides  employed manic defensive pressure, and exploited their small foward lines to beat the Crows for forward-50 ground balls.

Midfield depth may be the issue in combating these approaches. Their midfield strength is reasonable but as it’s a measure of inside-50 differential, a lot of the work in ball movement and defence is probably falling on their half back and half forward lines. The other question is whether their multi-dimensional and rapid attacking style can hold up to the defensive powerhouses of the league in September, as it failed to do so last year. On the other hand, if the only problems we can identify are to do with possible counter tactics, that tends to suggest you’re in pretty good nick.

In short, this has been a great season of footy, and it only shapes to get better.

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The HPN Second Trimester (ish) Awards (plus Round 17 Team Ratings)

Round 17 ratings

There’s not much movement on the HPN Team Ratings this week, with GWS and Geelong continuing their week-to-week tango for 3rd and 4th, and the Dons jumping up into 6th. The rest is steady, and the weekly movements should get more subtle as time moves forward.

To fill out a full post, we thought we’d use the new tool that we (kinda) debuted last week (which we call Player Approximate Value, or PAV for short) to work out some AFL awards. One thing to note is that our ratings system is relevant to the PAV, because the better a side is in an area of the ground, the more points of value there are for the players in that area.

Behold the HPN Second Trimester Awards!!!

All Australian Team

23rd AA team 2017

This team is assembled from our best overall players list. We’ve tried to pick appropriate-ish players for position, whilst still trying to make this the highest rated team possible.

The next two on the cusp for total value were Zach Merrett and Marcus Bontempelli. Rating midfielders by midfield value alone, Josh Kennedy and Brett Ebert would slot in, but they’ve been less well-rounded players than Cotchin and Shiel who they’d probably replace.

We opted for a third tall forward in Walker, and minimal ruck back-up – Daniher will have to pinch hit there. There’s plenty of run off half back to compensate for a slight slowness on the wings too, and this side won’t lose many battles on the inside with a large cast of rotating mids. If you had to stump for an extra tall on the bench, Paddy Ryder would be the pick.

Best Forward

Lance Franklin comes out on top in offensive rating by quite a large margin. He’s leading for the Coleman which would alone count for a lot, but the goalkicking tally doesn’t do justice to Franklin’s spread of offensive output. He’s also kicked 20 more behinds than anyone else, which can be frustrating but just shows how many chances he’s getting. The other big string to his all-round offensive prowess is his indirect output – Franklin is third in the competition for inside-50s, averaging over 5 a game. This season is pure unshackled Franklin, a terrifying weapon anywhere forward of about halfback, roaming about, doing as he pleases.

Second behind Franklin on offensive output is Joe Daniher, who can do some of the long range stuff Franklin does and has as many contested marks, but isn’t as useful around the ground. Third is Dangerfield, who is the best player in the league due the combo of midfield and offensive output. The relatively normal Taylor Walker and Ben Brown round out the top 5.

Dayne Zorko is worth a mention here because he doesn’t pop up elsewhere in our lists, and he’s having a really good year. Overall he’s really high for both offence and midfield value – he’s quite likely the (distant) second-best Dangerfield after Dangerfield himself.

Best forward in a bad forwardline

“Bad” is defined as the bottom six in the league for inside-50 efficiency – for us that is Port Adelaide, Fremantle, Carlton, Collingwood, Richmond, and the Bulldogs.

Robbie Gray turns out to be the shining light here, providing most of his output to Port Adelaide this year as a forward. Gray is equal sixth in the Coleman race with 40 goals and might not be getting due credit for how effective he’s been as a focal point in Port’s relatively weak forwardline, which has been dependent on pressure and repeat entries this year.

Behind him in output provided to the battling forwardlines are, in order, Jack Riewoldt, Michael Walters, Charlie Dixon and Matt Kreuzer.

Best Midfielder

Patrick Dangerfield. You could split Dangerfield’s 2017 performance in half and have two well-above average footballers. He is about 20% ahead of Dustin Martin in second, who is having a career year, and in many years would be considered to be (by far) the best player in the game. Two Port Adelaide players, Ebert and Wines, hit third and fourth, with Dangerfield’s running mate Joel Selwood in 5th. When you factor in that Dangerfield is also top 5 for offensive output, it’s clear why he’s unbackable for the Brownlow.

Best Midfielder in a bad midfield

Team midfields are rated by inside-50 differentials. The teams with the worst ball control through the centre are North Melbourne, Fremantle, Hawthorn, Carlton, Essendon and Brisbane.
It should surprise nobody that Tom Mitchell just beats Lachie Neale on midfield worth. Neale has been the slightly better all-round player due to his offensive prowess but through the middle of the ground, Hawthorn’s ball movement all starts with Mitchell. In this, our ratings likely pretty closely mirror popular observations.

Third is Ben Cunnington who is even more of a pure midfielder than Mitchell. The top 5 is rounded out by Carlton’s key duo, Bryce Gibbs and Patrick Cripps. Gibbs is the form player in overall rating from this list, with his forward and defensive performances both a bit ahead of anyone else’s.

Best defender

Alex Rance. Were you expecting someone else here? Like that the new statistical value measure was broken and picked someone other than Rance? Rance is the Richmond defence – sure Houli is handy and Astbury has improved, but without Rance you’d think that Richmond’s defence would be south of mid-table rather than the best in the league. In second, Michael Hurley is having a resurgent year, as is Daniel Talia in 3rd. Dylan Roberton wouldn’t have been in many conversations talking about the best defenders in the league before 2017, but here he is in fourth. Rounding out the top five is Heath Shaw.

Best Defender in a bad defence

The eligible leaky defences are Fremantle, North Melbourne, Collingwood, Hawthorn, Gold Coast, and Brisbane.

Robbie Tarrant just pips Joel Hamling as most valuable defender in a bottom six defence, followed by Tarrant’s North Melbourne teammate Scott Thompson, Jeremy Howe and Michael Johnson. No one statistic defines Tarrant’s worth, but he’s good across all the main indicators of a defender – he’s top 15 for marks outside forward 50, top-50 in contested marking, top 30 in 1%ers (which include spoils), 11th in rebound-50s. This spread ensures he’s being credited with a large share of North Melbourne’s defensive performance.

Most Improved

There are several candidates that we considered here, such as Zac Jones, Jayden Hunt and Dylan Roberton, who have all improved significantly on their 2016 outputs, but the standout candidate here is Jarrod Witts. Witts was thought by many to be on the fringes of leaving the league, but his 2017 season has been extraordinary. Currently we rate Witts as the seventh best ruck in the competition, slightly below Grundy in 5th. While he was about a league average ruck in his opportunities with the Pies, the expanded role offered to him by the Suns has seen him improve his performances by about 20% whilst playing significantly more games.

Best 2016 Draftee

It’s not that common that a player can come into the league in their first year and produce at an average or above average level. Indeed, in 2017 only six draftees are playing enough games and well enough to be producing at that level: Sam Pepper-Powell, Mitch Hannan, Tom Stewart, Andrew McGrath, Tim Taranto and Sam Petrevski-Seton. The first name on that list, SPP, is well above that mark, and is shaping up to become an elite talent in years to come. Ken Sakata might be onto something. Mitch Hannan is also, at this stage, a cut above the rest of the pack.

Is Patrick Dangerfield having a better 2017 than 2016?

Before we get to the title of the post, and the meat of the content, let’s have a look at how the HPN Team Ratings are looking after sixteen thrilling rounds of football. This year is chaos; and chaos is beautiful.

Round 16 ratings.JPG

It was a big week for the “S” teams, with the Swans and Saints moving up two places, to fifth and tenth respectively. Sydney, after a pretty poor start, have come into contention – just sitting outside of the standard profile for a grand finalist. If they continue with their current form, they will likely finish the season in the top 3 in the HPN Team Ratings.

Both the Bulldogs and the Tigers took a hit last week, and as each week progresses the Bulldogs look less and less likely to make finals. The other significant slider was Gold Coast, about a month after we talked up the potential for them to make a charge to the finals if everything broke right. It didn’t, and now we look a little bit silly.

Some separation has finally opened up between St Kilda in 10th and the Pies in 11th, but with seven games left that gap can definitely be closed, especially considering the surprising results of the season to date.

And for Geelong…

Over the past six months HPN has been developing am individual player value system – something we hope we can fully reveal in the coming months. It values a player’s value based on team performance and each individual player’s contribution to it (or lack thereof).

The system attempts to measure contribution in three different areas of the ground, and is able to give a rough indication of not only player value, but also player type. Currently we have valued every individual player season back to 1988- about 30 years’ worth of data to go off. Over the next year or so you will hear a lot about this system. So forgive us if we are brief now – we promise to provide you with TMI later on.

Patrick Dangerfield, according to our system, is on track to have the single best season since 1988. Even more impressively, the season he would relegate to second would be his 2016 season.

Here’s a list of the top 10 seasons since 1988, according to our system.

Danger2017.JPG

This list contains four Brownlow Medal seasons, and although he may seem out of place here in the upper echelons, don’t sleep on the quality of that Stynes Brownlow year where the big man averaged 26 disposals and 9 marks a game. It also contains three seasons by the player many think is the greatest key position forward/player of the modern era (Carey), an additional season by a future Brownlow Medalist (Buckley, 2000) and Andrew McLeod’s best year, whose achievements defy simple summary.

In short, Dangerfield is in rarefied air this year. According to both our system and the Champion Data Player Ratings, he is streets ahead of his competition this year. It is also worth noting that both HPN and Champion Data also had Dangerfield as the best player last year.

So why is Geelong struggling? Good question.

According to Champion Data, Geelong have the equal most players inside the top 25 this year – tied with Richmond on three. Our system has a fourth Tiger making the top 25 – but this is quibbling – both sides’ success often rests on the performance of their elite players, specifically through the middle of the ground.

However, beyond this elite talent, Geelong seemingly lacks for depth. HPN has nine Cats inside the top 100 players in the league – only one younger than 27. However, only a further three are in the next 100 players – an indication that if the top end talent doesn’t fire, the depth isn’t there to supplement it.

Defensively, Geelong only has one player inside the top 35 for defensive value according to our system – Zach Tuohy in 12th. At the other end of the ground, Dangerfield rates as their most valuable offensive player, as well as their most valuable player through the middle. So that’s handy. Hawkins is also inside the top 10 league-wide here, but (aside from Daniel Menzel) the specialist support is thin.

This may be an issue for the Cats going forward too – many of their top contributors are beginning to exit their peak, and the depth behind them just hasn’t been proven at AFL level. A playing list full of aging good-to-great players is a recipe for potential disaster, especially when combined with the fact that Geelong hasn’t had a first round pick for the last two years, and doesn’t hold a 2017 pick currently. Whilst Stephen Wells has shown himself to be able to pick gems with later picks, the strike rate for success for those selections is significantly lower than high picks.

For 2017, Geelong still have a realistic shot at the flag, however much of that rests on the shoulders of Dangerfield, Selwood and Duncan.

This is the most even season since 1998

The weekend after Brisbane rolled a potential finalist and two weeks after lowly Hawthorn shocked Adelaide, focus has naturally sharpened on the evenness of this year’s competition. We’re here to add to the chorus saying yes (this great piece by The Arc has more international context), this is a really even year.

It looks even more compact than it did earlier in the season, as frontrunners Adelaide, Port Adelaide and GWS shrink back to the pack and the worst teams rally.

Ratings.PNG

One measure of evenness would be the number of teams in premiership contention. Typically, we label as premiership contenders any team sitting above a rating of 105% (actually 104.96% thanks to the Bulldogs last year). On that bar we’re actually down on previous seasons, as there were 7 contenders in 2016.

However, given how relatively weak the top sides look this season, we’re sceptical that our 105% rule really holds right now. This is a season made for exceptions and runs of form by otherwise unconvincing sides.

We can see visually how this season compares to past years in terms of the positions of the best and worst sides, as well as the compactness of the middle tiers:

bar stack

Visually, this is clearly a very bunched-up year in a way that hasn’t happened for a number of seasons. It is also marked by a lack of significant frontrunners or massive strugglers.

No team is anything near as bad as 2013 Melbourne and GWS, for instance. Notably for premiership talk, there’s presently no lone bolter like the otherwise even 2007 or 2000. We wonder whether a fit GWS would have been capable of filling the role of 2007 Geelong or 2000 Essendon in this very open season, but this has not so far been the case.

Some more specific numerical representations of evenness are presented below. We’ve looked at the gaps from the top teams to other teams, and how far back the worst team is, as well as the average distance from mediocrity:

evenness

We can note for 2017 so far:

  • The league wide gap from first to last is as low as it has been since 1998.
  • Within the best 8 teams (note these are not necessarily the ladder top 8) the gap was last lower in 2003
  • The top 4 isn’t as even as last year’s very close race but is still quite close historically
  • The last place team isn’t particularly close to the 8th best side
  • Teams are, on average, closer to the median team rating than any time since 2002.

We can also look at this in terms of ranking the last 20 seasons across the measures:

evenness seasons1998 is the only year that was ranked as more even than 2017, with most other years falling down on various measures either due to dominant teams or hopeless stragglers.

On most measures, we can see that in general, the last decade (back to 2007) was more uneven than the decade before it. 2011 and 2012 were the worst years for competitive equality because of the weak expansion sides, but this doesn’t explain everything. The era in general was marked by less parity among teams, including within the cohort of finalists and top 4 sides.

It’s too early to call 2017 a state shift in the AFL towards greater competitive balance, but most of us surely welcome the early signs.