McGrath may not have been the most valuable Rising Star

Young players have it pretty rough in footy. Learning a new level of game in a newly professional environment, many straight out of high school, it’s little wonder that even the best first-year kids don’t instantly end up in the upper echelons of the competition.

This makes evaluating young players very hard – we look for signs of future performance rather than just their present contributions – and the Rising Star award seems to do likewise. Voting for the Award is done on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis by a panel of experts and we have no clear idea why they vote the way they do, but we assume it’s a combination of both present output and intangible perceptions of potential, plus the bloke from South Australia voting for his former team’s nominee.

Andrew McGrath has today been awarded the prize, with 51 votes out of a possible 55 (nine of eleven judges gave him maximum) and the full leaderboard was as follows:

  1. Andrew McGrath – 51
  2. Ryan Burton – 41
  3. Sam Powell-Pepper – 35
  4. Charlie Curnow – 27
  5. Eric Hipwood – 10
  6. Sam Petrevski-Seton – 3
  7. Lewis Melican – 1
  8. Tom Phillips – 1

This post makes use of the Player Approximate Value, or PAV, method of player valuation which we unveiled yesterday. Below is a chart of the PAVs we have derived for each player nominated for the Rising Star this season, as well as some of the most notable non-nominees.

PAV RS.PNG

(We are still working on a “PAV per game” calculation that allows comparisons across seasons which contain different lengths due to finals, but here the simple calculation is valid because nobody has played finals in 2017 yet)

Applying the PAV to this year’s Rising Star candidates suggested that Sam Powell-Pepper was the most valuable to his side this year followed closely by Ryan Burton. The winner, Andrew McGrath from the Dons, performed less well. Sean Darcy, who wasn’t even nominated, was most valuable on a per-game basis in his stint as ruck for Fremantle and the other two who might have merited nominations for season output were Matthew Kennedy and Jarrod Berry. Only Jason Castagna played every game this year.

These scores aren’t necessarily great by league standards – SPP was 157th overall this year, while Burton was the 51st best in defensive PAV – which illustrates just how steep the learning curve and how hard the road ahead for even the best young players.

Why didn’t McGrath top the PAV for Rising Stars?

HPN thinks the answer to this question is that McGrath seems to have played as a non-rebounding mid-sized defender type, with a lot of “empty carb” disposals. His main notable characteristics were, according to the AFL website’s article, that he ranked among candidates “first for handballs, second for disposals and second for effective disposals”. A lot of voters for traditional awards, especially those decided post-season, look for counting stats as an easy indication of ability.

PAV doesn’t incorporate raw disposal counts into any of its valuations, and he has clearly he performed less well than some other Rising Star players in PAV-associated things like clearances, inside-50s, tackles, rebound-50s, etc. His most notable rating was a 4.9 in Defensive PAV, the fifth highest overall, suggesting he did pretty well in terms of one percenters, marks and avoiding giving free kicks. However, PAV suggests that if a defender should have been chosen, then that person should have been Burton.

With a more mature group of players around him, such as Heppell, Merrett, Hurley, Goddard, Kelly, and to an extent Watson, the critical disposals often fell to their hands, where Burton was asked to carry a far greater load for Hawthorn, and SPP was asked to do a lot in the centre of the field from day one for Port Adelaide.

We don’t doubt for a second that McGrath may end up the better player of the three vote leaders (he was pick one for a reason), but Essendon had the luxury of easing him into football as a cog with a less-damaging role, and giving him excellent support. McGrath has obviously performed the role with sufficient promise and aplomb to satisfy the voting judges.

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2 thoughts on “McGrath may not have been the most valuable Rising Star

  1. In the PAV introduction post, you referenced Darren Glass as a pure shutdown defender who appears underrated at first glance. With this in mind and the commentary around McGrath’s shut down roles on Eddie Betts in Round 21 for example, do you think PAV has issues with negating players?

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    1. Thanks for the comment and reading the piece. Having watched a fair bit of McGrath this year, I’d consider him to be less of a “shutdown” defender, and more of a ball user of half back. I only watched him in person once this year (against GWS), but he seemed to often float off his matchup loose, and rotated around the defensive unit. The job on Betts was notable because it was a little bit of an exception to his standard play – running off half-back a lot of the time. For their first matchup, I believe McGrath spent more time on Riley Knight than any other Crow – not a priority to shut down.

      When we refer to shutdown defenders, we generally talk about players whose main responsibilities are to function in a way that dissuades the opposition from even kicking in their direction, denying the ability to accumulate traditional counting stats. Additionally, a pure shutdown defender doesn’t get given the responsibility to create attacking opportunities on the rebound.

      For smalls currently in the AFL, Nick Smith and Neville Jetta probably fit this mould the most, with talented attacking options outside of them taking the creative opportunities presented to their side. McGrath doesn’t really fit this categorisation, as he gets a lot of his own ball and racks up a lot of disposals. For tall defenders, guys like Jake Lever, Heath Grundy, David Astbury and Oscar McDonald are current examples of the taller shutdown defender – a role that is becoming increasingly rare as players are asked to do more to contribute in order to keep their spots in the best 22. For a Rising Star eligible player this year, Lewis Melican has the profile of a shutdown defender much more than McGrath.

      However, as indicated in the introduction piece to PAV, the system can actually identify shutdown defenders pretty well, even if it slightly underrepresents their impact. According to PAV, McGrath is not considered a shutdown defender. Even with Darren Glass, the most extreme example encountered whilst testing PAV, the system considered him to be an elite defender, with no value provided elsewhere around the ground. In contrast, McGrath provided more than double the value to the other two areas (MidPAV and OffPAV) than any year of Glass’s career. McGrath likely projects as either an outside/inside midfielder or rebounding half back long term – a fair stretch from the players mentioned above.

      All player value methods which base their value system around positive effort will inherently run into this issue, but PAV controls for this somewhat by having a team’s total defensive value considered by the method. If anything, PAV overvalues defenders compared to most traditional value systems (think Brownlow Medal votes, SuperCoach and AFL Fantasy). It is also worth noting that the AFL Player Ratings had McGrath similarly placed in the AFL regarding Rising Star eligible players – a fair way behind Powell-Pepper and Burton in the grand scheme of things. A positional adjusted +/- system may go some way to addressing this blind spot, but no publically available data exists to test this hypothesis.

      Personally, I think McGrath will be a very good player long term, but I don’t think his current role is best suited to his abilities. On a subjective judgement, I would have had him around 5th to 10th of Rising Star candidates – behind the SPP, Burton, Hipwood and Curnow group.

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