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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Alternate universes: the final rounds that might have been

We are into the final round of season 2017, and what a great time to look at the fixture that awaits us and see how those matchups would look if just a few things had broken a bit differently. Join us as we journey into the football multiverse and explore what might have been.

First up, the table below is the usual HPN team ratings.

ratings r22

We just want to note here first of all that Brisbane are currently, adjusted for opponent defensive strength (they don’t get to play themselves after all and they have a terrible defence) the best offence in the comp. That is, they have scored more per inside-50, adjusted for opponent, than any other side this year. What a weird season.

The top 8 here is the actual current top 8; bar Essendon being very slightly behind West Coast. In all likelihood the Bombers will make finals unless the Eagles can beat the Crows and jump either a losing Melbourne or Essendon via a loss or vaulting them on percentage.

The HPN team ratings over the year would expect to see the Swans in the top 4, we don’t need to rehash why that hasn’t happened. Geelong being outside the top 4 is about to be a recurring theme on our journey, alluded to in the title of the post.

So let’s go with some hypothetical ladders, from alternate universes:

What if every losing team had scored another goal?

Below is what the ladder would look like if every losing team had scored another goal, reversing a lot of results. We haven’t recalculated percentages but current percentages have been included as a guide:

plusagoaluniverse

The Tigers, who have been on the wrong side of a number of storied narrow defeats, would sit half a game clear heading into the final round, and they and Adelaide would have had the top two spots sewn up weeks ago. In this universe, Damien Barrett is floating the prospect of Richmond and Adelaide tanking to try to avoid GWS or Sydney and play Port Adelaide instead.

Down in tenth would sit Geelong, out of contention in finals as they rued last minute losses to Fremantle, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and North Melbourne.

The current North Melbourne vs Brisbane Spoonbowl would instead see the Lions trying to jump Fremantle and yet again escape a wooden spoon.

What if we could bloody kick straight?

A simplistic and somewhat inaccurate measure of luck is scoring shot conversion. All things being equal, the expectation is that inaccuracy or accuracy regresses to the mean over time. Figuring Footy has done some wonderful work fleshing this out by adding scoring expectations, but for this exercise, let’s assume everyone coverts scoring shots at the same rate.

SSvictoruniverse

Port Adelaide now sit top 2, their accuracy having secured them wins over West Coast and Richmond at the cost of a loss to St Kilda. The Saints, naturally, make the 8 on this measure, as do a Hawthorn presumably not hobbled by Will Langford’s set shots.

The teams dumped from the finals, assuming everyone kicked straight, are Sydney (who would hypothetically still remain in contention this week), and Essendon (who would be long gone). The Bombers crash to 40 points, sitting well out of finals, thanks to draws with Hawthorn and the Bulldogs and losses to Geelong and Collingwood. This would be compensated only by the cold comfort of having beaten Brisbane, in an ever fading “revenge for the 2001 Grand Final” type manner.

We should note that that shot quality produced and conceded differs by team. Sydney for instance have conceded the equal 2nd-lowest quality chances (they’ve done similar for a few years) and Port Adelaide take a lot of low quality chances so it’s no surprising they’re kicking a higher number of behinds per goals.

Essendon generate and concede scoring shots of roughly average quality, so they’re probably more likely to have benefited from something approaching pure luck in scoring shot accuracy terms.

What if everyone only played each other once?

In this world, the season is 17 games long and starts in May or has time off for representative clashes or something. Or, as is looking more likely, is the front half of a 17-5 type scenario.

Below we’ve compiled the first result this year for every clash, ignoring double-up return games. We’ve also assumed the upcoming weekend of matches is Round 17, and excluded any previous clashes between teams playing this week (eg the previous GWS-Geelong draw is omitted).

17 game season uniberse

Here, we see teams down to Collingwood still in distant contention for finals, the Pies apparently having been bad in return games this year. They, here, need to beat Melbourne and rely on unlikely losses by those above them.

The top 8 hasn’t changed, and West Coast are still relying on beating Adelaide, but in this world the Crows need to win to lock down a top two spot while Richmond will know whether top 4 is up for grabs by Saturday night.

In a 17-5 world, the entire bottom six would have been long settled, with these clubs facing little to play for (assuming the points are reset for the final five matches). Additionally, the top 3 would have also faced several weeks of near meaningless footy before the split. If the points aren’t reset in this 17-5 world, several teams would have several more dead rubbersin the last few weeks of the season, and there would be a decent chance that 7th, 8th and maybe 9th would finish with more wins than 5th and 6th.

These are just some of the reasons that the 17-5 proposal is not a good thought bubble – we promise to look at more of them later down the track.

What if teams won exactly as many games as they “should” have?

Now we’re stepping into the realm of abstract footy geometry, where the laws of football premiership ladder physics such as “you can only win whole games” no longer apply.

Each year we run an analysis of the footy fixture’s imbalance incorporating a Pythagorean Expectation assessment of team strength as well as straight wins and losses. Pythagorean Expectation tell us how many games a team “should” have won based on their scores for and against. It’s probably best thought of as a quantification of the intuition that teams with a higher percentage are better. It’s another measure of luck, and tends to punish teams who only win by small margins. We used the method to help project the 2017 ladder as well and it had Hawthorn finishing 12th.

Here, we’ve used it to work out how far over or under each team in 2017 is from the expectations created by their scoring. That ladder is below.

pythaguniverse

Finally, we have a ladder which doesn’t put Brisbane last. Fremantle look like they’ve won three more games than they should have, and on Pythagorean expectations might be expected to have won just the five games this year. Spoonbowl in this world happened already and Freo lost.

Our current top eight remains the top eight in the Pythagorean ideal world.

Port Adelaide, by virtue of the extreme flat track tendencies we documented last week, appear in this universe to have won an extra 1.5 games, while Sydney also sit a game and probably percentage inside the top 4, their early season weakness reduced to the abstraction of a slightly dampened balance of scores for-and-against.

But of course there’s one final source of luck.

What if the fixture was completely fair?

Here, we’ve stuck with Pythagorean expectations but used it to work out the impact, in fractions of a win, of the uneven fixture.

The fixture in an 18 team, 22 game season is impossible to make fair, but in our final bizarre universe, it’s what’s happened.

Each team’s “expected wins impact” is the difference between the strength of their opponent sets (including double-ups) and what would be expected to happen if they played everyone the same number of times (ie, the average of every other team’s strength).

We’re still in “fractions of a win” territory here, but the table below is interesting.fair fixture universe.PNG

At the top of the ladder, Adelaide and GWS have faced difficult fixtures and would be expected to do even better if they faced the same strength teams as everyone else.

In this universe where wins come in fractions and the fixture is impossibly fair, St Kilda jump into the 8 by a full one third of a win thanks to a fair fixture, at the expense of the Bombers. West Coast still sit 9th, while the Bulldogs lurk closer to the eight than they do in reality, a win over the Hawks potentially enough to get them into the finals.

This ladder tells us that the teams most benefited by a soft fixture this season are Gold Coast, Richmond, North Melbourne, and Essendon, to the tune of about half a win each. We’ve noted Richmond’s bad luck with close games above, but perhaps this is balanced by having benefited from the softer draw they got as a bottom-6 team last year.

Port Adelaide have made liars of us

After round 21 there is little movement in relative rankings, but Sydney and GWS rise into our informally-defined historical “premiership” frame.

round 21 ratings

However, it’s the increasingly anomalous Port Adelaide, theoretically a contender, which we want to focus on here.

The popular opinion of Port Adelaide being unable to match it with other good sides is well and truly borne out when we dig into their performance on our strength ratings by opponent. We have in the past broken up statistics by top 8 and bottom 10 and used them to call Josh Kennedy (but also Dean Cox) a flat track bully back in 2015. Then in 2016 we ran an opponent-adjusted Coleman to see who was kicking the goals against tough opponents (turns out: Toby Greene and Josh Jenkins). This time we’ve looked at whole teams.

Simply put, Port Adelaide are the best side in the competition against weak opponents and they’re about as good as North Melbourne against the good teams.

Below is a chart where we have calculated strength ratings through the same method as we always do using whole-of-season data, but separate ratings are derived for matches against the top half and bottom half of the competition as determined by our ratings above.top and bottom.PNG

Most clubs, predictably, have done better against the bad sides than the good ones. Port Adelaide, however, take this to extremes. They rate as 120% of league average in their performance against the bottom nine sides. Not even Adelaide or Sydney look that good, over the year, in beating up on the weaker teams.

That’s why we’ve been rating Port so highly this year – their performance, even allowing for the scaling we apply for opponent sets, has been abnormally, bizarrely good to the extent that it’s actually outweighed and masked their weaknesses against quality teams. Their sub-97% rating against top sides is 13th in the league, ahead of only North, Carlton, Fremantle and the Queensland sides. This divergence is more than double the size of the variance for any other team.

It appears that the problem mostly strikes the Power in between the arcs. Against bottom sides, their midfield strength is streets ahead of any other side at 141% of the league average, meaning they get nearly three inside-50s for every two conceded. This opportunity imbalance makes their decent defence look better and papers over a struggling forward line. Against quality sides, that falls apart and they get less inside-50s than their opponents.

Looking elsewhere, Adelaide stands out as looking stronger against quality opposition, with their midfield and offence fairing substantially better than against weaker sides – a couple of whom have, of course, embarrassed them throughout the year

The Hawks and two strugglers in North Melbourne and Carlton also seem to acquit themselves better against the top sides than against their own weight class. For North, their inside-50 opportunities dry up against good sides but they make better use of the forward entries – they rate as above league average, offensively, against the top nine teams. For Carlton, unsurprisingly, it’s their stifling defence who step up, and the same is true of Hawthorn.

St Kilda’s forward efficiency and Richmond’s defensive efficiency have also been a lot higher against top sides, but the converse is true of the two teams’ opposite lines.

At the other end of the table, Geelong,  Sydney and especially the Bulldogs are the other finals contenders with the biggest worries about sustaining their output against quality opposition. Sydney’s midfield struggles to control territory, slightly losing the inside-50 battle on average against the top half of the competition while bullying weaker sides (their offensive efficiency is actually slightly higher however). The Bulldogs and Geelong share these midfield issues but their forward lines also struggle under quality defensive heat.

But it really is Port Adelaide who stand out here. Their output against weaker sides is really good and shouldn’t be written off. There’s obviously quality there, and they sit in striking distance of the top 4 with a healthy percentage. However,  it wouldn’t be a stretch to call their overall strength rating fraudulent given its composition and we will be regarding them with a bit of an asterisk from here.  Unless they can bridge the gap and produce something against their finals peers, even a top 4 berth is likely to end in ashes.

Who was the best retiree: Riewoldt, Hodge, Mitchell, Thompson or Priddis?

While there were a number of interesting results and upsets last week, the HPN Team Ratings largely stayed unchanged from a ranking point of view. At this stage of the season our method of rating teams gets quite firm in its views, comparing as it does the entire season’s work of each club in order to provide a good basis for historical comparison.

Perhaps the biggest change at the top end is Geelong slowly closing the gap on the top two, who soften a little bit at the top. GWS continue to lose touch with the top end, and missing almost their entire first choice forward line this week they have a hard assignment against a mostly fit Melbourne. As Matt Cowgill from The Arc/ESPN outlined this week, the Manuka match-up shapes as one of the most pivotal games this week, alongside almost every match this round.

In related news: it’s a fantastic time to be a footy fan.

ratings.PNG

Richmond made the biggest leap this week, from 8th into 6th, leapfrogging a disappointing Melbourne and swapping places with the Dons. West Coast is only a fraction outside the top 8 teams, and the St Kilda match-up this week looms as a de-facto elimination game for both sides.

Now onto the question posed at the top of the column.

The best of the 2017 retirees

There’s a high calibre group of already-announced retires, all undisputed champions of the game who nonetheless vary quite markedly in the types of achievements and qualities for which they are recognised.

This week, HPN has decided (with the help of a few friends) to look at different ways to split the careers of these five great players, and try to work out who was the best of the bunch, once all is said and done.

Team Success

Many among us (including Michael Jordan) consider a championship title to be the most relevant thing when determining who was truly the best player of a group. The goal of almost all professional sport is to win at the peak level of competition, with all else being ancillary to this pursuit.

To determine this with these five players, we have graded the players on the most simple of scales: two points for a premiership, one point for a grand final loss, none for a draw (sorry Nick).

  1. (tie): Mitchell, Hodge (9 points)
  2. Riewoldt (2 points)
  3. Priddis (1 point)
  4. Thompson (0 points)

Mitchell and Hodge are tied at the top here, as a result of both being teammates during the Hawks’ ultra-successful run between 2008 and 2015. As all Saints fans can remember, St Kilda lost two Grand Finals under the captaincy of Nick Riewoldt, including one that they definitely should have won. Matt Priddis missed out on the Eagles’ 2006 premiership win, even if he was on the list at the time, but played in the 2015 loss to the Hawks. And Scott Thompson has never tasted the limelight on the last Saturday in September (or October).

Individual Awards

Brownlow Medal

Surprisingly, of these group of five players, only two have had the Brownlow Medal hung from their necks. To split all and any ties, we have used total Brownlow Medal votes as the tiebreaker.

  1. Mitchell (1 medal, 220 votes)
  2. Priddis (1 medal, 146 votes)
  3. Thompson (155 votes)
  4. Riewoldt (149 votes)
  5. Hodge (131 votes)

It turns out that the midfielders’ award is really a midfielders’ award. At the start of the 2016 season Sam Mitchell sat in a tie for first all time (with Gary Ablett Jr) for most Brownlow Medal votes (adjusting for the crazy voting system in the mid-1970s). Mitchell had an incredibly long and consistent career, one which was often masked by the excellence of his teammates. Priddis somehow jagged the 2014 medal in what might not have been his best season, but the medal is his nonetheless.

Among all players who never won a Brownlow, Scott Thompson is one of the highest career vote getters; behind luminaries such as Leigh Matthews, Brent Harvey, Scott West, Garry Wilson and Kevin Bartlett. That is very good company to be in, and perhaps the dreaded Victorian media bias means Thompson isn’t getting the recognition that he deserved through his career.

Nick Riewoldt has polled as well as almost any key position forward in history, although he only peaked at a high of 17 votes in any one year. And Luke Hodge, who often did his best work off a half back flank, was often ignored by the umpires in the minds of the Brownlow in favour of star teammates.

Club B&F
  1. Riewoldt (7 wins)
  2. Mitchell (5 wins)
  3. (tie) Priddis, Hodge, Thompson (2 wins)

Each club votes differently and may judge their best and fairest awards on different criteria, but they are still a good way to see how clubs value their own player. All five players took home at least two club champion awards, but Riewoldt is way ahead of the pack with seven.

All-Australian
  1. Riewoldt (five-time AA, three-time AA squad)
  2. Mitchell (three-time AA, four-time AA squad)
  3. Hodge (three-time AA, two-time AA squad)
  4. Priddis (one-time AA, two-time AA squad)
  5. Thompson (one-time AA, one-time AA squad)

Riewoldt stands alone here again, with his performances up forward regularly being recognised as being the best in the game. Thompson suffers here from the glut of elite midfielders that were in the league recently.

Statistics

As we have alluded to in recent weeks, HPN have been developed a player value system over the last year named PAV (after Matthew Pavlich). It is derived entirely from publicly available stats on afltables. We have been teasing it for the past few weeks, and we will drop the methods and formulas after the season is wrapped up and we have some time on our hands.

But for now, we can look at PAV (which is determined on a player’s contribution to a team’s effort in 3 areas of the ground, weighted by the strength of the team in that area that year) for each of the retirees. Here’s the data and graph for the five players across their careers.

retirees chartretirees table

For context: a perfectly average team will have 300 PAV across its list in a given year. A season above 20 is generally a sign of All-Australian contention (depending on position). A PAV north of 12 is generally an average contributor. Seasons of 25 PAV or more are relatively rare and outstanding.

Peak PAV
  1. Hodge
  2. Riewoldt
  3. Mitchell
  4. Thompson
  5. Priddis

According to PAV ratings, not only was Luke Hodge’s 2005 season is the best single season by any season of the retirees, but his 2010 and 2006 seasons were distant second and third and ahead of any other player-season here. Unlike Brownlow Medal voting, PAV is more agnostic when it comes to rating the value and impact of defenders and forwards because it assigns values for all three parts of the ground and sums them. This is demonstrated by the relatively high Hodge and Riewoldt placings.

Below are the component ratings for Hodge, Riewoldt and Mitchell, showing the relative contribution of midfield, offence and defence ratings to each season’s total. Note the shifting roles played by Hodge over the years as defence or midfield contribution rises and falls, compared to the purer midfield and forward roles of Riewoldt and Mitchell.

Riewoldt’s best year, his 2004 season, saw him walk away with multiple media and other voting awards for best player, but he was stiffed by the umpires in the Brownlow (PAV had him as the 3rd best player that year, behind Judd and Akermanis).

In their Brownlow years of 2012 and 2014, PAV rated Mitchell and Priddis as the 12th and 13th most valuable players in the league respectively. Mitchell’s Brownlow was of course the 2012 medal, awarded in retrospect. 2012 was also Thompson’s best year, and he was just shaded by Mitchell, rating 13th. We should note, however, that in a lot of these ratings the differences were fairly minimal and since PAV stands for “player approximate value”, when scores are similar the exact order is not necessarily meaningful – a 21.8 versus a 21.6 has very minimal difference, and could even come down to the mistaken compilation of given statistics.

Incidentally, during that 2012 season, Mitchell’s eventual co-medallist Trent Cotchin was 4th for PAV that year, and the ultimately ineligible Jobe Watson rated 5th.

Career PAV
  1. Mitchell
  2. Hodge
  3. Riewoldt
  4. Thompson
  5. Priddis

We have imputed a final 2017 value based on the season to date – these may shift with the final few games of each career, but the shift shouldn’t be significant since most of the season has been played. The margins between the top three are quite slim, but the results should hold.

With the shortest career of the bunch, Priddis was always going to struggle with respect to total career value produced, however he still produced more than the average value of number one draft picks. Of the five players, Thompson got off to the slowest start, but had the longest stretch of “good-to-great” seasons, with nine straight years where he should have been in All Australian squad contention. This slow start, along with the longest tail of the five players, meant that the other three greats would shave him.

Subjective Ratings

For this measure, we asked three of our favourite football writers/analysts to rank the players from one to five, on whatever grounds or method they choose. They had no idea of our work above. They are:

Collectively these three ranked them:

  1. Mitchell
  2. Riewoldt
  3. Hodge
  4. Priddis
  5. Thompson

But we note that two of the three are West Coast supporters, so take the last two spots with a small grain of salt. All three we surveyed unanimously had Mitchell-Riewoldt at 1st and 2nd in that order – as did the other dozen or so people we asked in our day to day lives.

In summary

We seem to keep coming back to there being two clear tiers here – Mitchell, Hodge and Riewoldt in some order, then Priddis and Thompson. Mitchell comes out as the closest thing to a consensus “best” but Riewoldt isn’t far behind

overall.PNG

The biggest outlier method – even more so than team success – turns out to be the Brownlow Medal which we have no compunction about saying quite simply undervalues both Riewoldt and Hodge.

By the same token however, when we look at various uses of our PAV, it becomes apparent that the inclusion of Priddis and Thompson in this comparison isn’t spurious and they aren’t really out of place, even if their recognition as individual greats hasn’t been as forthcoming. As we noted, a potential Victorian media bias – which has foundations in media theory and international sporting debate – may have an impact on the public perceptions of non-Victorian based players.

Something we like about the PAV approach as we’ve tested and analysed it is the way it identifies lesser-lights who had careers or seasons which were comparable to better recognised and more widely noted achievements. That has certainly happened here.

Thompson had a very long career of consistently high value to his (second) club while Priddis, a late starter, still came in and performed at a similar level almost immediately. Every one of these five players had careers which outperformed the expectations of a number one draft pick and it’s no insult to say that Priddis or Thompson are fourth or fifth among this group.

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.

Trade period: AFLW clubs take divergent paths in building for the future

The first AFLW trade and free agency period has come and gone, and seen all eight clubs set on slightly different paths on the way to the upcoming season. Whilst the raw number of trades and free agency moves was smaller than the typical AFLM trade and free agency period, the magnitude of the moves may have a wide impact on the entire competition in the years to come.

Player movements

Below is a table of every club’s list from the season just gone, coloured by where players ended up moving for the upcoming season either by trades or free agency moves.

(Click for a larger image)

AFLWlists.PNG

As we can see, no club was left entirely unaltered with every club except Fremantle losing a player to another side, and only Adelaide failing to acquire an import. Neither side bothered engaging in trading, as segregated draft pools make pick order meaningless to clubs in single-team states. Instead, Freo pinched their homecoming prizes via free agency.

Two clubs (Fremantle and Carlton) now have three players originally designated as “marquees”, a term now discontinued by the league. As the AFLW doesn’t disclose each player’s pay, one can only guess at how these player tiers are split.

Club primary lists for 2018 will be 27 players, with the remainder to be filled up via the draft. At the close of trade period, clubs could only have a maximum 22 players, but we’re unsure that they were permitted to exceed this during the free agency period. None did, however, and only Melbourne seems to have even reached that 22 player total.

signings

Interstate clubs stayed mostly on the sidelines

Given the segregated draft pools, interstate clubs didn’t have much need to engage in trades for picks. Brisbane and GWS made exchanges prompted by players desiring a move to or from Victoria. Adelaide and Fremantle didn’t bother at all.

Adelaide and GWS, with the weakest local talent pools from which to draw, would have mostly focused on retaining players recruited from interstate. Adelaide had 7 from outside SA/NT and GWS had 10 from outside NSW/ACT. They mostly managed to retain those players and GWS topped up further.

The Giants lost Alex Williams back to WA and Ashleigh Guest to Melbourne, but have replaced those with four other imports via trades and free agency. The loss of Williams will hurt GWS in their already-shaky defence, but Randall and Privitelli are both defenders themselves. Eva adds some serious class to the Giants’ midfield, and Boyd is a ruck/forward who probably comes in to support McKinnon.

Their most unexpected non-signings are two AFL Canberra players, Queanbeyan’s Ella Ross and Riverina’s Clare Lawton, who both played every game at GWS. Lawton is likely on the outer due to the signing of Boyd, but look for both as redraft chances later in the year.

NSW/ACT is as a draft pool is difficult to read from Under-18s results this year – they matched it with the historically stronger Queensland side, going down by just 3. They then lost by 87 points to WA, which is hard to triangulate because Queensland then went on to beat WA in what was, on past results, an upset.

Adelaide couldn’t retain former marquee Kellie Gibson who wanted a return to Western Australia. There has been speculation that Gibson was told that she would move down the pay tiers, but her status as an unrestricted free agent indicates that she wasn’t offered a contract – in line with the Fremantle statement on her signing. As Gibson moved via free agency Adelaide received nothing in return for her loss, presumably because nobody wanted to move slightly east. A trade of picks would have been useless for both teams, due to the state pool draft restrictions.

Gibson aside, their interstate players have all settled in to play in the local comp over the winter and not returned home. Adelaide have therefore taken quite a minimalist approach to the sign and trade period, content to retain players. There is really not much to say about them. The most notable delisting is the behelmeted Heather Anderson, who was badly injured in the Grand Final and if fit will surely be redrafted.

South Australia have also had a couple of stronger under-18 classes in recent years. They currently sit undefeated with two massive wins in the 2017 u18 competition – albeit against weaker competition in Tasmania and the NT (the three teams will form “the Allies” in round 2 matches). As such, the Crows might find enough to replenish their list without looking interstate again.

Fremantle were also minimal participants in the player exchange, content to bring home a couple of big names via free agency. Despite their lack of movement, the Dockers may end up the biggest winners of the entire period. For a club who turned out to be unexpectedly hampered by the loss of the cream of WA’s talent pool, getting back Gibson and Williams is an unalloyed win. Fremantle now have three of the original marquees, having also retained Kiera Bowers who missed the season with an ACL injury. They also now have three priority pick level players from last year, retaining Antonio and Bentley as well as adding Williams.

The Dockers have left a couple of notable players on the table, including midfielder Demi Okely, rebounding defender Akec Chuot and the hard-tackling netball convert top-up in Alicia Janz. We’re more or less assuming the Dockers will look to draft these players if better local options don’t present themselves, but if another club can convince them to relocate, they could enter a different draft pool instead.

WA can probably also be assumed to be producing good under-18s talent, and will no doubt be adding several players this way. So far this year they have had a big win against NSW/ACT and a slightly surprising loss to Queensland.

For Brisbane, they retained their possible flight risks (especially marquee West Australian Sabrina Frederick-Traub) and their main involvement was trying to extract fair return for Tayla Harris. We’ll discuss them when we discuss that trade as a whole were made.

Like South Australia, Queensland sit undefeated in the under-18 competition, but they did it against much stronger opposition, knocking off perennial favourite WA by 10 points. Brisbane will expect to do well as well as anyone out of the upcoming draft.

Trades are for Victorians

Five trades were completed during the exchange period, all unsurprisingly involving Victorian clubs for whom the fungible currency of trade week – draft picks – actually have meaning. However, the four clubs took differing strategies during the week, with Collingwood and to a lesser extent the Dogs trading into the draft whilst Carlton traded out of it and Melbourne focused on player swaps.

We’ve translated the pick trades below into the position they ended up sitting within Victoria, as those will be the competitive element of the draft:

Trade2

These two trades between GWS and the Dees collectively sent two fringe Melbourne players to GWS in exchange for Guest and a pick that entitles the Dees to the 18th selection within Victoria. Compared to the other moves this is a relatively late pick, and will be the Demons last active pick – and a upgrade of two spots on pick 20.

Pepa Randall was the 16th draft pick for Melbourne, or the 19th player into their list overall. She is only 21 and didn’t manage a game for the Dees in 2017. At VFLW level she has proven to be an effective small forward who has a sense for the goals, but Giants sources call her a key defender. Boyd is a tall who rucks and plays forward. She played every game for the Dees, but as a secondary ruck behind Lauren Pearce and as a forward who didn’t get on the scoreboard at all.

Ashleigh Guest deliberately moved to the Giants this year, nominating for the NSW draft pool. She told an interviewing charity last year “I moved to Sydney from Melbourne in November to put myself out of my comfort zone”. She has apparently decided to move back into her comfort zone and should plug into the Dees midfield.

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Nicola Stevens won Collingwood‘s best and fairest in a pretty disappointing year for them. Carlton gave up three picks for Stevens – more or less trading out of the draft and demonstrating how highly they value her (or how lowly they value draft access).

Collingwood’s balance within this trade is probably best assessed in conjunction with the following movement.

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Overall the Magpies lose the two players their coaches rated as their best at their awards night – Stevens and Eva. In return they obtain Lambert, who will be potentially one of their best. She was the Dogs’ first draft pick (4th onto the list) and came 7th in the Dogs best and fairest while missing one game and otherwise struggling with a difficult hip injury.

Collingwood emerge from the exchange period down a top established top player on balance, and instead have an extra pick inside the first eight Victorian picks in order to replace the shortfall:

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We don’t have a valuation points system suitable to the AFL Women’s Draft at this stage but this move basically represents the addition of another high pick and improvements in position. If we assume Lambert can recover from her injury and be roughly like-for-like for Eva, then the Pies should do well, giving themselves an extra shot at securing a replacement for Stevens from the top of the draft. Collingwood had one of the oldest lists in 2017 so this move may be looking to position themselves for the future for  We’ll talk more about the draft below.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, used this trade to maintain their position at the top of the Victorian draft and improve the position of their second pick. The pick 3 they gave Collingwood was the first Victorian pick, but the GWS pick 1 they gained now becomes the new top competitive pick. A shrewd move.

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The core of this trade was Brisbane walking the tightrope of trying to get players for Harris without letting her walk and leave them with worthless draft picks via the system of discretionary free agency compensation. They’ve done quite well here, all things considered. Exon was technically a rookie due to her split involvement in athletics and VPL soccer, but she won a VFLW premiership last year before the Blues signed her as a rookie, an odd quirk of the foundation AFLW signing system. Exon ended up one of Carlton’s midfield run and gun players.

The other player traded in was Bella Ayre, who juggled year 12 and a two hour commute each way to training, leaving school at 3:30 and getting home from training at midnight. On paper Ayre is a slight downgrade forward option on Harris, but she starred in a couple of games last year and should allow the Lions’ forward setup to remain basically unchanged.

The Dees shed Deanna Berry to the Bulldogs but obtained Bianca Jakobsson in exchange. They were both mostly forwards, but as with many players, various sources insist they are versatile. Of the two, Jakobsson is a truer tall target, finishing in the top 10 in the AFLW for contested marks and marks inside 50. However, Berry is four years younger than Jakobsson, and might have more room to grow in her game.

This is probably an upgrade for the Dees in terms of their prospects next year, as Jakobsson plays tall. The Dees were relatively average in this area last year – 5th for contested marks per game, 3rd for marks inside 50.

For the Bulldogs, through either style or personnel reasons, they weren’t a great marking side last year. The loss of Berry won’t impact them that much on that front, and they indirectly benefit from Melbourne obtaining Jakobsson here. Melbourne left Jessica Anderson – another full-forward – unsigned. She had only kicked 1 goal and took 7 marks in her 5 games, and on statistical output Jakobsson is a clear upgrade. However, the Bulldogs may find use for Anderson if they want to add another tall to support Brennan, having obtained most of their goals last year from midfielders such as Blackburn, the now departed Lambert, and Lamb.

The Blues surprised us this season with a relatively unheralded group (for a Victorian team) in terms of previously established talent – we noted they had the least elite talent in terms of all-star honours. They then proceeded to embarrass us and other pundits with an organised game based around a small core of top talent supported by the players they pulled from the draft.

They have now taken the exact opposite approach this year after drafting successfully – removing themselves from the draft to an extent, and trading aggressively to secure two gun players:

carlton balance.PNG

Carlton did secure their prize in Tayla Harris, as well as the Collingwood B&F in Stevens earlier in the trade period, but have given up plenty in order to do it – three best-16 players and multiple early draft picks.

Who “won” trade period?

The question of which are the right moves move probably hinges on whether this upcoming draft is a mature one useful for building a long term future. Much of the eventual success and evaluation of this trade period will come with the announcement of the player retention rules with respect to the expansion of the AFLW in 2019.

We can conceive of the Collingwood/Bulldogs and Carlton/Melbourne trade periods as (perhaps by necessity) taking opposite bets on the state of the upcoming draft. The Dees were content to take their picks and gain one mid-range new pick, while Carlton left themselves with just one pick from the first 15 Victorian selections – pick 12 overall, or number 7 in Victoria.

The Bulldogs have three selections before Carlton’s first pick, and one a little after it. Collingwood have two picks before Carlton’s first, and then three more soon after. In both quality and quantity terms, the two clubs are positioned aggressively for this draft.

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What sort of draft will it be? Last year’s draft was establishing the competition, and presumably collected all of the key established talent of all ages. So the question is whether the incoming young cohort who were too young or undeveloped last year are of sufficient number and quality to provide the multiple elite players needed to justify the bet on the draft.

Damien Keeping at Carlton and Wayne Siekman at Collingwood both have recent experience in Victorian women’s football development. Keeping and Siekman were both in the Vic Metro Youth Girls setup last year. This makes the contrasting positions they’ve taken is especially intriguing in terms of how they might rate the talent pools with which they should be quite familiar.

Check back in five or so years to see who was right.

What about cross-code rookies?

This coming season, rookie listed players will only be able to play if upgraded for an injured player like in the men’s game. This suggests we may not see the same volume of cross-code converts making headlines in future. We’re not sure if clubs will, or can, leave primary list spaces vacant for rookie upgrades.

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In 2017, nine rookies out of the sixteen played a game, a total of 58%. This was a pretty good strike rate, and a number of players had a real impact. Some of these players had football experience, such as Exon who had played other sports (Victorian Premier League soccer) but also had a football background. Exon won a flag with Darebin before being recruited by Carlton.

Others brought over a generalised athletic skillset that worked in transfer, such as Catherine Phillips (ultimate Frisbee) and Ellie Brush (W-League). Erin Phillips of course, came in as a rookie and combined both a childhood footy background and being an experienced, world class athlete and won the league Best and Fairest.

If we’re looking for players likely to bring similar attributes to the successful rookies, those who might be likely to have an impact if upgraded, we’d nominate Georgie Parker at Collingwood from the small group of announcements. She’s an Olympic level hockey player, an elite standard of athlete, so could be expected to contribute if given the chance. There may also be more signings to come of players with actual football experience – so far only six of a potential 24 rookies have been signed.

However, overall, we should expect to see the cross-code transfer rookie signing reduce in significance with the new list rules.

Shanghai isn’t an AFL expansion attempt – it’s much more interesting than that

When Port Adelaide announced last year that it had struck a three year “partnership” with Chinese business, the dominant reaction was probably confusion or derision. With a game now having been played for premiership points in Shanghai, now is a good time to try to get to grips with what exactly is going on.

While expansionism is often at the forefront of the minds of many ambitious footy fans who are keen to prove that the Australian game is the best game in the world, a much simpler answer is likely afoot: soft political power and raw cash.

A brief history of the AFL in China

The AFL-China linkage hasn’t come out of thin air. The idea of connecting foreign sports with Chinese money and audiences has been around for a while. Those with a long memory may recall that in 2010, China-linked Russian company Kaspersky paid Melbourne $300k to play a preseason game in Shanghai. Woodside, a then-Fremantle sponsor who export gas to China, also came on board as a sponsor of the game.

China’s history with the game before then was minimal, with the first local amateur championship played in Beijing in 2009 – just a year before the Melbourne-Brisbane preseason game. Since the mid 1990s, local leagues and Auskick programs (with some limited AFL support) have been springing up across the country – but on a relatively small scale to other international sporting programs in China. China had the 15th strongest national team at the 2014 International Cup, a standing that has not changed much since their first entry in 2008.

The AFL has long nurtured dreams of substantive international expansion, but they’re not naïve enough to think it starts with spending a lot of money to play games in China. As best as our research shows, the AFL isn’t footing much of the bill in China, and even groups like Tourism Australia have kicked in. The South Australian Government has even contributed $250,000 for a 25-part TV show on AFL for the Chinese market. For Port Adelaide, six staff members are listed as currently working in their “China and Government Relations” division – a substantial investment commensurate with the financial gain they are obtaining from the project.

Broadly it could be said AFL ventures overseas have three interests – financial gain, intergovernmental relations, and actual expansion of the sport. Initiatives like playing games in New Zealand and drafting from the United States seem to be far more serious ventures for expanding the reach of the sport. Those things are really what international expansion means to the AFL right now, not so much Port Adelaide playing in Shanghai.

Who is Shanghai CRED?

This deal certainly isn’t an isolated or random measure for the Chinese partner, Shanghai CRED. They are a real estate company with about $3 billion AUD in assets, led by a billionaire named Gui Goujie who is described in at least one article we’ve read as “affable”. Shanghai CRED seems to be a private company that used to be a state agency. Like many business elites Gui is embedded in the government establishment. He sits on the Shanghai committee of the People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and “has been assigned by the Chinese government a major role in linking state and private companies, and in building Chinese investments overseas.”

Make no mistake that this sort of philanthropic engagement by expansionist Chinese business interests has official blessing. Many private businesses are of course closely linked with the state in China, and the Premier of China himself attended a game with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull earlier this year, during an extended Australian visit.

The company has a lot of other interests in Australia and elsewhere in the western world such as New Zealand and China. Last year Shanghai CRED was a minority partner with Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting in a joint venture bid to take over large swathes of S. Kidman and Co. cattle group land across Australia, a move approved by the Treasurer Scott Morrison in December 2016, after earlier bids by other foreign interests were rejected. Rinehart, naturally, attended the match at Jiangwan Stadium yesterday.

The key thing to note here is that the Shanghai game happened because of sponsorship of Port Adelaide by Shanghai CRED, and other firms to a much lesser degree. The money is substantial in AFL terms – reportedly worth $6 million in new revenue so far with more expected – but a rounding error compared to a major agricultural property deal or CRED’s $3bn asset portfolio.

The AFL as subject, not object

There’s been a lot of pretty funny press around the match, rather justifiably making the AFL and its teams look like absolute rubes in over their heads. From Port’s captain Travis Boak being roundly mocked for claiming to be the first western pro sport to play for points in China…

…to the truly weird spectacle of the Age’s photographer chucking a murky yellow filter over their photos, making them look smoggy…

…to antiquated racist jokes on Fox Footy, and the reporting of the Suns bravely surviving minor flight delays, it’s all been a bit of a cringe-fest as a resolutely local sport discovers the joys of long haul international play.

The amateurishness, the ill-preparedness, the earnestness, the boorishness, all make a lot more sense when you realise that the push isn’t really being led by the AFL or its clubs, regardless of how they like to spin things. The AFL are very much the acted-upon party here, offered a bunch of free money in exchange for the chance to showcase their product and, most importantly, to build local links and a better image for Chinese businesses. We’re not used to thinking of the AFL – locally imperious and powerful – as a passive subject going along with other people’s plans, but that’s what’s happening here.

So Sunday’s game is probably not a hubristic attempt by a major sporting body in Australia to expand its game into foreign markets, and they’re not about to be smacked down by the cold hard reality of world indifference. The adventure is easy to mock, but there’s not much AFL investment and there’s little risk here. Port have made millions off this deal. They don’t really need to suddenly develop Shanghai into a Canberra or Launceston-style second home. Their financial rewards are upfront and concrete.

The game was a success when it was played without significant incident, and when the cheques cleared the bank.

Sport diplomacy to support the ‘Peaceful Rise’

This event is best read within the context of Chinese policy of smoothing a “peaceful rise” towards superpower status and everything that entails. The AFL and Port are the lucky recipient of a downpayment of goodwill and trust-building by the business interests of a huge and rising foreign power.

It is a small component of a much broader policy. The foremost example of Chinese soft power through sport is of course in the Global Game, where the state has plans for China to become very good at soccer and invest in other countries’ leagues  in order to improve its image and create a conduit for connecting with other countries’ cultures. But a parallel logic applies here, too.

China is a rising superpower, keenly aware of the potential conflicts its expansion could cause. It is interested in deepening its foreign ties to guarantee its economic interests. Part of the way to manage this rise is by establishing networks of linkages with other countries’ business, government and cultural elites in order to increase understanding, trust and reciprocal obligations. Gui and his company are an example of this; he is a business elite with political connections running a former state asset. Gui is tasked with engaging overseas in order to expand and facilitate his business and country’s investments.

This push makes perfect sense – American soft power is no doubt what China would like to emulate. Think about it. American culture is enmeshed everywhere in Australia and elsewhere around the world, and that enmeshment tends to make American business and policy interests very intelligible and more acceptable to others. We all know roughly what Americans think, what their government is like, what their culture is like. Chinese diplomats and businesses would love to achieve that sort of normalisation in the minds of others.

Initiatives like the Port Adelaide one make sense in this context. Connecting Chinese commercial interests with local sporting competitions – the logic runs – will surely increase Australian familiarity with China and make us more inclined to view Chinese economic power benignly. They hope it can make Australian governments more familiar and friendly with China, and reduce the political cost of policy concessions to Chinese interests. Ultimately, the hope is more cultural linkage would make Australian governments less likely to block future asset sales out of fear of bad publicity.

At the end of the day, we’re a football blog, not a foreign policy or business blog. All we’re really suggesting here is that we should view the Shanghai experiment through the correct lens. That is: the AFL and Port Adelaide are a slightly bewildered and certainly eager vessel for diplomatic exchange. Meanwhile, Shanghai CRED (and perhaps the wider Chinese political machine) wants Australian trust and goodwill because they hope that will make their own interests easier to pursue. At least one major Chinese business with political links sees our most-attended sport as a tool to help with this goal.