We’ll Just Take Your Word For It, Then

H Sun graphic 141212


The preceding, highly official, err, “predictive stats box” I guess we call it, appeared on pg 109 of the Herald Sun on Friday 14th Dec.

(Author and Idiot’s note – if you click on the thing, it’ll get almost big enough for you to read. One day I’ll get the hang of this tricksier compuweb interputer stuff.)

Quite handy, as it lets you know how your team (and all the others) will go in the next AFL season, which I guess spares the players the trouble, the AFL the expense, and us the suspense, of actually playing that season out.

Although there was an article – and not incidentally a very specific plug for a publication entitled 2013 AFL Prospectus – on the facing page which did indeed deal with analysis of players on a team-by-team basis it failed to use quite the same terminology as the graphic did, so the one expression that seemed particularly contentious to me, i.e. the “magic number” by which the teams were ranked in the graphic, remained unexplained for some time.

Actually it WAS in the article on the other page, as I puzzled out four days or so later – there they called it “average player rating”, which doesn’t sound quite so, err, “magical”.

All of which sounds highly official and probably is to the worshippers at the Church O’ Stats.

Only the judgements are subjective, aren’t they? As much as they might like to make it look overwhelmingly inarguable by presenting in cold black and white numbers, there’s an element of three year olds dressing up like a princess about it, because it’s all made up.

On the page in question, Gary Ablett (Jr) was assigned 100 pts (out of 100) as a midfielder, and it was mentioned how dominant he was in the category as the second highest pts getter there was Scott Pendlebury, back on 92.

Right. The truth is, as good as Ablett is, was and always has been – and the first dummy he sold was probably in the crib, bamboozling a grandmother – he flits around joyously, gathering colourful posies of possessions in matches that mean nothing and in a team that basically can’t win.

Pendlebury’s playing in FOOTBALL GAMES – i.e. his team is playing in finals, striving for grand finals (not entirely unrealistically, as it would be for Ablett’s GC Suds mob right now), and Collingwood wins matches.

It’s not that Ablett isn’t good, or isn’t better than Pendlebury for that matter – it’s just that the stats used as a raw material to magic up these numbers are selected and highlighted in an arbitrary manner by human beings as part of that process.

It’s subjective. Some of the raw stats themselves – when it comes down to what’s a loose ball “get” and what’s a hard one for example – you wouldn’t necessarily get two people agreeing about. Probably, we’ve all seen some stats on a day’s game where we were shaking our heads wondering how they arrived at those figures.

Some of the categories within match stats, and certainly how they are applied by the statisticians (again a case of human judgement in some categories) are a case of asking the wrong questions – in terms of carving up how a game was won or lost – or supplying the wrong answers.

Again, check out the graphic. Firstly there’s a presumption that if a team has the best average rating of players, it will perform better in the season.

Some of us would say this is a crock. I guess all of us of a certain age have heard the expression “A champion team will beat a team of champions”, probably well beyond the point of tears to this point.

Actually in sport this isn’t always true either – depending on how they team, and how dominant their champions are, and whether the opposition have a way of playing that proves kryptonite to the assembled “champions”, or not, and Lord knows how many other valid factors in determining a victor in one contest, including a certain amount of fortune when two reasonably even teams play off, the “team of champions” may just be too good and blitz it in.

However, those of us of the kind of previously mentioned age bracket have lived long enough to see the “champion team” cliche proven to have some validity many times over the years. There is something to it, although as truisms go, its purported wisdom is a lot less than definitive.

So to say the team which on average has the “better players” (and the ranking for that, as previously mentioned, is inherently subjective and contentious), must prevail, and so forth down the hypothetical 2013 ladder, is pretty much full of it.

Also, check out the graphic again. See whether you believe some of those assessments. Essendon up that high suggests to me a “statistical analysis” carried out by that bulk of Essendon fans which thinks they’ve always got the team to do the trick and starts waving pitchforks and blazing torches around every time they don’t make a grand final. I hope they’ve got plenty of mad money for Bunnings, because they’re going to need a lot of pitchforks and blazing torches in years to come.

If Melbourne’s ranked above Brisbane on the season we’ve just seen, (and arguably Footscray), your magical number generator is on the fritz. The diff’s shot, and we’ll have to get the parts from Japan – it’ll be six weeks.

To me, St Kilda seems too low, Adelaide and Freo seem too high (the latter in particular until proven otherwise) and you can go on and on around the bases.

Almighty Church o’ Slavering Stats-Suckers to the contrary, band-aiding a bold black-and-white number on top of a bunch of surmise, contention, presumption, assumptions and, in a sense, a fair old amount of good old-fashioned fabrication, does not make that number “official” or indicative, or much of anything more valid than post-match beer-breath blather in the nearest pub to the ground.

One factor that apparently hasn’t even been looked at – and certainly wasn’t discussed anywhere in that Herald Sun double spread, including the article that purportedly explained the numbers – is the notion of indexing your player ratings against the team’s win/loss ratio, to help give them at least some basis in reality, as far as determining who the most effective players are (i.e. out on the field, not in the stats lab with the gleaming dustcoats, spectacles and mouth-corner saliva) and rating them accordingly.

Actually I’ve had a gutful of supposed “analysis” having become a brain-dead decanting and recanting of a spaghetti tangle of dumb numbers. If anyone wants to go back to opening their eyes, pointing their heads at the football match and calling what they see, I’ll be voting for that ticket.

So, in conclusion, regarding the Herald Sun’s “official” version of next season’s results, let me say I very much concur with the description of the numbers as “magic”, but I probably don’t mean it quite the same way as they do.



5 thoughts on “We’ll Just Take Your Word For It, Then

  1. Agree wholeheartedly Leapster, this indeed was a grande crock de merde.

    In a similar vein the Match Review Pirates gather round and collate their two bits worth on a particular incident and assign an ascending scale of naughtiness to which points are attached. Then a number of other factors, granted far less interpretive, add to the score and voila. We have a seemingly inarguable mathematical outcome (which some level of ESP is required to determine the guilty party’s intention and little thought given to the split second nature of the game – nor the laws of physics which prevent a player in mid-air from bending time, Matrix style).

  2. These type of newspaper articles are off-season column fillers. The stats in question are of a players PAST performance and of little relevance to 2013. Like the premiership odds for 2013 they’re based on what happened this year hence the predicted ladder is pretty much 2012’s. As for Ablett he got 53 possessions in a team that lost to Collingwood by 100 points and still got 3 Brownlow votes. I was at that game and GAJ got those possessions because none of his teammates were capable of providing support and Collingwood allowed him to roam free because they knew it would make no difference to the result. Basically he didn’t earn the possessions and in my book wasn’t entitled to the 3 votes but I guess what ever formula the umpires and the HS use it just takes into account the big number.

  3. I found my views on that article varied between complete disagreement, complete bewilderment, and finally resignation that we’ve got about 3 more months of this before real football returns.

    There are a few stats in footy I find that do have some validity:

    – Goals
    – Points
    – Total score

    Other than that, I think it’s all up for grabs. Not the contested variety of course.

    • I think Total Score is all that counts. St Kilda scored more goals than Collingwood in the 2010 grand final but it didn’t win them the game.

  4. I havent read the article, but it seems like anther half arsed version ofcopying the americans. They have the (insert sport) prospectus franchise running, but those books include real stats that consider strength of schedule, individual contribution vs team, vale per individual play etc.

    Just another useless page filler by the hun to promote their ”partner’ afl during the off season.

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