Football fans love others making big calls. This is mainly so they can relish in the fact that those calls are often wrong.
I’m going to make a different type of big call. It’s not one that can be found to be right or wrong after the fact, but rather, it’s an interpretation that can be debated and argued.
Over a significant period of time, as I’ve thought and daydreamed and written and analysed the sport of Australian football, breaking down how the game is played and how teams ultimately win, how players contribute to success and as a result how teams are valued, there are new ways to think about footy and the common consensus can often be wrong. New research and new ways of understanding how players help teams win means that common interpretation is often wrong.
Even a decade after the Moneyball revolution, in baseball the concept of pitch framing was researched, analysed and understood, thus allowing for greater understanding of player valuation and how individuals help their teams win.
In the AFL, GPS data and its associated XY co-ordinates present the league’s next frontier, as greater understanding of player valuation can be extracted from such coordinate data, where the opportunities for research and understanding are limitless. Even beyond the Western Bulldogs’ current use in stoppages, co-ordinate data could be used in analysing structures, ball movement, kick-ins, and so on and so forth, and player ability and valuation can be understood. How many defenders to certain key forwards attract in pack situations, allowing for running midfielders to get loose and crumb a contest, for example, allows for greater understanding of the valuation of key forwards relative to each other.
AFL tactical research has often come in the form of understanding clearances and stoppages, which is why I’m making the big call I’m about to make:
Patrick Cripps is not a valuable player because he doesn’t play in such a way that helps his team win.
Or in other words, Carlton aren’t a team more largely more likely to win games just because they so happen to have Patrick Cripps playing for them.
I’m probably going to cause a riot among Carlton fans. And non-Carlton fans, and a lot of footy people.
That’s not to say he isn’t a productive player, he isn’t a unique player or that he isn’t doing things that no other player his age has ever done.
My view on Cripps is largely because of the disparity with how we understand player production, and the connection with producing and how that contributes to wins.
Cripps is the player whose production levels, his kicking, his contested possessions, are often associated with him being a valuable player when his production and the process toward winning could not be further apart.
Breaking down Cripps’ production is the first part in understanding him and his ultimate value. Whilst at face value – his SuperCoach averages placed him in the top thirty in the competition, and his AFL Player Ratings Points relative to his position and age have him as the league’s eighth best midfielder.
Champion Data introduce Cripps in their AFL Prospectus with “Cripps is a star for the Blues around the stoppages, but he can improve his play on the spread”. Understanding how little value that play around the stoppages is worth and just how poor Cripps is on the spread is critical in this regard.
Cripps won 74% of his contested possessions pre-clearance, per the Prospectus (the most of any of the league’s top 100 possession winners). Given his contested possession rate of 62%, that means his possessions per game in 2016 were broken down like this:
16.9 Contested Possessions Per Game – 12.5 pre-clearance, 4.4 post-clearance. 10.2 Uncontested Possessions per game.
Those 12.5 contested possessions per game that Cripps wins pre-clearance is what leads people to believe that he creates value. The eye test sees him win a hard ball and fire off a handball. The stats credit him for that contested possession – whether it be SuperCoach or AFL Player Ratings points.
The question is, however, does that lead to Carlton wins? I’d say no.
Carlton are not a dominant stoppage team. Their stoppage differential places them 12th in the league. Their pre-clearance possession numbers dropped to 14th in the competition, per the Prospectus. Cripps’ dominance at the stoppage level meant that they only scored 23 points per game from the stoppage, good for 17th in the competition. Although Carlton improved defensively, it wasn’t because of the defensive nature of Cripps ensuring the opposition didn’t get hands on the ball, or were investing at the stoppage to stop Cripps to their own detriment – Carlton was better at defending the turnover than they were the stoppage, and their overall defensive improvement largely came from winning time in possession battles (padding up players like Sam Docherty and Kade Simpsons’ kick numbers) as well as territory battles by playing a boundary ball movement style.
If the very reasonable argument can be made that Cripps is only one player, and stoppages are a mass of bodies, that ultimately helps the argument of Cripps’ lack of value – if his strength is at a skill that has at best marginal, and at worst a negligible value, then what value is that skill? Not all contested possessions are created equal.
And in any case, Cripps’ midfield partners are not the weakness of his team, and the players who his clearances are directed to – Bryce Gibbs, Marc Murphy, the improving Ed Curnow – are not poor players, even if all had bad patches of form. If his style of play around the stoppages are not making these player’s ball movement more effective, than what value does Cripps really have?
There’s research around the value of winning the stoppage being negligible and by my calculations ball movement contributes to 90% of the game, where stoppage success only contributes to 10%1. How is what Cripps does around stoppages helping his team win in 10% of the game?
Where Carlton really hurt was their efficiency in the forward half of their ground. They were the competition’s worst team at ball movement that originated in winning clearances or stoppages in their own attacking 50, where Cripps’ below average effectiveness (less than one goal or goal assist per game). For a player of key forward height, his lack of ability to rest as a key forward (where others like Marcus Bontempelli have proved it to be possible) is another way his ability to provide value to Carlton is limited.
Carlton’s ball movement inside 50 was also poor, their ability to score and/or retain possession moving the ball inside 50 their big downfall and the most critical aspect that they need to improve to push for finals. Not only was Cripps a deadweight in that area, he was actively harmful and contributed to the lack of success in that area.
There’s no evidence that for all his grunt work, the fact that he gets involved in possession chains helps his team score (where at first glance it might appear that his inside dominance attracts multiple opponents, allowing teammates off the leash). Only 21% of his chains end up being scores, 43rd of the top 50 in chain involvements, per the Prospectus, remembering that this includes the more than half of his possessions that are post-stoppage.
Despite only kicking the ball less than nine times a game, Cripps averaged almost four clangers a game, good for 10th in the league behind players who kick the ball much more frequently.2
In other words, his inside ability doesn’t help his teammates in their already-poor ability to move the ball in the attacking half of the ground, his minimal possessions mean that he doesn’t participate in contested ball movement all that often, and when he does, his poor kicking and outside ability is reason for the very weaknesses in Carlton’s style of play.
Cripps, admittedly, is a solid tackler and defensive player around the stoppage – but that is largely a skill that is correlated with good ball winners anyway, and given he’s a player who stands around the stoppage anyway, his tackle numbers are solid if not entirely impressive. And in the end, the value of such defensive work when represented in Carlton’s wider stoppage success is negligible, how valuable is it really?
Patrick Cripps is often mentioned in the same breath as Marcus Bontempelli and Zach Merrett when comparing the league’s rising young midfielders. However, in understanding how each contribute to their team’s chance of winning, one is much unlike the other two.
1. If you look at each team’s points per game for and against, 90% of it is because of their points per possession chain for and against, and 10% of it is explained by the fact that a team wins more or less than 50% of all clearances (therefore creating more or less possession chains than their opposition). The correlation of winning more than 50% clearances and winning games is small if it exists at all, although the Western Bulldog’s success in that area in 2016 may usher in a new era.
2. Of the 297 players in 2016 who played at least three games and averaged 15 touches, Cripps only kicking the ball 2.2 times for every clanger was the second worst in the competition, behind Jackson Trengove. Note – this is not clanger kicks, but all clangers in general relative to how often a player kicks.