Monday, July 24, 2006

Value of a puller (warning: numbers)

What is the value of a good puller? George said he thought one of his teammates was worth 4-5 goals a game based on his pulls, but I think that a player worth 4-5 goals on defense would be the best defensive player on the planet.

So how do you go about estimating this? One way is to start by looking at breaks. Elite Open teams probably average only about 4 breaks a game against other elite teams. Splitting the credit among the 7 guys who play defense, this means each guy is only worth maybe 0.5 goal a game over an inflatable dummy. If a team averages 7-8 breaks a game (which would mean that they are more likely to score than the receiving team), then either that team is phenomenal or else (more likely) the playing environment (either bad weather or poor disc skills) means that even bad defense will get 3-4 breaks a game.

Or look at it on a point-by-point basis. Suppose that the odds of the O scoring the point (not the possession are 80% on a brick, 70% on an average/decent pull (lands in end zone, one free pass), and 60% on a terrific pull (lands in end zone and hangs long enough for D to contest first pass). 80% scoring rate would translate to 3 breaks in 15 opportunities (game to 15), 70% = 4.5 breaks, 60% = 6 breaks. A perfect puller would only be worth 3 breaks over the worst puller, and just 1.5 breaks over someone who just threw line drives into the end zone. Factor in that the perfect puller doesn’t exist (although the little guy on Bravo came awfully close when we played them at the Colorado Cup) and you are probably looking at about a 1 goal per game difference between a great puller and the average puller. (Keep in mind that the “average puller” is still better than “how the average player would pull.” Any defensive squad probably has 2-3 “average pullers”.) Now, this is quite valuable, as we showed above that a good defensive player might be worth only 0.5 goals a game over a field cone, but it’s not 4-5 goals a game.

Or consider a less efficient environment, where the O holds serve 60%, 50%, and 40% of the time on the three pulls. The team with the perfect puller would now get 9 breaks a game, but the team with the bad puller would get 6, leaving the same “value over replacement”.

You could probably do a similar exercise with O players and come up with the statement that a good O player is only worth a goal a game over a replacement. Let’s do it for fun. We’ll put the D team out there on O receiving the pull. They’ll still score, say, 60% of the time (6 breaks a game). Our great O team of great O players scores 95% of the time (0.75 breaks a game). That’s 5.25 breaks/7 players = 0.75 breaks/game/player. Maybe the best player is worth 2 and the others are worth 1.25, .75, .5, .5, and 0.25.

And going back to the kid’s observation in George’s blog, not to pick on him, but the official UPA writeup tells a different story. Wisconsin got only two breaks, at 8-6 and 9-8 (the writer makes an error by saying the break at 9-8 was their second straight), and their D forced turnovers throughout the game but were unable to convert.

Monday, July 10, 2006

World Cup

Since I play goalkeeper in an indoor league, I find myself rooting for the keepers. I was particularly excited when the Portugese keeper found his way to the French penalty area for a corner kick in the final minute of the semi.

Like “football in the groin”, “France losing” falls into the “never gets old” category.

I have envisioned my ultimate career ending like Zidane’s did, head down in shame after getting fed up with a cheating D hack and letting him have it. That would suck.

The "problem" with soccer isn't that the refs suck or that the players cheat, it's that the system causes the refs to have too much importance and provides huge incentives for the players to dive in hopes of getting a call. I couldn’t find the stats in a minute of googling, but I’d estimate that 1/3 of the World Cup goals came on penalty kicks, 1/3 on corners and direct free kicks, and only 1/3 on what most people (including diehard fans) think of as soccer, the free-flow attack and counterattack. (I don’t really mind the corner kicks much, since it seems that they are almost entirely earned by good play, and the conversion rate is low enough that you would not waste a decent scoring opportunity just to get a corner kick, whereas you might take a dive for a foul call rather than continuing to play the ball.)

It seems that a player has a better chance of scoring by drawing a foul call than by beating the defenders, and the number of goals in a game is small enough that every goal opportunity can be the gamewinner. It is said that ultimate players are more likely to make questionable or petty calls when the going gets tough. Economically speaking, this makes sense. At 0-0, a goal is only about 3-4% of the remaining scoring for the game, so a bad call then might change a team’s winning percentage from 50% to 53%, and who wants to risk their integrity for that little, especially when the other team can then make up for it with their own bad calls? At 14-14, game to 15, it’s a game to 1, and having possession might change your probability of winning from 25% to 75%, with no chance for rebuttal. In essence, every minute of a soccer game is double game point.

Changes to increase scoring from this year’s 2 goals per game (for both teams combined) to 3 or 4 would still retain the feeling that goals are stingy but not so much that a team plays conservatively with a 1-0 lead after 10 minutes. The obvious solutions (change offsides, wider goals, fewer players, more substitutions) have obvious problems, but why doesn’t someone try it out? How many leagues are there with something approaching world-class play? The MLS would be a perfect testing ground.

But the real problem isn’t that games are 1-0 or 1-1, but that the one goal that is scored can be a random award. A covered player in the penalty area with the ball might have a 5% or 10% chance to score but can change that into an 80% chance by drawing a foul call. What if instead of tinkering with the rules which some feel are essential to the game, we simply changed the penalties? The penalty shot in hockey is only awarded when there is a clear and good scoring opportunity. None of the (admittedly few) penalty kicks that I saw awarded in the World Cup would have qualified by this metric. Make it at the referee’s discretion whether a foul in the penalty area or on a breakaway is worthy of a penalty kick. Alternatively, move the kicking spot back so that it’s a 25% or 50% shot (and you could easily change the distance for lower levels of the game to retain that 25% or 50%). That way, it would be in the player’s interest to continue after a loose ball after some incidental contact in the box rather than doing a swan dive.