However, the metres gained statistic is flawed and is a prime example of how Australian sports lag behind international counterparts in the fields of analytics. To remind everyone let’s see how metres gained is calculated.
Metres gained is the distance between where a player takes possession and the point of the next player’s disposal.
While it is impressive to see a player average over 300 metres gained a match, the statistic is mostly empty in its meaning. A player who kicks the ball fifty-metres, to an opposing player is still awarded 50 metres to his metres-gained. Compare this to a player who creates space by hand-balling backwards to a teammate who then is able to make efficient progression up the ground. They are docked metres gained, as the first possession goes backwards.
The idea behind metres gained is similar to popular yardage statistics in American football. Americans are up there with the world leaders in sports analytics. However yardage statistics are only counted on completed possessions. If Tom Brady throws a 70-yard long bomb that isn’t caught it still isn’t counted as +70 yards gained.
While, not perfect, a more balanced way to assess metres gained would be to count the distance from a player’s possession to the point where one of two things happen.
When the ball is dead (out of bounds, ball up, free kick, score), and when the ball is turned over.
Furthermore, if a player turns the ball over, the opposing teams metre count is docked from the player who turned it over. For example, after a chain of possession, Gary Ablett turns the ball over and the opposition gains 50 metres before the ball is dead. Gary Ablett is docked 50 metres.
In layman’s terms, a player’s role in a chain of effective possessions will be rewarded and turnovers will be penalised. Sounds pretty straight forward to me.
While metres gained has potential to be improved, it is not the only scope for improvement with AFL statistics and analysis.
There are other devices we can use to fully understand a player’s impact on a match. For example, a simple plus/minus (+/-) statistic could be effectively used in AFL, a +/- is simply the teams score when a player is on the field, minus the opposing teams score in that time.
It is a very simple base line to assessing a player’s influence. While +/- is definitely not perfect, it could still have relevance in Australian football.
Along with the +/- statistic, the use of an on/off statistics needs to definitely be used more in the AFL. The on/off statistic is used to compare a particular statistic for when a player is on the field, compared to when a player is on the interchange bench.
This can be done with basics such as team scores but can also be tailored to position. For example; a midfielder could have an on/off statistic for clearances, while a forward could have an on/off for marks inside 50 metres.
The unique free-flowing game-play, and lack of market compared to international sports makes Australian Football one of the more difficult sports to statistically analyse, however steps need to be taken if we want something more in depth than ‘how many A-Graders’ a team’s midfield has.
The fairytale stories of long undrafted WAFL players Tim Kelly and Marlion Pickett being plucked out of South Freo and thrust into the AFL spotlight only to shine far more brightly than their much more highly fancied first-time drafted teammates are not going unheeded in 2021.