Timing Is Everything: St Kilda take a step back after a couple of steps forward

Over the previous three or four seasons, two eschatologically opposed sides began to march up the ladder in lock-step – the Demons and the Saints. The Saints edged the Dees for the wooden spoon in 2014, and while times were tough for both clubs, there were bright sparks for both. Over the next three years both sides made slow yet steady progress from the bottom tier of the league into the growing post-expansion middle class.

This year, Melbourne made a larger leap up to be about an 85% chance of making finals and about a 1 in 3 shot at top 4. The Saints instead took a surprising step back. Some have declared that the approach of rebuilding via the draft was “fundamentally flawed” or merely that this rebuild may have failed. However, it could all be a matter of timing, and a couple of unfortunate injuries, rather than any huge errors or flaws in the underlying approach.

The 2014 Draft

To look at St Kilda in 2018 we need to look back to ground zero of the rebuild journey they’re on, and while that really began with the trading of Ben McEvoy and the hoarding of high draft picks in 2013, it’s the 2014 draft after they won the wooden spoon we want to focus on here..

For her book The Draftees which followed five prospective draftees through the 2014 under-18s season, former The Age journalist and current GWS recruiter Emma Quayle spent a fair chunk of time embedded with St Kilda. The discussions in this book regarding the number one pick that St Kilda would later receive are illuminating. Recruiters stated that the most talented player of the crop was probably Christian Petracca, while the best immediately was probably Angus Brayshaw. However, Paddy McCartin was an athletic, big bodied forward who might be a little shorter than the prototypical KPF, but fit the mold of ageing Saints great Nick Riewoldt.

With Riewoldt ending his career, it felt like McCartin was the replacement falling in their laps at the opportune moment. Back in 2000 St Kilda finished 4.5 games adrift at the foot of the ladder, and their prized key forward number 1 pick Nick Riewoldt became a centrepiece for the finest era the Saints had experienced since the early 1970s. Riewoldt anchored a team that went to five preliminary finals and two grand finals across 7 finals campaigns in 8 years. It was a team built with the draft picks of successive years from 2000 to 2002.

Here in 2014, McCartin was another chance to secure a prize key forward with the club again at a very low ebb. St Kilda desperately needed a forward – recall that Tim Membrey had come as a delisted free agent after playing one game for the Swans and Josh Bruce was a defender. Short of trading the number 1 draft pick, for the Saints there seemed little choice but to go for the tall forward and hope.

But does the draft really work?

Yes. Despite how much we respect the opinions of former champion players such as Nick Riewoldt and Paul Roos, we’d question Nick’s interpretation of how his Saints team rose up the ladder and Paul’s view of where the list he coached at Melbourne came from. The draft is an effective measure of equalisation, both in Australia and abroad.

Along with an effective salary cap and free movement of players, the draft helps distribute talent widely over a long period of time. As a whole, the introduction of these measures has significantly improved competitive equalisation across the league, as demonstrated by Booth et al. While some teams like Geelong or Sydney (or the New England Patriots and San Antonio Spurs) can seemingly defy gravity through astute drafting and trading, that doesn’t mean competitive gravity doesn’t exist.

Ladders churn due to competitive balance. Every club except Gold Coast has made a preliminary final since 2000, there’s been six unique premiers since 2010, and in the 2000s there were seven different premiers across ten seasons.

However, not all teams are fantastic at drafting, lucky with injuries, able to read prevailing tactical trends, at all times, and some years are better to bottom out in than others. There is a strong case that the years between 2010 and 2012 were a particularly bad time to be relying on the draft to rebuild a list due to the concessions given to the Gold Coast and GWS enabling them to monpolise talent. However, on our early tracking (and is demonstrated in Footballistics) the 2013 draft is looking extremely strong, perhaps helping make up for the weaker previous classes.

From Footballistics – average Player Approximate Value (PAV) by age by draft cohort, first 40 draft picks

A limited number of teams sitting at the bottom of the ladder for extended periods of time is not necessarily an indication of the draft (and salary cap and free agency) being flawed; but perhaps more an indication of institutional failing within those organisations. A notable example of this is the 76ers’ rise in the NBA, coupled with the simultaneous flailing of the Kings and Suns. Not all clubs have the same recruitment and development acuity (or luck) to recruit and develop talent; and indeed equalisation of staff hiring power is part of the motivation behind the football department soft spending cap in the AFL.

Another factor to the success of rebuilds is that not all draft classes have the same amount of talent available. That’s notable in the above table of draft strength by year, but it’s also the case across different positions on the ground. One year the two top KPF talents could be Franklin and Roughead; in others it could be Mitch Thorp and Beau Dowler. Hawthorn famously drafted the first two, and much less famously the latter two – and all four were key position forwards picked inside the top 10. If a club finds it needs to target a particular kind of player, it can potentially either hit the jackpot with a sliding gem or overpay for the dregs in a poor year.

Let’s go back to McCartin. In the 2014 Under 18 National Championships, McCartin played just three games for a return of 7 goals. In those games, Vic Country came away with just one win, and he was not named in the best players in any game. Yet, at the end of the championships McCartin was listed as the Under 18 All Australian full forward, despite this meagre return.

This is largely due to the lack of other AA selection options in that cohort. The second best key forward prospect in the draft, Peter Wright, was forced into ruck duties at Vic Metro due to injuries. Hugh Goddard and Tom Lamb were tall utilities who spent some time up forward, but were ultimately more useful elsewhere. Ryan Burton impressed for South Australia as a lead up forward, but at 191cm wasn’t really considered to be a key position forward. Darcy Moore was named as the other KPF in the All Australian side, and he snagged just six goals across the entire championships, with four of them coming in one game.

Notably, of all these, only Wright is currently playing as an AFL-level forward, and even he has struggled in the past two seasons. Perhaps the most successful taller forward from that draft has been pick 43 Mitch McGovern, who admittedly benefits from feasting on the fourth best tall defender most weeks.

Smalls and lead-up forwards and more importantly key position defenders dominated proceedings across the season and at the Championships, yet three KPFs were drafted inside the top 10. McCartin shone brightest of all amongst that group, despite questions about his actual output being evident even then.

Contrastingly, key position defenders from that draft have shone so far in the AFL with Caleb Marchbank (pick 6) and Jake Lever (pick 14) being drafted early and Oscar McDonald (pick 53), Dougal Howard (56) and Harris Andrews (academy bid and matched at pick 62) among the later finds.

Analysis of the entire cohort is critical, along with analysing your own needs. Sometimes they align, at other times they don’t. At the time, St Kilda felt they badly needed a key forward, and despite the question marks, McCartin was the defensible number 1 pick. He may still pan out as a success with better injury luck and more support around him, but it would be fair to say he hasn’t yet hit the desired heights and may turn out to be more a useful Koschitzke than a dominant Riewoldt.

How have St Kilda gone in 2018?

The Saints have, overall, gone backwards in 2018, which is a take that will surprise nobody.

Last year trade period we unveiled a simple method for projecting future Player Approximate Value (PAV) output called PAPLEY (PAv Player Linear Extrapolated Yield). It simply takes the average change in PAV by age cohort and works out what a player with a given age and PAV should be expected to get in future years. We developed it to help us evaluate trades and potential player progress over time. Below we’ve compared pre-season projections for 2018 to actual output to see how players “should” have gone compared to their actual performances.

Note: PAV is a seasonal distribution measure, not a per-game accumulation measure. This means that the partial 2018 season can be compared to whole-season projections with validity.

At first glance, it appears here that the Saints have simply gone backwards by a bit less than what Riewoldt and Montagna provided in 2017. That shouldn’t suggest they’ve merely stagnated elsewhere, because they’ve also benefited from new players contributing, more than the near-zero projected for them. That means there’s been, on average, declines by 2017 players in 2018, beyond the losses of those two retirees. Usually you can assume that increased roles can offset the loss of retirees, which it has to some degree here.

A significant culprit to this decline is injury – Josh Bruce is critical to St Kilda’s ability to stretch defences. The structure requires Bruce (slightly bigger and a good contested mark) and Membrey (mobile and undersized, mostly a leading forward with good reach for his size) to both take more heat off McCartin as focal point. Bruce led the Saints for marks inside 50 in 2017, and was third for contested marks, and there’s little behind him to easily replace that output. Others who hit the scoreboard in 2017 such as Weller and Acres have been absent and or down in form at points, leaving Gresham as the main small scoring option. Billings and a converted Newnes are also contributing, but probably both playing out of their optimal positions. It’s safe to say the forward zone is a work in progress for the Saints.

Shrewd delisted free agency pickup Dylan Roberton was critical in defence last year, and his absence has been compounded with the redeployment of Newnes to the forward line, the delayed start of Logan Austin and Sam Gilbert’s case of the olds. All this has caused some rejigging on the run by the Saints. In modern football, most sides have multiple sets of preferred “safe hands” who are especially trusted with the difficult task of exiting defensive 50 reliably and potently. This can be tall defenders like Alex Rance or smalls like Heath Shaw. The blend works best when there is multiple weapons to attack with, such as GWS’s potent counter attack in recent years or the 2016 Bulldogs.

The Saints have struggled with this rebounding area given Roberton and Newnes were the main outlets last year. Brown and Carlisle, and even captain Geary, are primarily more negating defenders. But it has probably benefited them long term in that it’s identified Jimmy Webster as being a very viable rebounding option. This is a good example of the fact that flux in a developing side is as much opportunity as crisis.

Reading the tactical winds

Another slight issue may be how the league has shifted around the Saints, and what (if anything) they are doing to follow or deviate away from the league’s prevailing trends. Last year the Saints were around mid-pack in their kick to handball ratio, but in the wake of the Tigers’ position based dominance of the 2017 finals, the league has shifted to a much more radically kick-oriented strategy. St Kilda, however, haven’t shifted their ratio, and now are about the most handball heavy side in the competition, relative to kicks. Interestingly, the Demons, their fellow recent draft-based hard-rebuilder, are third on that measure.

Sometimes it pays to zig when everyone else zags, and there’s nothing disadvantageous about having a higher or lower kick to handball ratio. But the regression of the Saints this year is a potential indication that their chosen approach isn’t working for them. One of the key tasks with building a young list is not just assembling it, but working out how to best use it. The intensity of the desire for St Kilda to be immediately competitive will help decide how closely they ape the rest of the league, or how willing they are to forge their own path.

What does this mean for the rebuild?

While they retained the token old champions in Riewoldt and Montagna, St Kilda took a pretty scorched earth approach to overhauling the list after 2013. Between then and 2016, St Kilda took picks at 1, 3, 18, 19, 21, 22 and acquired players by other means such as Koby Stevens, Jack Steele, Jake Carlisle, Shane Savage, Josh Bruce and Tim Membrey. They also added Jack Sinclair and Maverick Weller from the rookie draft. They’re not the only team to have behaved like this. The Demons’ rebuild saw them trade and delist hard, and they also took six top 10 picks in four years between 2012 and 15, plus the minidraft selection of Hogan.

The Draftees tells us that the overall St Kilda approach was to list somewhere around a dozen types of roles or positions, and try to fill them with young or early prime age talent as best they could. Jake Carlisle fit this approach, because although they paid a high price for him, he ticked off a key defender box in their overall longer term talent strategy in a much lower risk way than the draft would have.

We don’t think the Saints have gone fundamentally off track yet, simply that the process of building a list is more complex than box ticking, and can take a bit longer, especially with the tricky spots like key forwards. The key forward area is one of the most difficult to get right, and signs are there that St Kilda didn’t.

There have been complications on that front with injury and health and the level of support McCartin gets. As we discussed above, the Saints may have entirely picked the wrong year to target the desperately needed key forward with a number 1 draft pick. They should probably have taken a leaf out of Hawthorn’s mid-2000s book and drafted several options (Franklin, Roughhead, Dowler, Thorp) just to lower the risk of missing out completely. In 2000 the hedge was Justin Koschitzke. Hugh Goddard may have been the backup bet in 2014, but he has had injury issues and is probably more of a back than a forward. Josh Battle was also picked up in 2016, and interestingly led that year’s Under 18 Championships for goals. He has shown flashes of promise so far, but is also a little undersized at 193cm.

On the other hand, their midfield recruits have turned out pretty solidly, with no reason to assume they can’t carry the load as they develop – with a couple of necessary additions for the likes of Armitage along the way. With Roberton and Newnes presumably going back where they belong in future, the Saints may just need to develop a couple of taller defensive options to take the load from the aging Brown and Gilbert.

The task now is to supplement what they’ve done already through more draft picks and possibly trades, and to keep adjusting and tweaking their style, positional choices and selections and see what works.

The ambitious target of top four in 2018 and a premiership in 2020 may not look likely at this point, but that’s not an indication that no progress has been made. Instead of looking at a finished project, the Saints are facing a secondary phase of list building; a lot further down the path than they were in 2013. Melbourne were in their third straight rebuild then, and had one more reset before their current success. Geelong took six to eight years from their golden draft period. These things often take time.

No young side gets it right, all the time, from the beginning. There’s plenty of time to fill in the missing pieces. And the Saints could be in a far worse spot right now.

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