Free agency is something in that is often spouted as a threat to smaller and struggling clubs, but in reality the limited return of freedom of movement of players has resulted (largely) in much ado about nothing. And 2018 is shaping up as a particularly thin crop.
Due to the long length of service required for a player to accrue free agency rights, and the relatively short average career span of the average AFL player, it has become clear that a movement to a new club via free agency is usually a short-lived one. Indeed, since 2012 these are the most productive free agents in terms of Player Approximate Value (PAV):
However, as outlined in Footballistics, free agents generally have more productive seasons than the rest of the league – both by measuring “elite” seasons and across the board. The issue is how long their new clubs get to use their newly acquired talent.
In the limited sample to date (up to the end 2017 season), only 45% of restricted and unrestricted free agents play for at least four seasons at their new club, and only 32% of delisted free agents manage the same feat. In short, most free agency moves are for the relatively short term, especially those moving via unrestricted or delisted free agency.
Despite some of the big names in this year’s class (Gaff! Lynch! Lycett!…Dahlhaus?!?), the HPN prediction model (PAPLEY) is a little more restrained on the future output of the class. Most of the players have recent and significant injury history, or questions on their recent form. Still, let’s have a look:
Note: these names were taken from the official AFL list circulated on September 4. Some players have re-signed or retired since this date.
How do the big free agents project?
Andrew Gaff was a 2018 All Australian, and a current member of the club that won the 2018 Premiership. At first glance his value is unquestioned, but beneath the surface a couple of questions pop up.
Firstly, his club went from strength to strength in his absence this year on the march to a flag – while football is a team game, it would be expected that his loss would be felt more than it did. Secondly, beyond gathering mountains of uncontested possessions, he hasn’t ever troubled the league leaders in the more valuable statistical measures. Still, the eye test, and PAV, both rate Gaff as an extremely talented player, and perhaps the pick of this free agency class.
It’s very likely, given that Gaff will be 27 next year, that he will probably keep being about as good as he has been in recent years for a little while yet. He probably doesn’t have another breakout year, is what we are trying to say. He’s being projected as being likely to produce 46 PAV across the rest of his career. His long suspension impacts this projection a bit, but not by a huge amount – his uninterrupted 2017 season saw a similar output.
This is what the non-retirement version of PAPLEY predicts Gaff to produce through his age-31 season:
The other marquee free agent in the 2018 crop is Gold Coast captain Tom Lynch. The ex-Suns spearhead has shown that he is also at All Australian level in the past, but again there are slight issues that bubble to the surface.
While keeping his goals per game total roughly to the level that it has been since 2013 (a slight dip but nothing extreme), the previous two seasons has seen a significant drop in his prowess above his head. The number of marks, contested marks and marks inside 50 that Lynch has been able to pull down in the past two years are way down on previous numbers.
For a couple of years now, Lynch has been missing games and playing below his peak when he has played. Before this dip, Lynch looked among the most valuable players for his age group per the sort of analysis we wrote about earlier this week. He might bounce straight back to 2015/16 levels, but he may be more of a gamble and risk than his suitors are appreciating:
Win now or win later
These pick valuations show us that a compensation pick for a highly sought after player will generally give the losing club good value, often much more than the lost player themselves is likely to produce at their new club. Think how lopsided Melbourne getting Angus Brayshaw for losing James Frawley looks now, or even Shai Bolton for Ty Vickery.
If the Suns get pick 3 as compensation for Lynch and use it to the average expectation level for that pick, they’ll probably come out ahead even if Lynch returns to his peak. Pick 3 has an expected yield of 113 PAVs. Lynch isn’t going to hit that mark unless he has six years as good as his 2015 was, which would take until the year he turns 32.
As Hawthorn learned with Franklin, for premiers the compensation is not quite as lucrative. It can still be a pretty decent exchange, though. If West Coast get pick 19 for Gaff, that’s a pick with an expected yield of 59 PAVs, which would be equivalent to four years like Gaff’s 2017.
Free agency is helping players in the later years of their 20s to move clubs without engineering the sort of trades which have often proven difficult to settle in the past. Think of the impasses that resulted in players going acrimoniously to the draft like Nick Stevens and Luke Ball, or staying at their club with some frustration like Ryan O’Keefe. Such players would likely all have benefited from free agency. In those situations, the two clubs involved couldn’t resolve their different valuations of those players, with the losing club demanding much more than the recipient club was willing to part with. The divergent views of value we’ve outlined in this post point to part of why clubs did find it difficult to reconcile their valuations in those situations – salary and current quality say something very different to the cumulative future output of the player and the picks.
Getting a free agent is a “win now” proposition for the club getting the player, but generally a bigger “win later” one for the pick recipient. Clubs deal in salary value to build their list, but also must think in terms of future onfield value to plan their future. Free agency lets clubs spend a chunk of salary cap to bring in immediately contributing players without spending draft material or other players in a trade, to find the final piece for tilt at a flag, or just transition out of a rebuild.
Note: This post is part of a series of posts using a valuation method called Player Approximate Value (PAV) to evaluate trades for fairness and balance. Elsewhere, you can read much more about the method and theory behind PAV and also about PAPLEY, the projection method used to derive expected future PAVs. This method expresses both picks and players in terms of expected future value allowing them to be compared on this common basis.