The Rising Star race is going down to the wire, but how much does it matter in the long run?

With the 2018 AFL season entering its final third (or so), attention has turned to the winners of the year end awards. This week, the AFL Rising Star Award has grabbed much of the attention in the media, especially around the form of Jaidyn Stephenson.

We thought it would be worthwhile having a look at what Player Approximate Value (PAV) had to say about the eligible nominees for the 2018 award, and how they stacked up so far this year.

(Players below Ben Long without a positive mPAV excluded)

As is clearly visible above, the race for the 2018 AFL Rising Star Award is extremely tight, but with three nominees starting to gain ground at the top. The three leading players are scattered across the country and across the ground, playing dramatically different roles to one another.

Tom Doedee, who has been leading this table for most of the year, has flourished in the surprisingly okay Crows defence, essentially filling the gap that Jake Lever left without a massive drop off. Unfortunately for him, the Crows’ collapse upfield this year has taken some of the shine off his season.

Down in Melbourne, Jaidyn Stephenson has provided the Pies with a reliable forward target, and has kicked goals alongside fringe All-Australian candidate Will Hoskin-Elliott (we’re shocked too) for a somewhat potent Collingwood attack. Forwards get attention from the media and fans, especially when their side is at the top of the ladder, but that doesn’t always translate into Rising Star success. Just ask Peter Wright.

Finally, Oliver Florent in Sydney has improved week on week in his second season in the league, after playing nine games last year. Florent has become an important spark for the Swans as an outside midfielder or flanker, reliably creates forays inside 50, and has at times shown the ability to kick the ball through the space in the middle of the big sticks. Of the three, Florent’s fortunes are rising the fastest.

Interestingly, the two best first-year players according to PAV, aren’t listed above, because they aren’t eligible for the award. Tim Kelly (17.6) and Bayley Fritsch (15.3) comfortably sit ahead of the remaining 2017 draftees. Fritsch missed the age cutoff by less than a month.

The chasing pack can’t be completely ruled out. The Lions duo of Witherden and Rayner have improved dramatically as Brisbane fortunes have turned across the season; while the Perth-based duo of Waterman and Cerra have shined extremely brightly at times. In Adam Cerra and Andrew Brayshaw, Fremantle currently has the two players most overdue for a nomination.

As a whole, the 2018 race is shaping as tighter than the one last year, and perhaps deeper in nature as well (a good sign for the draft class as a whole).

What is a Rising Star anyway?

As we said last year, it’s not really clear what the AFL Rising Star Award actually rewards. According to the AFL the award is meant to recognise the most outstanding young player in the AFL. The most reasonable thing to do as a voter is surely to judge the actual output of a player in that year.

According to PAV, on 12 occasions out of 25 the most valuable player in terms of cumulative output for the year has been nominated the Rising Star. PAV has also rated the winner as pretty close on a few other occasions. There was a particularly good run between 2002 and 2009 where in eight years, PAV and the Rising Star voters agreed 6 times and slightly differed twice, on Riewoldt v Judd and Deledio v Adcock.

The biggest miss according to PAV was also the best-rated Rising Star season on record, Luke Shuey’s nearly All-Australian calibre 2011 was snubbed in favour of Dyson Heppell. Corey McKernan also had a much more valuable season than Chris Scott did in 1994.

Some years, the Rising Star award had a much better cohort than others. The Jared Rivers year of 2004 was predominantly made up of 2002 and 2003 draftees, and while he probably had the most valuable season among nominees, it was slim pickings.

As we noted in our chapter covering the AFL Draft in Footballistics (a good book you might want to check out), the 2003 draft was the weakest draft since 1995 in terms of total output. It had just 22% of its first 40 selections perform above the expectation of their pick, compared to 59% of the 1999 class. As we can see from this chart of draft cohort average PAV by year, the 2003 draft pretty much continued to disappoint relative to other years throughout its lifetime in the AFL system:

Draft cohorts average PAV by age – from Footballistics

By contrast, here are the names who had more valuable years than the winner Dan Hannebery in the extremely rich 2010 Rising Star class: Nic Naitanui, Dustin Martin, Jeff Garlett, Ryan Bastinac, Anthony Morabito, Todd Banfield, Tom Scully, Michael Hurley, Tom Rockliff, Jack Redden, Jack Trengove. Nat Fyfe and Phil Davis were also in this group further back behind Hannebery.

Predicting careers

(PAV values to the end of 2017)

Another method of assessment of the best young player is to emphasise the “Rising” part over the “Star” and focus on predicting which player might reach the best overall level, even if they might not yet be there. Few players truly dominate in their first year, and the ceiling is generally just contributing usefully. If the Rising Star is graded on a curve, why not look to where we think that curve may lead to?
Bearing in mind that the more recent years have a lot of future change ahead of them, five Rising Stars ended up having the most valuable careers from their pool of nominees. Nathan Buckley and Adam Goodes may not have been the clear cut best player when they won the award, but they went on to have the longest and most high-level careers, so it could be argued that was a tick for the voting panel in hindsight.

Nick Riewoldt is currently the leader for 2002 nominees, and is about to be overtaken by Luke Hodge this year, but for now he remains on the list above. Just two players, Sam Mitchell and Joel Selwood, were both the best in PAV terms in their Rising Star year and also went on to have the best career. Only Pendlebury is close to Selwood, but probably needs to play 60 games more than Selwood in order to catch him.

Of the older still-current players, Rhys Palmer is already gone from the league, and it’s seemingly unlikely at this stage that Deledio, Rich, Hannebery or Heppell will overhaul Franklin, Dangerfield, Martin and Shuey respectively. Anything more recent than that is way too soon to judge, given that career length plays a role in total value.

Unsurprisingly then, it’s not that often that the winner of the award turns out to be the most valuable player over the course of their career. The award judges 18 to 20 year olds who had played fewer than ten games at the start of the year and it’s really hard to project who the best members of a bunch of talented teenagers might be, and so recruitment involves a lot of guesswork.

We can intuit why the Rising Star Award is a mediocre predictor of future careers simply by looking at the success rate of talent identification in the AFL draft. If we think of the number 1 pick in the AFL draft as an “award” for the best 18 year old, it is just Goddard and Riewoldt currently who, as pick 1 players, have been correct guesses by going on to lead their draft class in PAV terms.

Are high picks therefore worthless? Hardly. Our PAV-based draft chart assigns an expected value to each pick, and pick 1 is clearly the most valuable. Pick value, however, is a function of producing a lot of “quite good” output, rather than the best player every time. Pick 1 is the safest pick, the surest thing. You’ll nearly always get a 200-gamer, and they’ll fairly often be a star.

The Rising Star Award selects from a smaller cohort of players than the Draft, and the players are a little bit older than those recruiters select at the Draft, but not by much. Accordingly, the Rising Star Awar performs better than the Number 1 Draft Pick at picking the year’s future best player, but maybe not by a whole lot.

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