The former Giants wouldn’t make Finals, but recycled players underpin the league

A recent article from FiveThirtyEight explored an issue almost dead centre to the interests of HPN – would a team of players traded away from a side be good enough to make the playoffs? In their case, 538 explored whether the ex-Miami Marlins were good enough to play October baseball – and indeed found that by their player data, the Marlins had traded away a playoff calibre roster.

That got HPN thinking – has any current AFL club traded away enough talent to form a team which would make finals? And who is the club to benefit most from offcuts from other clubs?

Player movement is more limited in the AFL

As at the end of round 20 of the 2019 AFL season, 640 players have pulled on a guernsey and gotten a game at AFL level. Of those, 177 (or 28%) of the league had been listed previously at another club (excluding players prelisted and immediately traded by GWS and Gold Coast under special rules within their entry concessions). That’s higher than other leagues, but the churn increases with player service length due to the current player movement rules.

In Major League Baseball, teams share about 1,200 draft selections each year, for a league that usually only has 750 active roster spots. Each team has roughly 350 players in their entire system, mostly in their farm teams. That’s enough to stock a side more than ten times over.

Teams often trade prospects before they get to the majors, and the league is based on an odd combination of onerous team controls and easy trading. As a result, it’s not incredibly hard to build a good MLB side out of the offcuts of one trade-active, cost-cutting team.

The Marlins, throughout their brief history, have alternately been extremely successful (winning two World Series) and incredibly bad, with their best teams gutted almost as soon as they celebrate their titles. Right now, under the new leadership of former Yankee Derek Jeter, they are firmly set on selling current assets for the potential for future success.

As a result of the environmental differences, this turnover is much harder to pull off in the AFL – but one team has come close.

The one complete team

It’s relatively common knowledge that upon the introduction of the Suns and the Giants to the AFL earlier this decade, the two sides diverged when it came to list building strategy. The Suns pinned their hopes to a star of the game (Gary Ablett) and several other prominent names, immediately seeming more of a threat.

GWS, on the other hand, played the longer game. While they got a couple of familiar faces (Power, MacDonald, Cornes, Brogan), they did so for next to nothing. They also commenced an aggressive program of recycling current assets for future ones – trading recently drafted players for new future picks, and pushing the cap crunch down the road.

This has meant that 22 former GWS players have suited up for other clubs around the league in 2019 – just on a full AFL side.

This extensive churn of players illustrates a lot about GWS’ list management realities. With a large number of similarly aged players competing for the same list spots and salary cap shares, and the heavy attentions of recruiters from other clubs, they needed to turn many of their drafted assets into other forms of currency such as new draft picks or their own recycled player acquisitions.

Could this ex-GWS player group make finals as a team? As a group the cumulative marginal Player Approximate Value (mPAV) for the ex-side sits just above zero – which is around the historical mark for a finals side in this system.

If every player were to play 22 games, the value produced per game by this group corresponds somewhat to the profile of the current team in 8th place, the Adelaide Crows, as shown below. There is, however, a steeper dropoff in quality for the ex-GWS crew, and of course in practice no team would ever keep the same 22 on the park all year, un-injured.

Ins and outs

Of course, GWS isn’t the only club to have been involved in a constant shifting of players. Sitting not far behind GWS is Geelong, who have as many active former players (17) around the league as the Gold Coast despite the Suns being in a similar boat to GWS as described above.

Geelong’s most valuable former players in 2019 have been Joel Hamling, Lincoln McCarthy, Shane Mumford, Josh Caddy and Mitch Brown. Others have fared more modestly including Daniel Menzel, Darcy Lang and recent mid-season draftee Ryan Gardner.

HPN measures the total, year long value output by players using Player Approximate Value (PAV), which you can read more about here. Below is the PAV for each club’s former players and those they’ve gotten from other clubs:

A few clubs stand out here as having lost or gained a lot more than the converse. On the positive side of the ledger, North Melbourne and West Coast have been substantial net beneficiaries of player movement, both partly due to the limited numbers or output of their former players.

On the other hand, along with the expansion clubs, Adelaide and to a lesser extent the Bulldogs have seen their former players produce the most, relative to their own recycled players. The cohort of ten former Crows (Dangerfield, Lyons, Henderson, Cameron, Curnow, Gunston, Davis, McKernan, McGovern, Lever) is particularly marked by its quality, more than its quantity. Every active former Crow is well within their new side’s best 22, and the majority have played most of the year as well.

Outsourcing for talent

Every side has gotten at least 15% of its 2019 player value via “recycling”, but it’s Hawthorn and Brisbane, both over 40%, who have been the biggest users of this source of talent in 2019.

Both Hawthorn and Brisbane’s value-contributing external acquisitions have come at a steady clip over a number of years, indicating a long term recruiting strategy. For Hawthorn, the likes of McEvoy, Gunston, Burgoyne, Ceglar and Frawley have been at the club for a number of years while O’Meara, Scully, Impey, Scrimshaw and Wingard came in the last two off-seasons. Tom Mitchell, of course, has not played this year due to his broken leg.

For the Lions the mix is similar, with Martin, Walker, Christensen and Bastinac at the club by 2016 while Neale, McCarthy, Hodge, Lyons, and Adams have rounded things out more recently.

At the other end of the spectrum, through a mixture of list management practice and injury issues, Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide have gotten relatively little from players originating at other clubs in 2019.

The full list

Indeed, some of 2019’s very best players started at other clubs – think Patrick Dangerfield, Elliot Yeo, Lachie Neale and co. It’s possible that up to five All Australian members in 2019 will make the side for a club that didn’t originally draft them. At the other end of the scale some retreads may be looking for a new club next year, either in the AFL or at lower levels.

The chart below contains an entire list of every recycled player in the league. One thing readers should bear in mind is that the nature of mPAV means that mildly negative values don’t indicate a bad player, the threshold for “best 22” is a fair bit below 0, but anything positive means they’ve been pretty valuable.

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