This week, HPN looked at three of the most improved players in the league on the ABC. Those three players were chosen for a variety of reasons, including their impact on their sides, their journeys to their current highpoint and the fact that it wasn’t a return to form, but a rise anew. All players at new clubs were also discarded, as this falls heavily down the “opportunity” pathway.
Improvement is a hard thing to quantify, and can sometimes be put down to natural progress, a change of role or a change of overall team strategy. Cameron, Dawson and Greenwood present three different journeys at different points of their footballing careers.
Of particular note is the jump of players from good to great, which is far harder to achieve than the leap from average to good. There are only ever so many players in the upper echelons of the league, while replacement level players are boundless. This difference is far harder to quantify, and is worth a look in a separate piece later on.
Numbers divorced of context
It’s also worth looking at the raw change from year to year, as a sign of who has produced more value off the back of the short season and even shorter offseason. Looking at player change in such a way isn’t necessarily improvement itself, but can be a sign of it.
Player value is measured in this article by mPAV, which is Player Approximate Value on a per game basis. The raw mPAV number looked at here doesn’t break into the offensive, defensive and midfield components, which may be more important to look at a “truer” improvement, adjusting for role change.
Nonetheless, there are some interesting stories in the data. So far this year, a host of big forwards – Cameron, McDonald, Walker, Reid, Bruce, and Naughton have produced more value early on, something that seems to be easing off a little as the weeks go on. For most of these players, this gain in value isn’t improvement, but instead a return to form.
As PAV and mPAV are fundamentally team based systems at heart, players from teams that have improved in 2021 are represented well. The Bulldogs have several players at the pointy end, some back to their premiership winning form.
Some of these players are also benefiting from being injury free, or escaping from compromised form in the shorter, COVID-impacted season. Small sample sizes play havoc with data like this, but it should be a decent indicator of who is playing better than last year.
As mentioned above, the most common way players improve is by the natural aging process. Older players generally perform at a higher level than draftees. However, some of the biggest relative changes seem to have come for players in the back half of their 20s, an age when they should be hitting their peak.
Here is, a chart detailing the biggest change in value by age group:
Pickett’s breakout year is extremely impressive for a second year player, but perhaps going under the radar given the side’s struggles is the improved value of two young highly fancied Giants draftees, Tom Green and Lachie Ash.
Moving up the age brackets a little, some young Hawks are giving the club some reasons for hopes as it plumbs the depths of a rebuild, with Jiath figuring highly among the 22 year old cohort and Mitch Lewis and Jack Scrimshaw featuring in the next age up. These types of players will have a big say in the speed at which the Hawks can build again.
Some of the risers in the age 27 cohort, which is about when free agency kicks in, are players who have moved clubs this year, such as Hind and Aliir. This stage of the career is potentially quite fruitful for players targeted for recruitment based on the sweet spot of need and availability. Aliir moved for a longer contract into his 30s and Hind left St Kilda’s stuffed small forward ranks for opportunity in the Essendon backline. This is an age of transitions.
Finally, in the 30+ category are a number of old stagers showing that even late in one’s career, one can defy expectations and rally to lost or never before seen form. Walker, Ziebell, and Mundy are all leading the way for their clubs in terms of building from rough seasons last year.
Many of these players after the age of 25 aren’t improving in the true sense of the term, but instead returning to form. While that’s meaningless for the club enjoying the fruits of their labour, it’s important to distinguish here.
The club by club view
Finally, a breakdown by club to see where improvement is being driven from, if anywhere. As noted above, Walker, Ziebell, Mundy are all leading the way for teams in various stages of rebuild, providing leadership and inspiration to their younger colleagues.
For Richmond, St Kilda and Brisbane, we can see there have only been fairly modest individual improvers. That’s not unexpected given all three sides have trod water or slipped backwards in overall output. Richmond didn’t have too much room to rise further, while the Saints have had noted struggles with personnel and consistency in a tough run of a fixture.
Essendon have seen some good gains by the likes of Parish and Stringer, but may perhaps look with rue at the way Orazio Fantasia and Joe Daniher, former Dons, are thriving at their new clubs.
The Eagles, perhaps out of necessity as much as anything, are seeing the 22 year olds in Petruccelle, Brander and Allen assert themselves strongly.
Ben Keays is another player just moving into their prime, and has been a highlight of the year for the Crows, in the conversation for most improved midfielder in the league. Brad Close at 23 is a young Cat breaking into the Geelong side, which is otherwie seeing improvement from some of the older brigade as well.
Carlton are also seeing good returns from some of their mid-aged players, the 24 year olds McKay and Weitering coming along nicely while the unfortunate David Cuningham just injured his ACL.
Finally, some clubs are seeing big improvements from their switching of roles. Sydney’s switch of Mills into the midfield and Dawson and McCartin to defence, has seen all three lift their value in 2021.