Close Games in VFL/AFL History: Do Successful Teams Win Them?

Recently, we've looked at the history of margins, of blowouts, mismatches and upsets, and the history of conversion rates. Today we'll be looking at the history of close games, which I'll define as games that are decided by a goal or less.

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What Do Seasons Past Tell Us About Seasons Present?

I've looked before at the consistency in the winning records of teams across seasons but I've not previously reported the results in any great detail. For today's blog I've stitched together the end of season home-and-away ladders for every year from 1897 to 2012, which has allowed me to create a complete time series of the performances for every team that's ever played.
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Predicting a Team's Winning Percentage for the Season

In recent blogs where I've been posting about a win production function the goal has been to fit a team's season-long winning percentage as a function of its scoring statistics for that same season. What if, instead, our goal was to predict a team's winning percentage at the start of a season, using only scoring statistics from previous seasons?
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Applying the Win Production Functions to 2009 to 2011

In the previous blog I came up with win production functions for the AFL - ways of estimating a team's winning percentage on the basis of the difference between the scoring shots it produces and those it allows its opponents to create, and the difference between the rate at which it converts those scoring shots and the rate at which its opponents convert them.
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Win Production Functions for AFL Teams - 1897 to 2010

Right now I'm reading Wayne L Winston's Mathletics, a book about the use of fairly simple mathematics and sports statistics to gain insights into the results of American sports. Inspired by this book, in particular by a piece on Pythagorean Expectation which relates the season-long winning percentage of a baseball team to the total runs that it's scored and allowed, I wondered if an AFL team's win percentage could be similarly predicted by a handful of summary statistics about its own and its opponents' scoring.
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Tipping Without Market Price Information

In a previous blog I looked at the notion of momentum and found that Richmond, St Kilda, Melbourne and Geelong all seemed to be "momentum" teams in that their likelihood of winning a game seemed to be disproportionately affected by whether they'd won or lost their previous match.
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Teams' Performances Revisited

In a comment on the previous posting, Mitch asked if we could take a look at each team's performance by era, his interest sparked by the strong all-time performance of the Blues and his recollection of their less than stellar recent seasons.

Here's the data:


So, as you can see, Carlton's performance in the most recent epoch is significantly below its all-time performance. In fact, the 1993-2008 epoch is the only one in which the Blues failed to return a better than 50% performance.

Collingwood, the only team with a better lifetime record than Carlton, have also had a well below par last epoch during which they too have registered their first sub-50% performance, continuing a downward trend which started back in Epoch 2.

Six current teams have performed significantly better in the 1993-2008 epoch than their all-time performance: Geelong (who registered their best ever epoch), Sydney (who cracked 50% for the first time in four epochs), Brisbane (who could hardly but improve), the Western Bulldogs (who are still yet to break 50% for an epoch, their 1945-1960 figure being actually 49.5%), North Melbourne (who also registered their best ever epoch),  and St Kilda (who still didn't manage 50% for the epoch, a feat they've achieved only once).

Just before we wind up I should note that the 0% for University in Epoch 2 is not an error. It's the consequence of two 0 and 18 performances by Uni in 1913 and 1914 which, given that these followed directly after successive 1 and 17 performances in 1911 and 1912, unsurprisingly heralded the club's demise. Given that Uni's sole triumph of 1912 came in the third round, by my calculations that means University lost its final 51 matches.

Teams' All-Time Records

At this time of year, before we fixate on the week-to-week triumphs and travesties of yet another AFL season, it's interesting to look at the varying fortunes of all the teams that have ever competed in the VFL/AFL.

The table below provides the Win, Draw and Loss records of every team.


As you can see, Collingwood has the best record of all the teams having won almost 61% of all the games in which it has played, a full 1 percentage point better than Carlton, in second. Collingwood have also played more games than any other team and will be the first team to have played in 2,300 games when Round 5 rolls around this year.

Amongst the relative newcomers to the competition, West Coast and Port Adelaide - and to a lesser extent, Adelaide - have all performed well having won considerably more than half of their matches.

Sticking with newcomers but dipping down to the other end of the table we find Fremantle with a particularly poor record. They've won just under 40% of their games and, remarkably, have yet to register a draw. (Amongst current teams, Essendon have recorded the highest proportion of drawn games at 1.43%, narrowly ahead of Port Adelaide with 1.42%. After Fremantle, the team with the next lowest proportion of drawn games is Adelaide at 0.24%. In all, 1.05% of games have finished with scores tied.)

Lower still we find the Saints, a further 1.3 percentage points behind Fremantle. It took St Kilda 48 games before it registered its first win in the competition, which should surely have been some sort of a hint to fans of the pain that was to follow across two world wars and a depression (maybe two). Amongst those 112 seasons of pain there's been just the sole anaesthetising flag, in 1966.

Here then are a couple of milestones that we might witness this year that will almost certainly go unnoticed elsewhere:

  • Collingwood's 2,300th game (and 1,400th win or, if the season's a bad one for them, 900th loss)
  • Carlton's 900th loss
  • West Coast's 300th win
  • Port Adelaide's 300th game
  • Geelong's and Sydney's 2,200th game
  • Adelaide's 200th loss
  • Richmond's 1,000th loss (if they fail to win more than one match all season)
  • Fremantle's 200th loss

Granted, few of those are truly banner events, but if AFL commentators were as well supported by statisticians as, say, Major League Baseball, you can bet they'd get a mention, much as equally arcane statistics are sprinkled liberally in the 3 hours of dead time there is between pitches.