Monday, October 31, 2016

Which AFL Club Has The Easiest Fixture in 2017?

The AFL has now released its fixture for 2017, and with its release comes the annual media evaluation of which clubs ‘won’ and ‘lost’ from the scheduling. For some of the press the focus was on who received or missed out on the ‘prime time’ Friday night slots (summary: the Bulldogs and Swans won, Richmond and Fremantle lost). And the other main point of focus is which clubs got the easiest and hardest draws, and will therefore be helped or hindered most by the AFL playing 22 rounds with 18 teams.

This is the fifth year over at ‘The Wooden Finger’ that I have tried to answer the question: which AFL club got the easiest fixture next year? For anyone who is interested, and doesn’t feel like digging through the archives, these were the results:

Next Easiest
Next Hardest
Gold Coast
North Melbourne
West Coast
Western Bulldogs
Port Adelaide
Western Bulldogs
North Melbourne
Western Bulldogs
North Melbourne
Western Bulldogs

Okay, let’s get into it: which AFL club got the easiest AFL fixture in 2017? First I’m going to go through my method for determining who I think has the easiest fixture, and who that says got the luck of the draw in 2017. Then I’m going to compare my results with those from a few other methods.

The WF Method

So here’s my method: I rate a club’s fixture by summing up over every match the ranking points of its opponents as determined by my end-of-season AFL Power Rankings, while adjusting for net home ground advantage. For example, a Victorian club that plays host to a non-Victorian club with 10 ranking points will get +2 points in terms of how easy the match is expected to be for them: -10 points in terms of the expected strength of the opponent, but +12 points for the expected home ground advantage.[1]
This means the rating for each club’s fixture is in effect the result of three components:
  • Effect of which clubs your club plays twice: This is the collective strength of the opponents that each club plays twice. A higher rating for this component means that you have easier opponents in your return bouts.
  • Net home ground advantage: This is the net effect of the adjustments for home ground advantage across the season. Not playing your home matches interstate helps out here (hello Western Bulldogs), as does playing clubs from out-of-town.
  • Effect of not playing your own club: If every club played each other the same amount of times the better clubs would generally have easier fixtures and the worst clubs would generally have the hardest.
There has been a bit of debate here about that last point. Some people think that rating the difficulty of a fixture should remove the effect of not playing your own club, and I would concede that fans usually exclude this effect when thinking about how difficult their fixture is. On a strict interpretation of how difficult a fixture is though I’d say it should be included. In the results below I show what the results are with and without this effect.

The Results
Using the above method here’s my ratings of the easiness/difficulty of each AFL club’s fixture in 2017, ranked from easiest to hardest:

Let’s go through each of the three components in turn.
Effect of clubs played twice: For the fixture the AFL uses a ‘weighted rule’ where it splits the clubs into three groups based on their positions on last season’s ladder (after finals), with more match-ups between clubs in the same group.
  • The middle six clubs are quite variable on this component. St. Kilda has return matches against two top clubs including last year’s minor premier Sydney, but North Melbourne’s only strong return opponent is the Western Bulldogs.
  • The top six clubs on the ladder tend to have the toughest sets of return matches. The exception is Adelaide as it has return matches against two strong clubs instead of three.
Net home ground advantage: Generally this component doesn’t make a huge amount of difference, as home matches and away matches even out. Carlton gets the rawest deal, as it has to travel interstate six times while only having four matches against non-Victorian clubs at home, two of which are against the Sydney clubs. Richmond also does relatively badly as it has six interstate trips and a trip to Geelong. Adelaide does relatively well because for two of its interstate trips its opponents have no or little advantage – North Melbourne in Tasmania, and Melbourne in Darwin.
Effect of not playing own club: Obviously stronger clubs do better on this component. But the main point here is how this component affects the assessment of how difficult a club’s fixture is. Without it weak clubs such as Brisbane, Gold Coast, and Essendon are assessed as having the most favourable fixtures, as is the intention under the AFL’s ‘weighted rule’. But with it Adelaide is assessed as having the most favourable fixture. The Crows, unlike those other clubs, have to play one less top club: the Crows themselves.
In summary then, the Adelaide Crows – with a relatively favourable fixture for a strong club, and a couple of interstate trips where their opponents have little home ground advantage – is considered here to have the easiest fixture in 2017. North Melbourne and Port Adelaide have relatively favourable fixtures for mid-range clubs, and their fixtures are rated as the next easiest.
As you would have seen near the start of this post Adelaide and North Melbourne were considered to have difficult fixtures in 2016. Is the AFL making it up to these clubs this year? Also we seem to have come full circle from my first-ever annual assessment, which was for the 2012 fixture, where Adelaide and North Melbourne were rated as having the easiest fixtures for that year.
At the other end for 2017 Hawthorn is rated as having the hardest fixture, having to front up twice against three of the top four highest-ranked sides. In terms of clubs they play twice the fixtures of Geelong and GWS are considered just as hard, but the Cats and Giants are rated as better sides than the Hawks.
Now let’s look at how these results compare to those of other methods of rating the fixture.
Rohan Connolly’s method for rating each club’s fixture has four components:
  • which clubs they play twice, based on ladder position (after finals)
  • number of road trips, including short and longer hauls;
  • number of matches where the club plays another club from interstate; and
  • the number of consecutive six-day breaks.
The second and third components together essentially form a version of net home ground advantage. The fourth component – six-day breaks – isn’t considered in my method, but it doesn’t make that much difference to Connolly’s rankings.
The main difference from my method is that Connolly’s method doesn’t include the effect of not playing your own club. Hence his rankings of clubs look similar to what the AFL is trying to achieve through its ‘weighted rule’ – except that, as noted above, Adelaide, North Melbourne, and Port Adelaide have relatively favourable draws given their groupings, and St. Kilda and Fremantle have relatively unfavourable draws. Essendon is rated as having the easiest fixture under his method.
Another difference from my method is that Connolly uses the ladder position to determine the strength of clubs. Ladder positions are arguably a little misleading when a club catches fire in the finals (hello again Western Bulldogs) or it had a favourable fixture the previous season, but the more important point is that it may not always be a good indicator of the gaps between clubs. For example by my rankings seventh-placed West Coast was closer in quality to most of the preliminary finalists than it was to eighth-placed North Melbourne, and I don’t think I would be alone in that assessment. Ladder positions are a lot easier to explain in a major newspaper though.
Connolly also assigns a higher penalty for road trips than he assigns an advantage for playing an interstate club at home. This raises the difficulty of the fixture for non-Victorian clubs under his measure (which perhaps doesn’t feel unreasonable if you are flying from and to Perth every other week), whereas under my method these types of matches broadly even out.
The Hurling People Now method only uses a ‘strength of schedule’ measure, with no reference to home ground advantage (or breaks). Therefore Carlton and Richmond, which have bad net home ground advantages in my method, do better in theirs. This site rates North Melbourne as having the easiest fixture in 2017, who I rated as having an easy fixture as well.
HPN’s post makes the important point that the strength of a fixture changes throughout the year, as clubs turn out to be stronger or weaker than initially thought. I feel like I’ve made this point before too, but cannot for the life of me remember where. Let’s just say I’ve already thought of it and not look further for proof.

The Matter of Stats method is similar to mine, but it is more precise about the home ground advantages. For example, Fremantle is rated as having more of a disadvantage than West Coast when it plays at the M.C.G., whereas in my system there is no difference between them and the other non-Victorian clubs – Sydney clubs aside – when they travel to Melbourne. Despite these differences this site also rates Adelaide as having the easiest fixture in 2017.

But Does The Fixture Matter?

Back in my first annual assessment of the AFL fixture in 2012 I said that one shouldn’t blame the fixture if your club is doing badly. Matter of Stats and Hurling People Now both estimate that the difference between the easiest fixture and hardest fixture is only about one win. And Rohan Connolly’s headline even noted that, based on past assessments, a tough fixture generally didn’t mean ‘doom and gloom’.

So it can make the difference between say, finishing fourth or fifth (or finishing fourth or seventh if things are close). But you are not becoming a top club through a favourable fixture. Perhaps then clubs should indeed be more concerned about how many ‘prime time’ matches they have when the fixture is released.

[1] I’ve actually adjusted each club’s ranking points a little so the sum of fixture difficulty across the league is zero.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Wooden Finger Five – October 2016

5.Right Back To The Start – Merchandise

Merchandise are a trio from Tampa, Florida (who have actually topped a WF5 post here before) but they sound more like gloomy British post-punk, and on this track, like British new wave. The synth-hook makes it; it’s certainly not singer Carson Cox murmuring the lyrics. I looked the lyrics up: they’re a bit of a downer actually (‘I came back to my home, it was slashed and torn’ … ‘I spent 39 years collecting the seeds / But they all died …’). They seem to me like they’re about being at the end of a relationship and feeling like your efforts are all now for nothing. Almost they suggest the narrator has jumped realities – ‘went looking for a lover but she was never born’ – but at the least that he feels like a stranger in the place he finds himself in.

The band even dresses in dark tones – I have trouble reconciling all of this with the Florida sun. If I just think of Merchandise and their music as being from northern England they make much more sense. But then so too did dark-jacketed San Franciscans Black Rebel Motorcycle Club; sometimes dirt and dinginess are just a state of mind.

Scottish alt-rock stalwarts Teenage Fanclub recently released their tenth album: a stage of their careers that ‘The Ringer’ called ‘too old to be ascendant, too young to come back into style or resign themselves to the nostalgia circuit’. (The article put Wilco into the same category.) It’s worth a listen, even if like me you haven’t heard that much of their past work.

The opening track, ‘I’m In Love’, is a real winner. Like the #1 song on this month’s list I didn’t know beforehand this was the single off the album, but it immediately stood out to me. The title, lyrics, simple guitar chords, and harmonies give it a mid-to-late ‘60s pop-rock feel. As has been noted elsewhere the chorus – ‘I’m in love, with your love’ – is a bit ambiguous about the singer’s feelings: is he in love with another person, or just the feeling of love itself? Regardless it’s a bright, catchy tune that makes the band sound twenty years younger, as if this style of music was just beginning rather than having come from the now-distant past.

Some months ago I was watching the ABC Kids Channel with my daughter and in between shows there was this somewhat baffling, somewhat charming two-minute animated segment. It featured two blocks with funny faces sitting on a bench singing a pretty good song actually about how different they were. ‘We are different / we are different,’ went the chorus, ‘as you can clearly see / A most unlikely pair we are / A most unlikely pair are we’. One of the blocks was a weird-looking fellow that sang in a high voice, while the other was more of a ‘hipster’ block in a hat and glasses who delivered his lines in a rap-like, conversationalist tone. This allowed the song to carry forward through snippets of exchange such as these:

BLOCK 1: ‘In my spare time I play hide-and-seek’
BLOCK 2: ‘While I like to teach rubber ducks how to squeak’
BLOCK 1: ‘You teach them to squeak?’
BLOCK 2: ‘Yep’
BLOCK 1: ‘That’s unique’
BLOCK 2: ‘Yeah, I try to give them tips on their squeaking technique’

Big Block SingSong is largely the creation of two Canadians, animator Warren Brown and composer Adam Goddard. Each episode features a unique character and tune, although the voices of the characters are similar across episodes. Over the past several weeks my daughter and I have had a few binge-watching sessions through the ABC’s iview site: ‘More! More!’ my daughter says, pointing at the screen, and then I click on another episode. I can’t tell you what her favourites are, but I personally like ‘Wilderness’ (about a block who lives in the forest), ‘Technology’ (Kraftwerk or Devo if fronted by singing blocks), ‘Brave’ (Queen if backed by singing blocks), and the rock ‘n’ roll ‘Princess’ (one of the few episodes with a female protagonist). But they’re all great – if you have a young one I highly recommend getting him or her hooked on them.

When U.S. indie folk band Bon Iver premiered their new album at bandleader Justin Vernon’s festival back in August they announced the song titles by sending them to the festival app. With strange track names like ‘22 (OVER S¥¥N)’, ‘___45___’, and ’29 #Strafford APTS’ that may have been the only way to announce them, although Vernon claims that they are not as hard to say as they look. For a band that started off as earnest – the famous three months Vernon stayed in a log cabin writing their first album such an essential part of their origin story – it could be viewed as an over-the-top attempt to shake off that past, and post-Kanye West friendship and endorsement, to now be seen as brave and experimental.

What does ’33 GOD’ mean? The song goes for 3:33 (3 minutes and 33 seconds), but that meaning could have been added at the end rather than part of its core. Each line seems barely related to the one before it, apart from the last verse which seems to be about the singer staying over at someone’s apartment for the night. Vernon auto-tunes the shit out of his voice, adding to the sense that he is being intentionally oblique.
But it works. As the website Pretty Much Amazing put it there’s ‘an air of cross-pollination to it … instruments clash with unprecedented force. On the other hand, you can imagine a stripped down version with untouched vocals working on the strength of the melodies.’ Indeed, the sounds do work together. And Vernon’s voice, distorted as it is, still sounds like distinctly his own. It’s enough to keep it spiralling into pretentiousness, despite the hipster cassette-listening parties that marked the album’s release.

The third track from Cymbals Eat Guitars’ latest album, ‘Wish’ makes the band sound like the lounge act evoked by the album cover, only way better. In making the album they looked to musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and The Cure for inspiration. But I didn’t think of either of those when I first heard this, I actually thought of this early-‘80s band my Dad used to play, called Mink Deville. Mink Deville’s ‘hits’ included songs called ‘Italian Shoes’ and ‘Spanish Stroll’: they were a bit bluesy, a bit cabaret, a bit punk, and this track is all of those things in some degree.

The saxophone may give it a lounge sound, but singer Joseph D’Agostino’s hoarse delivery gives the song an urgent edge. It seems to be basically about longing – ‘I wish that I told you’ – but the lyrics are more complicated than that: ‘An inch ahead of the event horizon …’ goes the opening line for example. And there’s a line ‘Can we shut the lights please?’ which may be part of the track, or just studio chatter. It’s a fun little stomp and a great introduction for me to this band.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 127

BASKETBALL: NBA hipster teams over the past 30 years – the teams that it was ‘cool’ to like. [The Ringer]

FILM/HUMOUR: Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ re-created by characters from 260 movies. [YouTube]

POLITICS: If Donald Trump wins the US election, what is the most likely explanation? [Marginal Revolution]

VIDEO GAMES: The cycles of violence in the BioShock games. [Kill Screen]

ECONOMICS: Why an exotic dancer is financially like your hairdresser. [Billfold]

Saturday, October 1, 2016

AFL Power Rankings: Post-Finals 2016

In my last post before the finals I said that the top clubs were quite close this year, making the finals series hard to predict. Still I would have put a very low probability on the Western Bulldogs – rated as a just-above-average side at the end of the home and away season – winning four straight finals to win this year’s premiership. Indeed I thought the Bulldogs would be lucky to escape the first week.

Instead the Bulldogs had easily their best four weeks of the season, improving by between two and three goals per match in the rankings after going backwards over the preceding two months. Their level of performance isn’t unprecedented, not even in the past year – the Bulldogs’ opponents in the Grand Final, the Sydney Swans, performed at a similar standard over their four matches up to the end of the preliminary final. But the Bulldogs definitely performed at a much higher level right when it mattered most than they had shown over the season up to that point.

Why? Was it because that the Bulldogs re-gained some of their best players for the finals series? I initially thought this couldn’t be the whole explanation, and that some of their players must have played a lot better during the finals. But it’s not clear that, on average, their players did improve. Looking over each player’s average SuperCoach scores before and during the finals some players such as Clay Smith, Tom Boyd, and Liam Picken did seem to clearly play a lot better. However, other players such as recently-recalled pair Jake Stringer and Easton Wood, and Matthew Boyd, seemed to play worse, even if it wasn’t noticed that much while their team kept on winning. Perhaps then it was in large part due to the players that returned – Wood and Stringer, but in particular Jack Macrae, Jordan Roughead, and Tom Liberatore – and that these players were a lot better than the players that replaced them during the final weeks of the home-and-away season.

Still that to me doesn’t seem to quite nail the explanation. Maybe it was that the Bulldogs’ opponents under-performed during the finals? I don’t subscribe to views such as it was the Bulldogs’ ‘spirit’ that got them through. Or if it was their ‘spirit’, what specifically was it that they did better as a result? I reckon there’s an interesting ‘study’ to be done by someone as to how the Bulldogs suddenly turned into a side that could knock out four teams that had won 16 or more matches in consecutive weeks.

It’s probably the most unlikely premiership win in my lifetime. I wouldn’t say it’s the most unlikely there has ever been – the Bulldogs had certainly shown more than the Fitzroy team that came from the ‘bottom’ to win it all in 1916. Nevertheless the Bulldogs became the first club to win four straight finals to take out the flag. [Correction: Adelaide did it too, in 1997, but they didn't need to.]

I said earlier this season that the Bulldogs’ lack of premierships had come from their lack of great, as opposed to good, sides. This Bulldogs team, taken over the season as a whole, wasn’t great either. But for the final four weeks they absolutely were, and in the end that was all they needed.