Coronaball


Round 1 was a weird time for all of us. Players, fans, officials, and even us fantasy addicts. Grown men were baking their own sourdoughs, for Christ’s sake. Covid-19 was spreading the globe and nothing was certain anymore, including whether Round 1 would even go ahead. As we know, it ultimately did, but with some last-minute changes to protect the flexibility required to ensure the season as a whole went ahead. A reduced season-length of 17 games plus finals was introduced, crowds were banned, and quarters were clipped to 16 minutes. 

Thus dawned the age of what has come to be known in the industry as Coronaball. 

Those of us who watched the eerie Round 1 action would have witnessed a noticeably different product. The silence from the absent crowd was deafening and unsettling, while games felt like they were over before they even started – because when you expect a footlong and they pack you a 6-inch, you notice, no matter how tasty the sub. It felt like an extension of the pre-season; not quite as gimmicky as AFLX, but lacking the intensity and urgency that we’ve come to expect with the resumption of “real” footy in years past.

Those of us who played fantasy, whether it be the season-long competitions or DFS, would have noticed a shift in fantasy power. That’s what we’ll be delving into in this article.

BCV

With a 20% reduction in game-time, we’d expect a 20% reduction in scoring, right? And that’s what happened, essentially. 

Compared to Round 1 last season and adjusting for the length of the games, we saw a 1.9% increase in fantasy points, which is well within the expected variance for such a small data size. If we looked at the 2019 season as a whole, it churned out a figure of 1.5% more. Cool. Logical, simple and easy enough to adjust our thinking moving forward. Or is it?

While the fantasy machine as a whole took 80% of the input and churned out roughly 80% of the output, the internal components and mechanisms – in this case, the individual players and the playstyles – all adapted differently. Just like water changes its shape to suit a new container. In the world of fantasy, where we’re dealing solely with these “components” when building line-ups or pondering trades, that’s crucial for us. So let’s break it down.

CAN YOU FOOTBALL?

The most obvious place to start is with the Time On Ground (TOG). While the game as a whole shrunk 20%, the gametime of players didn’t shrink uniformly with it, for 2 main overarching reasons: their standing on the depth chart and their role.

Logically, the assumption would be that the game length is reduced, so teams are able to wheel out their better players for longer. And logic prevailed in this case. I took the top 16 players (in terms of Brownlow Odds) and discovered that their TOG was up an average of 4% between Round 1 this season and their 2019 averages. That’s huge when you consider that these are the best players in the land and hence their clubs are always keen to throw them out there for as long as possible. 

As you can see, a lot of these blokes are jumping up a sizzling 8-10% extra game time. The trend held with other (very basic) metrics; the top 10-averaging fantasy players jumped up 2.4% in TOG, while the top 8 contested players had a 3.3% boost. 

So, in terms of our Premiums during Coronaball, we’re safe. That’s the good news.

But the bad news is that you’ve got to rob Peter to pay Paul. In Round 1 of 2019, just 4 players played less than 60% game-time, and 9 players played less than 65%. Those numbers increased dramatically in 2020’s Coronaball, up to 17 players under 60% and 22 players under 65%. Put another way, the average TOG% for the lowest 2 players per team was 64% in 2019, down to a concerning 57% in 2020’s shortened product.

That’s a massive drop-off and really highlights how difficult it is going to be for us to unearth value in the fringe and rookie players this season. 

DIFFERENT BLOKES

Then we have to take a player’s role into account. Now, there are a lot of moving parts here and every player has their own unique situation with fitness, role changes, team movements, etc – so we’re going to focus on the stronger trends only here.

1. Wingmen

The seagulls are potentially the biggest winners out of reduced quarters. Wingmen are generally athletic beasts, and if a player’s strength is their endurance or gut-running, you want to make sure they get there, right? 

Above is a table of the biggest jumps in TOG between 2019 and 2020, and you’ll notice a lot of players who started on a wing were amongst the top end of beneficiaries. Daicos, Perryman, Bailey, Bewley and Langdon were all in the top 10 for increases with pure wing roles in Round 1. In Langdon’s case, he played an incredible 100% game-time, unheard of for a midfielder. It’s interesting to note that Melbourne seem pretty set on this tactic with their new recruits, with Tomlinson not far behind him at a crisp 95% himself. 

2. Small Forwards

The rough end of the stick absolutely bashed our craftier players. Below is a table of the players who were absolutely shafted with Coronaball, with obvious injuries removed.

When you’re rolling your best players out for longer – who are usually onballers – there are less midfield minutes to go around for the pinch-hitters. Often, these are the small forwards in your side who supplement their goalsneaking with bursts through the guts. Puopolo managed a critically low 55% on ground in Round 1 after being a mainstay at 83% in 2019 for the Hawks, while other smalls like Spargo, Cameron, Ronke, Elliott and Powell-Pepper saw their own exposures reduced. 

It’s important to note that this list only includes players who played last season as well, so it doesn’t even include smalls like Bedford (59%), Pickett (71%), Tyler Brown (71%) and Cavarra (72%). Extremely concerning numbers.

3. Ruckmen

This is the most interesting position, with the gap widening between the solo ruckmen and the rest. When we take out the injuries (Kreuzer, Martin) and the newbies (Fort, Naismith), we’re left with this table:

As you can see, solo rucks are the huge winners here. Goldstein played a superhuman 98% of the game against a two-pronged St Kilda ruck division. Gawn, who came into Round 1 under a serious cloud with that hamstring, still ran around for 96% of the game. Big O took the reins once Stef Martin went down. Even Bellchambers, who is part-man, part-strapping tape at the best of times, managed 87% himself. 

The other end of the table is a mess. Soldo and especially Nankveris were running on fumes in Richmond’s nasty straight-swap in the ruck, while Hickey was used as foil for Naitanui and nothing more. O’Brien’s minutes were curiously down too despite being an endurance beast, possibly due to the selection of Frampton. Ryder managed just 76% in a tandem with Marshall in what might turn out to be the worst trade of 2019.

I expect that many of these teams will strip back their ruck departments for Round 2 of Coronaball, but you should be playing close attention and avoiding those who don’t like the plague in all forms of fantasy.

DIFFERENT STROKES

We talked earlier about playstyles adjusting to reflect the shorter quarters – here’s the full breakdown:

Marks up and Tackles down is exactly what we’d expect with shorter quarters, as players aren’t as fatigued when they’re trying to move the footy in the classical “red time” that essentially doesn’t exist anymore. With less fatigue (and possibly because the better players are out there more often), players are hitting targets more often, hence the uptick in Marks and sharp downturn in Clangers. And, because the footy is being retained more often, we’re seeing fewer Tackles laid and a slight reduction in Contested Possessions and Free Kicks

That was essentially just a longer way of saying that we’ve got a faster game on our hands.

Unfortunately, given the nature of fantasy scoring and it’s wild weekly standard variation (compared to something more stable, like TOG, for instance), it’s hard to draw any concrete conclusions as to which playstyles benefit or suffer during Coronaball with just the single week of data. It’s especially frustrating because we don’t have access to any meaningful stats from CD about “red time” and the players who flourish in that crucial time period, which I believe would reveal a lot. Hence, the below is simply anecdotal and speculative. 

1. The Plodder

This group suffered the most, in my opinion. Tom Phillips, Jack Redden, Josh Dunkley and both Crouch brothers were all amongst the 25 biggest fantasy drops in Round 1 of Coronaball. None of this group are particularly athletically gifted, fitting more into the “run all day” type of accumulative midfielder. They rely on a battle of attrition, gut-running when their opponents and fellow teammates are struggling to get from contest to contest in red time, and that’s where they make their impact. Fatigue is their best friend and junk time is their bread and butter. Without a slugfest in this faster version of footy, these plodders are struggling.

2. The Janitor

We’re looking at the sweepers here, typically your half-back flankers who benefit from the slow chip-chip-chip style of tempo footy that red time is famous for. So it was no surprise to see someone like Jake Lloyd (55) struggle in Round 1, and the same goes for Jack Crisp (59), Nic Newman (48), James Harmes (56), Caleb Daniel (63) and Tom Stewart (63). You can even throw Lachie Whitfield with his 68 in there, given his price, footballing ability and return to a halfback role in Round 1. It’s clear that while Marks are up overall in Coronaball, it’s not the cheap +6’s at the end of quarters – and the players that rely on them – that are driving it. 

3. The Bull

It’s hard to ignore the similarities between the 3 highest scorers of the bastardised Round 1 product in Jack Viney (132), Dylan Shiel (122) and Ben Cunnington (117). If you asked someone to put together a shortlist of strong, inside midfielders who play less minutes than most of their counterparts and can’t kick a footy to save their lives, you’d probably end up with the same list of 3 players. Similar types like Luke Parker (113), Luke Dunstan (100), Jarryd Lyons (98), and JPK (98), weren’t far behind either and all figured in the top 20 scorers of Round 1. 

My theory is that with less fatigue, the best contested players are attending contests more often, and hence simply winning more contests. For instance, Jack Viney still only played 78% game-time, and while it’s a 5% increase on last year for him, he still played less minutes overall. 73% of 80 minutes is 58 minutes of gametime, and 78% of 64 is 50 minutes, right? So he’s just doing what he normally does best – he crashes a few packs, he wins a bunch of contests, throws the footy on his boot a few and then he comes to the bench for his break. Then you wind him up and send him out to do it all over again. 

The shortened Coronaball game suits someone like Viney perfectly (or Cunnington, or Shiel, or Dunstan), just like a T20 match suits particular styles of cricketers. I’ll be paying a lot more attention to this type of player moving forward.

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