Sunday, November 21, 2010

On the MLS Draft -- Which Position To Pick?

The MLS Superdraft is one of four ways in which teams can reinforce their squad.  They can also sign players from their academis, sign players from outside the league that they scout themselves or be allocated players from the US National Team pool.  Given that there several options on how to get new players, it's important to think about what type of player you want to get through each method.  For the MLS Superdraft, I wanted to see if any patterns appeared that would indicate drafting a certain type of player would be more successful than others. 

I started by looking at the breakdown of what types of players were being drafted and compared that to what the breakdown would be for a 4-4-2 formation.  In the MLS Superdraft, forwards and midfielders are over represented while defenders and goalkeepers are under represented.  For this analysis, I am excluding goalkeepers because the sample size (n=6) is too low to get meaninfgul results.  What this means is that teams are biased towards so-called "flair players".  Are they making the right decisions?

Keeping with using minutes played as the basis for our success metric, I looked at the distribution of players over/under performing based on the expected number of minutes they should be playing based on a linear regression (more information on that can be found here). 

I noticed two things looking at the distribution.  One, the number of midfielders who greatly underperform was quite high, and two, there seem to be a lot of defenders who overperform by quite a bit (look at how the data tails off to the right compared to sparse data for M/F).  Given that defenders seem to be performing better than their flair counter parts, I wanted to see if there was a drafting strategy that would emerge, something like "Pick flair players early and save your later picks for defensive players".  I decided to look next at how players perform based on both their position AND their selection number.
Looking at defenders first, it seems like across the board they are a good pick.  No matter where in the draft you are, it looks like there quality defenders available. Moving on to midfielders, it looks like only in the first few draft spots will you consistently get someone good who can start.  Late in the second round it looks like there are some guys available who can sub, but in general, midfielders tend to underperform (which begs the question, if there are so many midfield flops, why do teams keep drafting them?).  Lastly, looking at forwards, they really seem to be a mixed bag.  In the first few spots, they perform as expected, but after that it's hit or miss as to whether or not they will see playing time.  In fact, looking at the significance of the linear regression by position, the regression is not significant for forwards (p=.12).  If you look at the top point scorers (points = 2*goals+assists) from the draft for the last 5 years, the top 10 scorers are:

  1. Robbie Findley
  2. Sacha Kjlestan
  3. Kei Kamara
  4. Dane Richards
  5. Yura Movsisyan
  6. Dominic Oduro
  7. Mehdi Ballouchy
  8. Steve Zakuani
  9. Jasan Garey
  10. Jozy Altidore
 Not exactly a Who's Who of goalscorers in MLS.  What can we take away from this? 
  1. Starting midfielders can be found in the first 5 spots.  After that the odds are against you.
  2. Defenders are undervalued in the draft.  They perform well, but teams tend to ignore them.
  3. Forwards are a gamble.  High risk, moderate reward. 
Thinking about why midfielders and forwards perform so poorly in the draft, I think part of it has to do with the talent drain that occurs before the draft.  Talented flair players like Charlie Davies, Alejandro Bedoya and Marcus Tracy opt to skip the draft and go straight to Europe.  The best midfielders and fowards aren't participating in the draft.  It's very rare for a defender to make the jump straight away.  Also, in looking at the migration into the league, most of the players being imported are flair players.  Guys in the draft are competing with designated players and other new comers like Alvaro Saborio and Fredy Montero.  They're finding it a lot harder to get playing time and teams are finding really good options on the open market.

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