Buddy 900 – and benchmarking the greatest goal kickers in VFL/AFL history

If you’re anything like me, you’re already missing footy. But the fake news-fest that is the AFL trade period doesn’t fill my tank. The ratio of actual news to number of topics and conversations recorded must be tending towards zero. As an alternative, I have a few items in the wings that are best discussed at the end of a given season, as part of what I am calling my 2018 ‘Summer Series’.

This marks the first such post.

Buddy and Plugger

Back in Round 17 against North Melbourne, Lance Franklin belted through his 900th AFL goal – somewhat appropriately from the forward flank outside the 50. It seems as though Buddy has kicked half his career tally from that spot, although that is probably not quite the case.

A total of 900 hundred goals is indeed a significant milestone, as Franklin became just the ninth player to reach the mark in 122 VFL/AFL seasons. But what is perhaps more telling that the all time league record sits more than another 50% higher again than this mark.

When Tony Lockett wobbled a drop punt through for goal against Collingwood at the SCG in 1999, he became the first man in VFL/AFL history to reach 1300 career goals. He would play on, and finish his career with 1360 goals from 281 senior games. Lockett is the most prolific goal kicker in 122 years of the VFL/AFL – but can we say he is the best ever?

The spearheads

Lockett surpassed a mark set by legendary Collingwood spearhead Gordon Coventry which had stood untouched for 62 years. A generation earlier, the Magpies boasted the league’s first great full-forward in Dick Lee who had debuted when the league record was only 144 career goals but by the time he retired he had pushed it way out to 707 goals. Following World War II, Essendon’s John Coleman kicked 537 goals in just 98 games before a serious knee injury prematurely ended his career at just 25. Likewise, two decades later an injured knee also interrupted the career of Peter Hudson however the Hawthorn superstar still averaged 5.6 goals per game in an golden era for full-forwards. Which takes us to the modern era, where Lance Franklin has kicked more goals than any other this century and now has over 900 goals in a period where team scoring has fallen to 50-year lows.

Embed from Getty ImagesLockett and Franklin have booted 2,277 VFL/AFL goals between them

It is hard to compare like-with-like on raw numbers alone, as over more than 120 seasons of the VFL/AFL scoring trends have evolved continuously like a living organism. Yes, no player has kicked more goals than Lockett, but Lockett played in an era where team scores were high and the full-forward thrived. In other eras, defence has been king or a team approach to scoring has been in vogue. In this post I look to benchmark the records of the VFL/AFL’s greatest goal kickers across multiple eras and propose, once and for all, the best we’ve seen.

Goal kicking trends

There are two major trends in scoring over 122 years of the VFL/AFL that have had major impacts on goal kicking tallies:

  1. The number of goals typically kicked in a game
  2. The typical spread of goals across players within a team

Scoring spreads

The ‘Footballistics’ chapter titled Goal Kicking Accuracy, a number of factors which have impacted conversion rates to varying extents over time were assessed. One such factor was the changing nature of the ‘scoring spread’ of teams over time, and this effect was two-fold:

  1. Players who tend to have more shots tend to be more accurate, and
  2. Over time, the proportion of shots/goals taken by the more predominant goal kickers for a team in a given game has tended to fall consistently over time

You can read much more about this and other trends which have impacted goal kicking conversion rates in that chapter.

It is not just the proportion of goals kicked within games that have changed. Even adjusting for the proportion of goals kicked by predominant forwards within a game, this doesn’t full account for changes as players have become more flexible and roles have become more blurred. The leading goal kickers of clubs within seasons are also more likely to have games where they are not one of the leading goal kickers for their team in a game.

For benchmarking purposes, I want to introduce the concept of ‘era-adjusted goals’ (EAGs). The goals of each player will be adjusted accordingly for their rank of goals within a game so that the average proportions of goals in each season is equivalent (1). Then, the season tallies of each player will be adjusted accordingly for their rank of goals within a year, so that the average proportion of season goals in each year is equivalent (2).

Scoring rates

Average scores per game have roller-coasted over the league’s history. From the inaugural breakaway year of 1897, scores bottomed out only two years later when teams managed an average of just 5.01 goals per game. There was then a steady rise for the next four or so decades, peaking at 13.3 goals per game in 1941, before another dip to just 9.7 goals per game in 1952. Once again scores were on the climb for the next 30 seasons, with an all-time league high reached in 1982 with teams kicking an average of 16.2 goals per game. It has been well reported that scoring rates have fallen in more recent times, but this has typically been a gradual regression in the past 36 seasons to 12.0 goals per game this year.

For benchmarking purposes, each game will be scaled proportionally so that the average number of goals per game is equivalent in each and every season (3).

Benchmarking spearheads

To account for the evolution of the league, three separate adjustments were carried out to benchmark the conditions for all goal kickers over time. In order, these were:

  1. On a game-by-game basis, standardise the proportions of goals kicked by each team’s ‘goal rank’ player in each given match
  2. On a season-by-season basis, standardise the proportions of these new scaled goals kicked by each team’s ‘goal rank’ player across each given year
  3. Finally then scale each game goal tally to standardise the average number of goals per game across each season

The methodologies are a little clunky to explain without losing my entire audience, so instead I’ve chosen four examples from different eras to articulate how the benchmarking played out across some famous performances:

Jim McShane’s bag of 11 goals for Geelong in 1899 is scaled up to 17.4 era-adjusted goals (+6.4):

  1. First scaled down because in 1899 a typical team’s top goal kickers in a match kicked a higher proportion of goals in a game than the 122-season average
  2. Then further scaled down because in 1899 a typical team’s top goal kickers in a season kicked a higher proportion of team goals in a year than the 122-season average
  3. Then finally scaled up because in 1899 games featured much fewer goals in a game than 122-season average

Fred Fanning’s bag of 18 goals for Melbourne in 1947 is scaled down to 15.9 era-adjusted goals (-2.1):

  1. First scaled down because in 1947 a typical team’s top goal kickers in a match kicked a higher proportion of goals in a game than the 122-season average
  2. Then further scaled down because in 1947 a typical team’s top goal kickers in a season kicked a higher proportion of team goals in a year than the 122-season average
  3. Then finally scaled down because in 1947 games featured slightly more goals in a game than 122-season average

Lance Franklin’s bag of 13 goals for Hawthorn in 2012 is scaled up to 14.9 era-adjusted goals (+1.9):

  1. First scaled up because in 2012 a typical team’s top goal kickers in a match kicked a lower proportion of goals in a game than the 122-season average
  2. Then further scaled up  because in 2012 a typical team’s top goal kickers in a season kicked a lower proportion of team goals in a year than the 122-season average
  3. Then finally scaled down because in 2012 games featured slightly more goals in a game than 122-season average

Jack Riewoldt’s bag of 10 goals for Richmond in 2018 is scaled up to 12.5 era-adjusted goals (+2.5):

  1. First scaled up because in 2018 a typical team’s top goal kickers in a match kicked a lower proportion of goals in a game than the 122-season average
  2. Then further scaled up  because in 2018 a typical team’s top goal kickers in a season kicked a lower proportion of team goals in a year than the 122-season average
  3. Then finally scaled up because in 2018 games featured slightly fewer goals in a game than 122-season average

Every such goal tally from every player in every game from 122 years has received the exact same treatment based on the scoring characteristics of the league in that season. We therefore end with both actual goals and era-adjusted goals tallies for all players, in every match, season and career.

The greatest of them all

The best careers

This analytical approach to benchmarking the greatest goal kickers in VFL/AFL history presents… Tony Lockett as the most prolific sharpshooter ever! Was that a surprise? I’m not sure. However as a result of the era in which Plugger played, his tally is adjusted significantly downwards to 1209 EAGs (-151 on his actual tally). Jason Dunstall (1103 EAGs, also -151) hops into second position on the overall adjusted tally, jumping Gordon Coventry (1082 EAGs, -217) who slips into third.

It is significant that Lance Franklin’s career record is well respected by the analysis, jumping from eighth to fourth on the tally (1034 EAGs, +117). As big as Buddy has been in the modern era, does the current media and footy pundit still underrate the imprint left by him on this league? Only two others fair better in additional adjusted goals than Franklin, both from the early decades of the league – namely Dick Lee (863 EAGs, +157) and Jack Leith (279, +117) who in played in such a dour era he is awarded an additional 72% of his actual tally as a result.

The top 20 goal kicking performances across a career by total era-adjusted goals

With regards to averages, it probably comes as no surprise that the brightest star shining is that of John Coleman. The player whose name is enshrined on the annual medal for the season’s leading goal kicker stands above all others, average 5.26 EAGs per game (-0.22 on his actual average), leapfrogging Peter Hudson (4.99 EAGs per game, -0.64). Dick Lee (3.75 EAGs per game, +0.68) and Lance Franklin (3.56, +0.40) are the big winners on this measure, with many of the prolific goal kickers in history more harshly punished by the high-scoring eras they played in.

The top 20 goal kicking performances across a career by average era-adjusted goals per game (minimum 50 games)

It tends to be that the most rewarded (or, underappreciated by raw goal measures) are for the primary forwards playing in three eras: the early days (until about 1920); an approximate decade between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, and indeed in the modern era (since about 2000). Perhaps expectedly, those spearheads from those halcyon eras of the 1970s-1990s are more harshly penalised (or, had the benefit of playing in eras that more suited their craft).

The following dashboard contains two dynamic views summarising the top VFL/AFL goal kickers of all time, with the ability to toggle between era-adjusted and actual goals. The default views filter those players with at least 500 actual goals, at least 2.5 actual goals per game, and at least 50 career games (but you can change these if you wish).

The first pane effectively combines the two above charts into one, comparing those goal kickers on both total (horizontal axis) and average (vertical axis) era-adjusted goals per game (first pane, ‘By totals and averages’). Those towards the right of the chart are those who have kicked the most era-adjusted/actual goals, while those towards the top of the chart are those who have averaged the most era-adjusted/actual goals per game.

The second pane provides a view of running tally of career era-adjusted/actual goals by match number. Here you can compare goal kickers like-for-like, particularly in adjusted terms. Note the similarity of the paths of Gordon Coventry and Lance Franklin, for example, which we will refer to again later. Also note how the era-adjusted measures pushes John Coleman’s trajectory slightly above that of Peter Hudson.

The best seasons

Looking across the best performances in a given year, famously both Bob Pratt (1934) and Peter Hudson (1971) managed 150 goals in a season. In terms of EAGs, Jason Dunstall’s 1989 season (132 EAGs, -6) becomes the most impressive tally in a given year, with the 1971 season of Hudson (126 EAGs, -24) dealt with more harshly and demoted into second. Of the best adjusted seasons, Dunstall (1989, 1988) and Hudson (1971, 1970 and 1968) end up with the top five on the list. Pratt’s 1934 (105 EAGs, -45) is not rated anywhere near as rosily, falling even below Lance Franklin’s century topping year of 113 actual goals (110 EAGs, -3) and indeed out of the top 20. Most of the top 20, even on adjusted terms, tend to be scaled down – primarily because they tend to be from the modern era, and that is primarily because those players have tended to play in longer seasons.

The top 20 goal kicking performances across a season by total era-adjusted goals

For season averages (minimum ten games), Tony Lockett’s injury-affected 1989 tops the charts with an astronomical 6.82 EAGs per game from 11 matches (-0.27 goals per game down on the actual), followed by Peter Hudson in 1968 (6.37 EAGs per game, -0.21) and Lockett again in 1991 (6.20, -1.28). Alongside Hudson, John Coleman’s name appears three times, in 1952 (5.94 EAGs, +0.22), 1953 (5.71, +0.32) and 1950 (5.25, -1.06).

The best games

One of the best known records in the VFL/AFL is Fred Fanning’s mark of 18 goals in, remarkably, his final senior game in 1947 before taking up a coaching position in the sticks. But with our approach to benchmarking, this performance is relegated to third with an adjusted mark of 15.9 goals (-2.1 on the actual). It is surpassed by the exploits of Jim McShane (17.4 EAGs, +6.4), who kicked 11 majors for Geelong in 1899 against a hapless St Kilda, and Harold Robertson (17.2, +3.2) who booted 14 also against St Kilda in 1919.

The top 20 goal kicking performances in a game by era-adjusted goals

Thanks to Anthony Hudson, Lance Franklin’s 13 majors against North Melbourne in 2012 won’t be forgotten in a while, and the data shows this is for good reason. It is ranked as the sixth greatest individual era-adjusted goal kicking performance on record.

Buddy beyond

So Lance Franklin is ranked fourth all-time in our era-adjusted goals, behind only Coventry, Dunstall and Lockett. As you can view in the dynamic dashboard view (second pane, ‘By number of games played’), he has tracked alongside Coventry game-by-game in EAGs for his entire career, recently pulling ahead as Buddy heads towards 300 games. Can he continue and overcome all three on relative measures, if not absolute tallies?

Franklin has averaged 3.12 goals per game at Sydney, just under his Hawthorn average of 3.19 per game. Given the slight changes in scoring trends even in the past half-decade making goal kicking even harder for main spearheads, his adjusted average at the Swans (3.78 EAGs per game) even outrates his time at the Hawks (3.44).

Helped by finals appearances, he has averaged 21.6 games per season at the Swans. With four years left on his contract, let’s assume he averages 15 games per season in the twilight of his career, for a total of 60 games left to come. This would take him to 350 total, which would take him to equal-16th on the all-time VFL/AFL games tally list. At his current Sydney goals per game rate, we can expect another 187 goals or another 227 EAGs – taking Buddy to 1,104 goals (leaving him in fourth position, behind the same three players) and 1,261 EAGs (surpassing the lot of them). In fact at his current rates, it would only take another 47 games or so for Franklin to eclipse Lockett, Dunstall and Coventry and be ranked as the number one adjusted goal kicker of all time, holding scoring conditions equal.

As a result of this analysis I keep asking myself this question: is the career of Lance Franklin still underrated?

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