The AFL needs to go beyond the box score

Yasiel Puig has something to prove. He’s been back in the LA Dodgers line up for less than a week after being demoted for a stint in the minor leagues. Plate appearances are a precious commodity for a player on the periphery of a major league team, as Puig now is, so he needs to make the most of every one he gets. He stepped up to bat in the bottom of the third innings against San Diego on Sunday night having already grounded out in the first innings. The Dodgers had one out, and two players on base.

Puig watched the first pitch – a 76.2 mile per hour curveball – dip around his knees for a ball. The pitcher, Christian Friedrich, followed that up with a virtually identical pitch, which didn’t fool Puig into swinging. Ball two. Friedrich mixed things up on the next pitch, sending an 87.2 MPH four-seam fastball to the inside corner of the plate, up high near Puig’s armpits. Puig fouled that off for his first strike. On the fourth pitch of this plate appearance, Puig got something he could work with – another four-seam fastball, this time a little quicker and a little lower, in on his hands over the inside corner of the plate. He punished Friedrich, sending a line drive over the left field wall for a three-run home run.

I know all this – the pitch speed and location, the number of players out and on base when Puig stepped up, the result of the play – not because I watched the game, but because Major League Baseball chooses to make detailed data publicly available for free. You can go to and look at details of each pitch thrown, including a little graphic showing the location of each pitch, colour coded by whether it was a ball or a strike or put in play. Even better than that, you can go online each day and download files containing rich, detailed information about every single pitch and every play in the preceding day’s games and games stretching back through history.  Plenty of fan sites, like Fan Graphs, use MLB statistics to provide all kinds of analysis and information to fans of the sport.

Last week against the Crows, Matt Priddis recorded 7 kicks and 26 handballs. I can’t tell you anything about any of those disposals – whether they hit their targets, whether they led to a goal, whether they were all recorded in the second quarter – without looking up the footage and deciding for myself. That’s because the AFL, unlike many other major sporting leagues of the world, chooses not to make such information available to fans. All we get are the total game-by-game counts of simple statistics. If I post something here at The Arc using the data we do have publicly available – like free kicks per game, say – someone will inevitably ask a question like “but how many of those free kicks resulted in a goal?” The short and simple answer is that I don’t know, because the AFL chooses not to tell us. We just get simple counts of game totals.

Baseball has simple counts of game totals for each player as well – these counts are known as the ‘box score’ in baseball jargon. The box score tells us that Yasiel Puig had 1 hit and was walked twice in his game against the Padres. Ho-hum. The box score doesn’t tell us anything about the situations in which Puig appeared at the plate – how many teammates were on base and how many were out? The box score doesn’t tell us anything about the type of pitches Puig faced, how well he dealt with curveballs or pitches in on his hands, which have challenged him all year before his demotion. The box score provides a useful overview of the game, but it’s just an overview.

Major League Baseball chooses to go above and beyond the box score. The league chooses to make all that rich, detailed pitch-by-pitch information available to the public for free, both in an easy-to-use modern web interface and through plain-text files that are easy for fans and other sites to download and analyse. The AFL could and should choose to go beyond the box score as well.

The absence of detailed, easily accessible AFL statistics is bad for the game. Fans are largely in the dark about teams’ strategies and tactics, and about trends in the game. We’re only enlightened when we can discern things with our own eyes, or when the analysts at Fox or the Herald Sun tell us what’s going on. When runs stories about “the stats that matter” to the modern game, it’s notable that most of them are statistics that are usually hidden from our view, not part of the box score that the AFL releases for each game.

Fans and independent media outlets just have to take the name-brand analysts at their word. In case you’re inclined to think that the major media outlets have footy completely covered, remember that Eddie McGuire’s comments about Caroline Wilson only became common knowledge through reporting on an independent podcast, which was followed up on Erin Riley’s blog. There are plenty of footy stories that slip through the cracks of major media outlets’ coverage. I have no doubt that independent bloggers and analysts (also known as fans) armed with more data could come up with some interesting stories about our game.

The AFL’s decision to only release simple game totals – the box score – instead of more detailed data means that an analytical fan culture can’t develop the way it has for other sports. Baseball, basketball, American football, soccer and plenty of other sports all feature much more data-driven public analysis and debate. This analysis and debate has fed back into the sport itself, with statistical analysis showing certain tactics are ineffective, or certain types of players undervalued. Old folk wisdom has been proven wrong, or sometimes proven right.

Data-driven fan analysis and debate isn’t just a peripheral thing for other sports. It’s a big part of how a lot of people – a minority, sure, but a growing minority – enjoy sport. Fans have always liked to argue about which players are better, how modern players compare to greats of the past, which coaching strategies are failing, which two players would represent a fair trade. In other sports, those arguments are increasingly informed by relatively sophisticated data and analysis. In the AFL, sites like this do the best we can, but we’re tightly constrained by the AFL’s decision not to go beyond the box score.

I keep stressing that it is the AFL’s decision to release so little data. I believe this is true. If it wished to, the league could follow in the footsteps of just about every other major sporting league in the world and release more detailed data to the public for free. The desire of its data-collection contractor to make money by selling access to its data should not dictate the league’s decision making, particularly when the AFL owns 49% of its data-collection contractor and – at least as of 2015 – two senior executives of the AFL were Directors on its board. The fact that Champion Data would like to make money is entirely understandable, but the AFL does not exist to allow Champion Data to make money.

What the AFL does exist to do is “to build a stronger relationship with the supporters at all levels of the game.” That’s the second of its four objectives, one of the reasons the AFL as an organisational body exists at all. It can better fulfil that objective by opening up and following in the footsteps of other sporting leagues and enabling fans to better understand our game.

Creator of The Arc