This is Part II of our Top 10 Picks in the Draft analysis – click here for part I!

In part I, we explored the career-long value of top 10 picks from a fantasy footy perspective, with an eye on your dynasty and keeper league draft formats.

Part II takes a deep dive into those ever-important first 3 years of draftees’ careers, with a focus on gaining a better understanding of the “breakout”.

We looked at the top 10 picks in the AFL draft (noted in part I as historically being the most valuable picks) from 2004-2017 (to allow SuperCoach data, available from the 2005 season) to examine the data surrounding years 1-3 of these top prospect’s careers.

Thanks to FanFooty for providing data used to compile these numbers.

Please Note: many manual calculations were used and human error is possible.

The Rookie Year

Regardless of the quality of rookie class, it is rare that we are able to rely on a rookie to provide solid fantasy scores.

More relevant in your keeper and dynasty leagues, the top 10 picks in the draft tend to show some early promise, yet not necessarily via their fantasy numbers.

Top 10 picks who played at least one game in their rookie season between 2004-2017, averaged 54.07 AFL Fantasy and 54.1 SuperCoach points per game.

Rookie numbers often do not give us the full story.

Two of the most prevalent names in draft circles in the past decade, Patrick Dangerfield (26 AFL Fantasy/ 19.5 SuperCoach) and Lance Franklin (51.1/59.3), had underwhelming rookie years.

On the other hand, forgotten Docker, Giant and 1-game Blue, Rhys Palmer, averaged a career-high 87.5 AFL Fantasy and 87.4 Supercoach points in his 1st year in the league – the best rookie year of any rookie drafted in the top 10 between 2004-2017.

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In the past 5 years, the players drafted in the top 10 who had solid rookie seasons but have yet to average over 80 in AFL Fantasy or SuperCoach are Darcy Parish* (73.8/72.1), Callum Mills (72.9/77.1), Andrew McGrath (70.5/70.6), Jacob Hopper (68.8/70.3) and Sam Petrevski-Seton (67.9/67.6).

Out of the 2017 rookie class, Andrew Brayshaw had the most impressive AFL Fantasy rookie season of the top 10, averaging 66.7 in that format. 2018 NAB AFL Rising Star Award winner, Jaidyn Stephenson, led the Supercoach category, and showed he could perform on the biggest stage imaginable:

 

 

The upcoming 2018 rookie class looks strong at the top end, but we can see in recent history that if we rely on top 10 picks to perform for us in the fantasy arena in year 1, it will likely be a disappointment…unless their name is Rhys Palmer.

*Parish averaged 80.3 in SuperCoach in 2018 but, come on, “yet to average over 81” sounds weird!

The Sophomore Slump

“It’s a trap!”

“Don’t do it! He’s in his second year…you know what that means!”

The desperate warnings ring out on draft night – whether it be an attempt to put your mates off the scent of your favourite up-and-comer, or a genuine friendly reminder – the words are often followed by a term every fantasy coach would be all too familiar with…the “second-year blues”.

Also known as second-year syndrome or the sophomore slump, the terms refer to the apparent phenomenon of players who are fresh off a successful rookie campaign having an underwhelming 2nd year in the league.

But is the sophomore slump a real thing?

We looked at the numbers of the top 10 picks from 2004-2016 to discover the truth.

Only players who played at least one game in both their rookie and sophomore seasons were included in the data. Players were also excluded if their rookie season was not the season immediately following their draft year, like Christian Petracca, who was drafted in 2014 but did not play until the 2016 AFL season. This is to exclude players who had a year in the AFL system to adjust and hence to avoid what we might call “the Ben Simmons argument”:

 

Adjusting our data to accommodate these new parameters, the rookie averages for the top 10 picks from 2004-2016 for AFL Fantasy and SuperCoach were 54.37 and 54.55 respectively.

On average, the top 10 draftees increased their output in year 2 to 63.52 in AFL Fantasy and by over 10 points to 65.01 in SuperCoach.

On face value, the second year provides what we would expect: an increase in production from a young player. However, the second-year blues refers to players who have had a reasonable average in year 1, only to disappoint with their production in year 2.

We will assume 60 is a solid rookie season from an AFL Fantasy and SuperCoach perspective and using the same parameters above, look purely at players who averaged over the 60 mark.

In AFL Fantasy, players who averaged over 60 in year 1 increased by an average of 5.61 in year 2, down only slightly overall when compared to overall improvement from all top 10 draftees in their second year.

However, if we look at players who had exceptional rookie years, averaging over 70 in their debut season, the theory of the second-year blues holds more validity.

Players who averaged over 70 in year 1 improved their AFL Fantasy average by only 1.42 in year 2.

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In our sample, the winner of the second-year blues award for AFL Fantasy production, was James Aish’s 2014-2015 collapse. Aish stormed out the gates to average 74.2 AFL Fantasy points in year 1, only to crumble down to a 53-point average in year 2.

Runner-up Rhys Palmer, plummeted 8.5 points in his second year in the AFL, while Josh Caddy equalled that 8.5-point slide in his sophomore season.

SuperCoach players who averaged over 70 points in year 1 were similarly disappointing in year 2, averaging only 2.6 points more on average in their second seasons.

Aish again led the charge with his 20.2 drop off in SuperCoach average in year 2, while Rhys Palmer (-15), Michael Hurley (-12.9), Nick Vlastuin (-7.6) and Daniel Rich (-7.5) rounded out the top 5.

Among the best within our sample, are the rare talents who bucked the trend and completed the ‘elusive’ second-year breakout.

Jack Macrae’s 40.8-point AFL Fantasy jump from 63.5 in year 1 to 104.3 in year 2 is the gold standard for second year breakouts.

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While Clayton Oliver’s 32.6-point jump in 2017 and Tim Taranto’s 29.5 increase in 2018 are two contemporary examples of monster second-year improvements, some fantasy coaches may not be aware that it is in fact Chad Wingard’s 39.1-point rookie-sophomore leap that is second only to Macrae’s for top 10 picks.

We must remember that there are a number of factors at play here, including position, opportunity, and a multitude of other factors and although there is some evidence in our data that the second-year blues might exist following extreme excellence in a rookie campaign, there could be another explanation.

Baseball analytics guru and writer, Bill James coined the term the “Plexiglass Principle”, which when applied to AFL football, suggests that a player (or team) that performs above and beyond expectations one year (a statistical outlier), they will likely perform more in line with their standards of performance and, in most cases, regress the next year.

A rookie who has an extremely impressive first year in the league might fall under this category. While their career trajectory in many cases will still be positive, coming out of the blocks on fire will likely see a regression back to the mean, rather than a direct linear trajectory into stardom.

Andrew McGrath pumped out an impressive rookie season in 2017, averaging 70.5 and 70.6 in AFL Fantasy and SuperCoach points respectfully. Many people (including yours truly), jumped on board in 2018, only for McGrath to have under a 1-point improvement in each of the formats to finish the season with averages of 71.4 and 70.8 in those same formats.

As with any of our theories in fantasy footy, there are far too many variables to accept the Plexiglass Principle, or regression to the mean, as being solely responsible for second-year syndrome (did Devon Smith AKA Lunch Meat affect his mid time? Did Goddard spending more time down back reduce his authority as a go-to option? etc.), but it is clear that our expectations for big fantasy performances from rookies coming off superb debut seasons should be lowered.

The Third Year Breakout

Unlike the disdain associated with the second year of an AFL player’s career, the third year is met with a sense of unabashed optimism and blind belief.

It was here on the Draft Doctors Podcast way back on the 20th February 2018 – where FanFooty founder and fantasy community legend, Monty explained the widely accepted phenomenon in the fantasy community of the “third-year breakout”:

“The way that player’s bodies react to the first preseason, when they are first coming into the system; they have a fairly light preseason, because they are only 17 or 18,” Monty said.

“It’s the second preseason when they really try and get the bulk into them, and that’s why especially at the end of the 2nd season it’s very natural for players to drop off.

“But when they get into their 3rd season, that’s when they should have the stamina, the endurance, to be able to run a season out.”

Our beloved Statesman reiterated the importance of the third-year breakout in the Draft Doctors latest podcast (around the 40-minute mark & again the 47-minute mark):

With the help of our data, lets analyse this phenomenon known as “the third-year breakout”.

Looking at draftees between 2004-2015 – ensuring all players in the data have played their 3rd year, while adhering to the same guidelines as we did in the 2nd year analysis – we will look at the whether the numbers suggest that a player entering their 3rd year is more likely to “breakout” than a 2nd year player.

Using these numbers, we noted a point increase from year two to three of 5.98 AFL Fantasy points and 6.99 SuperCoach points.

According to the data, it is in fact the much revered second year where players taken in the top 10 of the draft take their biggest jump in production within the first 3 years of their career – with the 3rd year providing additional improvement toward fantasy relevance.

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While the overall AFL Fantasy and SuperCoach average of 3rd year players is higher than 2nd year players, if we define “breakout” as being the point in a player’s career when they take the biggest jump in scoring, it is indeed the 2nd season which reigns supreme.

However, there is something to be said about having the security of a third-year player, having a few preseasons under their belt.

The wise words of the Statesman ring true from that same Keeper League Stocktake podcast (47-minute mark), when he refers to the “law of averages”:

“I never take the punt on the second year, which means I miss the Taranto’s and the Oliver’s,” Statesman said.

“But the third-year breakout is the law of averages; the highly talented ones break out in their third year.”

While missing on perhaps the biggest breakout season, settling for the security of a more established name (who you have seen perform and incrementally improve in their first 2 years), will work to your advantage in the long run.

The best 3rd year jumps from top 10 picks between 2004-2015, limiting the sample to those who played more than 10 games in their “breakout” season – were Dom Tyson (39), Andrew Moore (25.8), Caleb Marchbank (25), Ty Vickery (23.9) and Ben Cunnington (22.7) … I know, right?

But never fear, there are plenty of more recognisable fantasy names who featured in the top 20, including Lance Franklin (22.3), Marc Murphy (22.2), Jordan Lewis (20), Bryce Gibbs (19.7) and Josh Kelly (16.8).

On the SuperCoach side of things, Dom Tyson again reigned supreme with a 48.9-point jump.

Biggest 3rd year breakouts

Being conservative and holding out to wait for the third-year breakout may not reap the same rewards as taking the early punt on a second-year player. But by choosing to draft a player with an extra preseason, more mature body, and an additional year of data in the bank, the ceiling of a breakout may not be as high, but there is less risk associated with a higher floor.

IN CONCLUSION:

The raw numbers we have analysed are interesting, yet do not tell the full story.

They note the general upward trend of top AFL prospects and in some ways further convolute the fantasy myths of the second-year blues and the third-year breakout – not entirely supporting nor denying their existence.

The fact of the matter is that breakouts, particularly in those first few years, can be bloody tough to predict. While we might have an inkling that a breakout is on the cards (hello Andrew Brayshaw!!!), finding the Goldilocks zone of drafting such a player in your single season leagues is tough. It takes a big pair of cojones to take the punt of drafting a hyped-up potential breakout player without significant risk.

With so many juicy options available to us from the 2017 draft crop and the Taranto and Oliver second-season heroics fresh on our minds, do we trust our instincts (Andrew Brayshaw???) …or follow the wise, soothing tones of the Statesman’s third-year sentiments?