The best free taker?

This piece originally appeared in the Examiner’s Championship pullout. I had intended to link to it but it does not appear to be online so I have reproduced it below

The dearth of GAA data can lead to some curious problems. Take measuring the best free takers for example.

Normally all we get in any match report is a list of the scorers and how many of those scores were from frees, 45s etc. Rarely will their scores be put in the context of how many shots they had, how hard these shots were etc. Is the best deadball exponent (although frees make up well in excess of 85% of all deadball attempts we really should introduce penalties & 45s into the conversation) the player that scores the most? The one that converts the most? Neither?

Conversion Rates

The below table shows the Conversion Rates for any player with a minimum of 30 recorded deadball attempts over the last four Championships

Player Shots Scores Conversion Rate
D Rock (Dublin) 33 28 85%
C McManus (Monaghan) 48 39 81%
C O’Connor (Mayo) 112 90 80%
B Brogan (Dublin) 49 38 78%
C McFadden (Donegal) 54 41 76%
D McCurry (Tyrone) 39 27 69%
M Murphy (Donegal) 85 57 67%
M Newman (Meath) 39 26 67%
E O’Flaherty (Kildare) 36 24 67%
B Sheehan (Kerry) 41 25 61%
S Cluxton (Dublin) 56 31 55%

In and of itself this is noteworthy. Many would have placed the likes of McManus & O’Connor at the top of the charts but the long range experts such as Sheehan & Cluxton, who would also have had their proponents, are lower down the rankings.

This does highlight an issue with using Conversion Rates as shot difficulty (both in distance & angle to the goal) is not taken into account. Of Cluxton’s 56 attempts a remarkable 71% (29 x 45s & 11 x frees) were taken from the 45m line or further out. As a point of comparison only 10% (4 x frees & 1 x 45) of McManus’s 48 attempts were taken from the same range. How does McManus’s 81% Conversion Rate stack up against Cluxton’s 55%? Would we say that McManus is that much better of a deadball striker?

Expected Points

By dividing the pitch into segments, and using the results of well over 1,400 attempts, we are able to show what percentage of deadballs are scored per segment. We use this percentage to create an Expected Points (Exp Pts) return – along the lines of Expected Goals for soccer – for every attempt. So if a free from a specific area is converted 60% of the time the Exp Pts = 0.6pts. Doing this for every deadball attempt then allows us to compare players on a more equal footing.

Player Shots Scores Conversion Rate Conversion Rate Rank Total Pts above Expected
C O’Connor 112 90 80% 3 +7.4
C McFadden 54 41 76% 5 +6.1
M Murphy 85 57 67% 7 +4.2
C McManus 48 39 81% 2 +4.0
D Rock 33 28 85% 1 +3.7
S Cluxton 56 31 55% 11 +2.1
B Sheehan 41 25 61% 10 +0.9
M Newman 39 26 67% 8 +0.7
D McCurry 39 27 69% 6 -0.3
B Brogan 49 38 78% 4 -2.2
E O’Flaherty 36 24 67% 9 -4.1

This shuffles the ranking somewhat. The aforementioned Cluxton & Sheehan rise up the leaderboard as the difficulty of their respective attempts is filtered in. We also see the reverse as players with higher Conversion Rates drop down the ranking – Rock & Brogan noticeably.

Brogan is interesting. He only attempted three free kicks in 2015 meaning that the majority of his returns were pre the emergence of Dean Rock. Looking at the above it is easy to see why the free taking duty was passed to Rock. Although Brogan’s Conversion Rate was high at 78% – placing him 4th overall – the negative Exp Pts shows that he was missing too many easy chances. Of his 48 attempts 22 (46%) came from inside the 20m line; and he missed five of those.

Not that Rock is without his issues. In 2013 & 2014 he was an excellent 92% (11 from 12) on frees though this tally was racked up late on in games where the result was never in doubt. He started 2015 in similar form converting 93% of his first 14 however he then tailed off in the later rounds missing three of his last seven against Mayo & Kerry. Dublin have not looked to cultivate a free taker during the league campaign, so they have faith in Rock, however we won’t know if his late 2015 misses were just a small sample size or something else. If it occurs late on again when the pressure is at its most intense will Dublin be able to switch? Brogan, whilst an able deputy, is no better than average whilst Cluxton only hit one from seven in the semi-final onwards last year after coming in cold.

Cillian O’Connor

One of the more noticeable aspects of the Exp Pts table is how Cillian O’Connor & Michael Murphy rise to the top. The argument can be made that the more attempts you have the easier it is to build up an Exp Pts tally – that of course ignores that the opposite is also true. The more attempts you have the greater the opportunity to regress to the mean.

That O’Connor has maintained such standards across multiple Championships is a remarkable feat. Even more so when you consider that the methodology does not account for the majority of his attempts occurring in high pressure games (Provincial finals, All Ireland semi-finals & finals) whilst also being a load bearing totem. He has taken 76% of Mayo’s deadball attempts switching from the left to the right as well as taking high pressure penalties and the majority of Mayo’s 45s.

O’Connor’s consistency is beyond reproach and it is this, alloyed to his proven accuracy, that surely gives him the title of “the best free taker”.

NOTE: Due to space limitations I wasn’t able to expand on certain points in the article. One I wanted to address was E O’Flaherty’s returns. The above paints him as a very poor free taker which is incorrect. He is in fact a very good free taker but within his wheelhouse. By that I mean between the two 20m lines and to the left of the goals. The problem was that for years Kildare did not have a left footed free taker – or a long range one for that matter – so he was being forced to take shots that other designated free takers did not.

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