Faceoff dominance revisited

Back in 2013, I wrote an article about faceoff dominance and whether it helps you win games. The conclusion was that it does but only slightly – 56% of teams that won more than half of the faceoffs in a game also won the game. But that article was only using data from the 2012 season so the sample size was small. I now have faceoff data for almost every game from 2010-2017, so let’s revisit this.

From 2010 through 2017 (including the 2010-2016 playoffs – skipping the 2017 playoffs because we’re in the middle of them), I have face-off stats for 674 games. I have no such stats for any games before 2010, and there are a few from 2010 that are missing. I’m also excluding tie-breaker games (formerly known as “mini-games”). There was also one game where we don’t know the result of one faceoff, so I skipped that one. In 34 of the remaining games, each team won the same number of face-offs, so we’ll skip those as well. That leaves us with 640 games.

Of those 640, we find 332 games where the team that won more than half of the faceoffs also won the game, and 308 where the team that won more than half of the faceoffs lost the game. In other words, teams that won more than half the faceoffs went 332-308, a .519 winning percentage.

If you flip a coin 640 times and get 51.9% heads and 48.1% tails, would you suspect that the coin was biased in favour of heads? Likely not. In my opinion, the spread here is close enough to 50/50 that it’s irrelevant. Winning the faceoff battle does not help you win games. Now, it’s not exactly 50/50 and the team that wins the faceoff battles does win slightly more often. Thus you could argue that the spread is large enough to be significant and that winning most of the faceoffs in a game does help you win the game. But even if we grant that it does make a difference, it clearly doesn’t make much of one.

You want more proof? How about this: if we increase the threshold, the numbers get worse. Teams that win 60% or more of the faceoffs in a game are 198-192 (.508). Teams that win 70% are 82-81 (.503). Above that, you really don’t want to win faceoffs. Teams that win 75% of faceoffs are 44-51 (.463). Teams that win 80% are 20-30 (.400). Even teams that win 90% of the faceoffs in a game are 3-6 (.333). I have some guesses as to why this is, but that’ll be another article down the road.

Snider vs. Thompson. We could be here a while.

Now, there are a couple of caveats here. First, this is for the NLL. It’s possible that in the WLA or MSL, the situation is different. I don’t know why it would be, but it’s possible. I’ve also been told that the situation in field lacrosse is quite different, and faceoffs are much more important in the field game. I haven’t seen stats to that effect so that’s one guy’s opinion but even if he’s wrong, these numbers tell us nothing about the situation in the MLL.

The second caveat is that this result doesn’t mean that faceoffs are meaningless in general. The obvious case is a close game at the end of regulation. If you’re down by one with 20 seconds left in the fourth, you want Geoff Snider or Jay Thorimbert out there taking that faceoff because it’s crucial. It doesn’t even have to be that near the end; if you’re down by n goals with less than n minutes left, faceoffs are very important.

You might say the same about overtime, but that’d be wrong. The average overtime in an NLL game lasts just under three minutes (2:55). But there’s only one faceoff in overtime. If nobody scores on the first possession of the game, having a great faceoff guy is irrelevant for the rest of the OT period. It could matter if you manage to get to a second OT, but that has never happened since the league moved from five to fifteen-minute overtime periods at least ten years ago.

In the history of the NLL, there have been 140 overtime games. The number of games where the winning goal was scored in the first thirty seconds: twelve. Twelve out of 140 is 8.6%, which means that 91.4% of the time, faceoffs have been meaningless in overtime.

You could argue that even that 8.6% is an edge that you’d rather have than not have. Maybe. But given the choice between a guy who’s great at picking up loose balls and a pure faceoff guy, I’d take the loosie magnet every day and twice on Sunday.

And thus is the next question raised: does winning more loose balls than your opponent help you win games? Hmmm…

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