It’s an age-old question among lacrosse people: do faceoffs matter? Does it make sense to have a dedicated faceoff specialist, or is it sufficient to just find someone who’s pretty good at it? Logically, it makes sense that they do matter. More faceoff wins means more possessions. More possessions should lead to more goals, and more goals leads to more wins. Right? Maybe.
This article is the first of a two-part series in which we attempt to answer that question. I will start off by looking over some faceoff and win-loss numbers to see what insight they can provide. That will be Part I. Part II will be a special “crossover episode” with a special guest author, and will get a little deeper into the numbers. More on that later.
I’ve looked at this before, first in 2013 and then again in 2017. In the first case, I only had stats from the 2012 season (69 games) and I found that the team that won the faceoff battle in a game was likely to win the game 56.5% of the time. In the second case, I used stats from 2010-2017 inclusive (640 games) and found that the winning percentage was down to 51.9%. My conclusion in both cases was that faceoffs do help you win, but only marginally.
This time, I have stats from 2006 all the way to (halfway through) 2022. That’s a total of 1460 games but we need to exclude those where the teams won the same number of faceoffs. This leaves us with 1388 games.
Note that we are only talking about the NLL here. Rules and strategies may differ among other box leagues (MSL, WLA, etc.), and the field game is a different beast entirely so we will ignore all of those. Plus I don’t have stats for them.
To be clear, nobody is arguing that faceoffs never matter. Obviously if you are near the end of a close game, you want as many extra possessions as you can get to win or tie the game or prevent the other team from winning or tying the game. In that situation, faceoffs matter very much and can help you win games. But can faceoffs at any other time help you win games? We know it can happen either way:
- February 29, 2020: Jake Withers won 25 of 27 faceoffs (92.9%), but the Thunderbirds lost 13-9 to the Bandits
- March 8, 2020: Withers won 22 of 24 faceoffs (91.7%), and the Thunderbirds beat the Bandits 11-9
Same teams a week apart, same faceoff guys (Weiss, Sweeting, MacKay, and Fraser for the Bandits), roughly same faceoff results, but different game outcomes. What we’re trying to find out is if there’s a general pattern.
Here are the results. First a summary of the raw data, just for 50%, 60%, 70%, and 80%, and also a chart for all thresholds between 50% and 80%.
(Note that the accuracy of the graph goes down the further you go to the right since there are fewer games involved.)
Here are my conclusions in a nutshell:
- Winning between 50% and 75% of the faceoffs in the game gives you a winning percentage of anywhere between 51% and 53.3%.
- The line gradually goes up until it reaches 61%, then it stays steady until about 71% and then gradually drops.
- When you get to 75%, the winning percentage starts to drop dramatically.
#1 tells us that the winning team usually wins the faceoff battle. The difference isn’t huge but it is consistently above 50%. Strictly speaking, this does not tell us that winning more faceoffs helps you win games. It tells us that the two events are correlated, but not that one caused the other.
#2 is consistent with winning faceoffs giving you an advantage in the game. It also tells us that if there is such an advantage, it peaks around 61%. Once you get to 61%, winning more faceoffs doesn’t give you any more of an advantage.
#3 seems to imply that winning too many faceoffs (>70%) gives you a disadvantage. However, that seems unlikely. It’s more likely, in my opinion, that once you get over 70%, the number of games involved starts to get low enough that outliers have a greater effect.
When you combine #1 and #2, it appears that winning faceoffs does give you an advantage. It’s not a huge effect, but it is consistent. Now we need to decide how much of an advantage that is. To do that, I turned to the creator of LaxMetrics.com (and San Diego Seals play-by-play man) Cooper Perkins. This sounded like something right in his wheelhouse, and he agreed to look over the numbers and provide some analysis. That’s in part II.