Which Teams Are Most Likely to Make Next Year's Finals?

I had a little time on a flight back to Sydney from Melbourne last Friday night to contemplate life's abiding truths. So naturally I wondered: how likely is it that a team finishing in ladder position X at the end of one season makes the finals in the subsequent season?

Here's the result for seasons 2000 to 2010, during which the AFL has always had a final 8:

2010 - Probability of Making the Finals by Ladder Position.png

When you bear in mind that half of the 16 teams have played finals in each season since 2000 this table is pretty eye-opening. It suggests that the only teams that can legitimately feel themselves to be better-than-random chances for a finals berth in the subsequent year are those that have finished in the top 4 ladder positions in the immediately preceding season. Historically, top 4 teams have made the 8 in the next year about 70% of the time - 100% of the time in the case of the team that takes the minor premiership.

In comparison, teams finishing 5th through 14th have, empirically, had roughly a 50% chance of making the finals in the subsequent year (actually, a tick under this, which makes them all slightly less than random chances to make the 8).

Teams occupying 15th and 16th have had very remote chances of playing finals in the subsequent season. Only one team from those positions - Collingwood, who finished 15th in 2005 and played finals in 2006 - has made the subsequent year's top 8.

Of course, next year we have another team, so that's even worse news for those teams that finished out of the top 4 this year.

Using a Ladder to See the Future

The main role of the competition ladder is to provide a summary of the past. In this blog we'll be assessing what they can tell us about the future. Specifically, we'll be looking at what can be inferred about the make up of the finals by reviewing the competition ladder at different points of the season.

I'll be restricting my analysis to the seasons 1997-2009 (which sounds a bit like a special category for Einstein Factor, I know) as these seasons all had a final 8, twenty-two rounds and were contested by the same 16 teams - not that this last feature is particularly important.

Let's start by asking the question: for each season and on average how many of the teams in the top 8 at a given point in the season go on to play in the finals?

2010 - In Top 8.png

The first row of the table shows how many of the teams that were in the top 8 after the 1st round - that is, of the teams that won their first match of the season - went on to play in September. A chance result would be 4, and in 7 of the 13 seasons the actual number was higher than this. On average, just under 4.5 of the teams that were in the top 8 after 1 round went on to play in the finals.

This average number of teams from the current Top 8 making the final Top 8 grows steadily as we move through the rounds of the first half of the season, crossing 5 after Round 2, and 6 after Round 7. In other words, historically, three-quarters of the finalists have been determined after less than one-third of the season. The 7th team to play in the finals is generally not determined until Round 15, and even after 20 rounds there have still been changes in the finalists in 5 of the 13 seasons.

Last year is notable for the fact that the composition of the final 8 was revealed - not that we knew - at the end of Round 12 and this roster of teams changed only briefly, for Rounds 18 and 19, before solidifying for the rest of the season.

Next we ask a different question: if your team's in ladder position X after Y rounds where, on average, can you expect it to finish.

2010 - Ave Finish.png

Regression to the mean is on abundant display in this table with teams in higher ladder positions tending to fall and those in lower positions tending to rise. That aside, one of the interesting features about this table for me is the extent to which teams in 1st at any given point do so much better than teams in 2nd at the same point. After Round 4, for example, the difference is 2.6 ladder positions.

Another phenomenon that caught my eye was the tendency for teams in 8th position to climb the ladder while those in 9th tend to fall, contrary to the overall tendency for regression to the mean already noted.

One final feature that I'll point out is what I'll call the Discouragement Effect (but might, more cynically and possibly accurately, have called it the Priority Pick Effect), which seems to afflict teams that are in last place after Round 5. On average, these teams climb only 2 places during the remainder of the season.

Averages, of course, can be misleading, so rather than looking at the average finishing ladder position, let's look at the proportion of times that a team in ladder position X after Y rounds goes on to make the final 8.

2010 - Percent Finish in 8.png

One immediately striking result from this table is the fact that the team that led the competition after 1 round - which will be the team that won with the largest ratio of points for to points against - went on to make the finals in 12 of the 13 seasons.

You can use this table to determine when a team is a lock or is no chance to make the final 8. For example, no team has made the final 8 from last place at the end of Round 5. Also, two teams as lowly ranked as 12th after 13 rounds have gone on to play in the finals, and one team that was ranked 12th after 17 rounds still made the September cut.

If your team is in 1st or 2nd place after 10 rounds you have history on your side for them making the top 8 and if they're higher than 4th after 16 rounds you can sport a similarly warm inner glow.

Lastly, if your aspirations for your team are for a top 4 finish here's the same table but with the percentages in terms of making the Top 4 not the Top 8.

2010 - Percent Finish in 4.png

Perhaps the most interesting fact to extract from this table is how unstable the Top 4 is. For example, even as late as the end of Round 21 only 62% of the teams in 4th spot have finished in the Top 4. In 2 of the 13 seasons a Top 4 spot has been grabbed by a team in 6th or 7th at the end of the penultimate round.

MARS Ratings of the Finalists

We've had a cracking finals series so far and there's the prospect of even better to come. Two matches that stand out from what we've already witnessed are the Lions v Carlton and Collingwood v Adelaide games. A quick look at the Round 22 MARS ratings of these teams tells us just how evenly matched they were.


Glancing down to the bottom of the 2009 column tells us a bit more about the quality of this year's finalists.

As a group, their average rating is 1,020.8, which is the 3rd highest average rating since season 2000, behind only the averages for 2001 and 2003, and weighed down by the sub-1000 rating of the eighth-placed Dons.

At the top of the 8, the quality really stands out. The top 4 teams have the highest average rating for any season since 2000, and the top 5 teams are all rated 1,025 or higher, a characteristic also unique to 2009.

Someone from among that upper eschelon had to go out in the first 2 weeks and, as we now know, it was Adelaide, making them the highest MARS rated team to finish fifth at the end of the season.


(Adelaide aren't as unlucky as the Carlton side of 2001, however, who finished 6th with a MARS Rating of 1,037.9)

Less Than A Goal In It

Last year, 20 games in the home and away season were decided by less than a goal and two teams, Richmond and Sydney were each involved in 5 of them.

Relatively speaking, the Tigers and the Swans fared quite well in these close finishes, each winning three, drawing one and losing just one of the five contests.

Fremantle, on the other hand, had a particularly bad run in close games last years, losing all four of those it played in, which contributed to an altogether forgettable year for the Dockers.

The table below shows each team's record in close games across the previous five seasons.

Close Finishes.png

Surprisingly, perhaps, the Saints head the table with a 71% success rate in close finishes across the period 2004-2008. They've done no worse than 50% in close finishes in any of the previous five seasons, during which they've made three finals appearances.

Next best is West Coast on 69%, a figure that would have been higher but for an 0 and 1 performance last year, which was also the only season in the previous five during which they missed the finals.

Richmond have the next best record, despite missing the finals in all five seasons. They're also the team that has participated in the greatest number of close finishes, racking up 16 in all, one ahead of Sydney, and two ahead of Port.

The foot of the table is occupied by Adelaide, whose 3 and 9 record includes no season with a better than 50% performance. Nonetheless they've made the finals in four of the five years.

Above Adelaide are the Hawks with a 3 and 6 record, though they are 3 and 1 for seasons 2006-2008, which also happen to be the three seasons in which they've made the finals.

So, from what we've seen already, there seems to be some relationship between winning the close games and participating in September's festivities. The last two rows of the table shed some light on this issue and show us that Finalists have a 58% record in close finishes whereas Non-Finalists have only a 41% record.

At first, that 58% figure seems a little low. After all, we know that the teams we're considering are Finalists, so they should as a group win well over 50% of their matches. Indeed, over the five year period they won about 65% of their matches. It seems then that Finalists fare relatively badly in close games compared to their overall record.

However, some of those close finishes must be between teams that both finished in the finals, and the percentage for these games is by necessity 50% (since there's a winner and a loser in each game, or two teams with draws). In fact, of the 69 close finishes in which Finalists appeared, 29 of them were Finalist v Finalist matchups.

When we look instead at those close finishes that pitted a Finalist against a Non-Finalist we find that there were 40 such clashes and that the Finalist prevailed in about 70% of them.

So that all seems as it should be.