August 29, 2010

Playing with Numbers: WR Efficiency

Bill James is probably one of the most interesting people on Earth. I mean, what's not riveting about a middle-aged guy who found a way to turn a passionate thing like sports into a system of numbers? Now when we see a shoestring catch we think, "if he had a better UZR rating, he would have been able to get that easy". But the sabermetric revolution would not have lasted this long if it didn't work. The entire concept of Billy Beane's Moneyball teams rode on the back of sabermetrics, and that worked out pretty well for the financial minnow of baseball. With all of this focus on the numbers behind baseball players, why are we still dependent on completion percentage, yards per carry and yards after first contact? Because, for the most part, the stats we have found define the players' effects on their respective teams to a reasonable extent. Of course, that doesn't mean we can't tinker with the data a little and see what we can find.

Since I have become somewhat obsessed with PPR, I decided to turn to the position most affected by the slight nuances of these leagues, WR. When I sat down to plan out how I would measure receivers, I figured that stats like catches, targets and yards per catch all played a significant role in the receivers game. The targets signify the beginning of the play, as the quarterback looks and throws to the wideout. The catches and YPC, in turn, represent the WR's ability to catch the ball and get yardage. In theory, these three stats put together would hopefully lend a bit of information to just how effective fantasy WRs are.

First I created a list of 50 players who are bound to be rostered in most PPR leagues, and collected their catches, targets and YPC numbers. I then calculated their reception % using tons of upper level math skills (catches/ targets). I took the averages of these stats to find out what to normally expect from a top 50 wideout and then the questionable stuff started. I took the average REC % and divided it by the YPC number to and multiplied the YPC average by what I found. This way, the reception percentage and YPC would be worth the same when I added them together. I then multiplied the REC % by 3, to add value since its PPR, and because there isn't much the receiver can do if they drop the ball every chance they get. Values ranged from 179.47 (Eddie Royal) to 277.98.

So who was this mystery man with the highest rating on my (very imperfect) receiver efficiency ratings? Let's take a look at him and a few other notables from my list.

Robert Meachem, Saints (277.98)- Not only did Meachem hall in  70% of the balls threw to him, but he averaged a whopping 16 yards per catch. Of course, just because he was great with the football, doesn't mean you should draft him. Meachem is still stuck in the stable of wide receivers that Drew Brees utilizes. While it makes him a great quarterback, it makes it almost impossible to count on Saints receivers week in, week out. However, if he were to suddenly see a major uptick in looks from Brees, Meachem could become a major fantasy contributor at his 2009 rate.

Steve Breaston, Cardinals (255.27)- Here's a guy who had a great reception percentage (67%) and a respectable YPC (12.9) AND who is destined to see more looks this year. This seems like the perfect situation for this idea, but of course every player comes with their own wrinkles. Losing Kurt Warner will certainly drive down his efficiency since a lot of it hinges on the man throwing the ball. But with the departure of Anquan Boldin, Breaston looks to have a lot more targets coming his way, which could be a great sign for such an efficient pass catcher.

Andre Johnson, Texans (243.18)- This is where I will probably lose a few believers. I mean, AJ was the undisputed #1 WR last year and will be a first round pick in just about every draft across America. So why in the world is he ranked below guys like Steve Breaston? Matt Schaub's dependence. Johnson led the league in targets last year with 170. The next closest guy was Wes Welker, who coincidentally ranks 2nd on my list. The difference between these guys is that Welker managed to haul in a league leading 76% of his intended passes, while Andre only reeled in 59%. Sure Johnson had an impressive 15 YPC, but if most longball threats were looked at 170 times a season, they too could put up monstrous stats. Now, just to clarify, in no way am I saying AJ isn't the best receiver out there, but what I hope this measure will show is that a lot of his dominance comes from the fact that he is turned to so often.

Jabar Gaffney, Broncos (241.07)- Not only was his reception percentage over 60%, but he managed to average an impressive 13.6 YPC which is pretty impressive for a possession receiver. Add in the fact that he steps in to 2010 as what appears to be Kyle Orton's favorite target, and now he looks like a legitimate fantasy threat in PPR.

Roddy White, Falcons (211.53)- Here is the flipside of the dependence I talked about in AJ's section. Sure White put up respectable numbers last year, but the fact remains that he only reeled in 52% of the passes intended for him. Matt Ryan might look Roddy's way quite often, but it doesn't help much if he never ends up with the ball.

So, as you can see, there is a lot to be learned and used from these calculations, but that does not mean its some kind of perfect predictor. (As a matter of fact, it probably couldn't be less perfect). But it is a work in progress, and when combined with common sense and other outside information, it can yield some pretty interesting ideas concerning your fantasy football team.

Please let me know what you guys thought about this Playing with Numbers article. There should be more to come as I tweak the formula a bit.

If you would like to see the spreadsheet itself, please feel free to leave a comment below or send me an email at I'd love to get someone else's thoughts on this!