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Lacrosse Analytics: What Do PLL Offenses Need to Do to Win?

Despite five weeks of play, there is still no clear favorite to win the 2021 Premier Lacrosse League championship, and the parity in the league is as clear as ever. The Archers, for example, have scored as many as 18 and as little as seven goals in a game. The latter score was in a game in which they only lost by one goal. Prior to Week 4, Archers had been deemed to most prolific offense of the season. If the Archers could win scoring 18 and still almost win scoring seven, it begged the question of the existence of a concrete win condition for offenses, or at least a target which offenses should be shooting for to win this year.

I wanted to take a look at each team’s offensive performances, quantified by identifying wins and losses on a landscape of Shot % (Sh%) vs Shots (Sh) (See Fig. 1). Using each team’s game averages as the quantity of each axis (grey dashed lines), categories have been labeled: “Bad” (Below Avg Sh, Sh%), “Efficient” (Above Avg Sh%, Below Avg Sh), “Bad Day to be a Goalie” or “BDTBAG” (Above Avg Sh, Sh%), and “Spray and Pray” or “S&P” (Above Avg Sh, Below Avg Sh%).

Figure 1: Shot % vs Number of Shots for each team in each game. Wins and losses are indicated by squares and X’s, respectively. Average for each quantity is represented via the grey dashed line. Teams are identified by color. The Redwoods’ wins feature lines due to overlap of two data points for the Redwoods and Atlas. The four quadrants, made by the two averages, are labeled for later consideration.

This graph provides a ton of information about offensive performance, but it takes some staring at to see them. Only one team, Cannons LC, has a win with fewer than 33 shots, but they had to shoot almost 60% to achieve that goal — a pace that is clearly unsustainable. This game also featured the lowest number of shots from any team in any game which is, frankly, impressive.

This is further exemplified by the Chaos, whose three loses are associated with less than 33 shots and both their victories are barely above that threshold. Similarly, but more abstract of a target for winning and less interesting, Sh% ≤ 20% seemingly guarantees a loss. Teams have only lost four times when shooting above the average Sh%. Three of those four losses feature teams shooting less than 32 shots (the fourth is the Waterdogs’ loss to the Redwoods, where both teams landed in the BDTBAG category). There seems to be fairly concrete conditions to compete and win: ≥ 33 shots and ≥ 20 Sh% to compete, ≥ 33 shots and ≥ 32 Sh% to win (≥ 10.56 goals, if only considering single-point goals). The latter region in Fig. 1 shows there are no losses.

Since there is a fairly clear target for winning in the league through five weeks, we can look at which teams are able to beat teams who are having strong offensive games. A “quality” win can be defined by beating a team who meets the criteria to compete, which was just outlined previously. As a quick note, this article is offensively focused and the term “quality” is in quotes because this analysis does not consider defensive performances. It is only meant to be a concise way to refer to teams’ relative offensive performances. While the criteria for a “quality” win can evolve throughout the rest of the season, it could help to show who is winning the important games and not just teams with poor offensive (and likely defensive, though not always) showings. This is outlined in Fig. 2 below. 

Figure 2: Number of “Quality” Wins (wins against teams which produce ≥ 33 shots and ≥ 20 Sh%) and number of wins, ordered by the current standings (rank) considering score differential (SD).

The Cannons, at the bottom of the standings, have only one “quality” win from their most recent contest with the Archers and have given the Atlas and Whipsnakes quality wins. The Cannons are truly a conundrum right now, but have shown finally that they can win close games. However, their offensive production can be very volatile as Week 5 showed. Consistency from game to game (not just offensive, either) is going to be key for their late season playoff push.

The Chaos have been one of the highlights of this case study. Their four losses all feature fewer than 33 shots (Fig. 1, one of their losses is hidden behind a Chrome data point loss: 31 shots, 19 Sh%). Both games, which were “quality” wins, featured over 33 shots (and > 20 Sh%). Blaze Riorden has shown he can keep the Chaos in games, but their offense continues to have trouble generating enough offense and minimizing turnovers to produce wins.

The Chrome do not have any “quality” wins, but won against the respective #1 (Whips) and #2 (Archers) teams in the standings when the contests occurred. As a 2-4 team, they still have a lot to prove to contend consistently.

The Archers are the highlight of this plot. The team that, at first, seemed like they were going to be the 2015 Golden State Warriors or 1995 Chicago Bulls, has produced zero (0) “quality” wins and now has a .500 record! Even Ryan Boyle mentioned on the broadcast prior to the Archers-Whipsnakes Week 4 matchup that he wasn’t convinced of the Archers’ dominance until they beat the Whipsnakes. Archers vs. Whipsnakes was a one-goal contest, but didn’t even count as a “quality” win for the Whipsnakes by the standards of this analysis (the Archers had a 48 Sh%, but only 28 shots… have to draw the line somewhere). The Archers will have to prove they can win “quality” games, or at least close games considering all three losses are one-goal games, instead of just embarrassing struggling teams if they want a shot at the title.

The Whipsnakes are the (almost) perfect model for consistency. Their offense always produces above the league average number of shots and, if those shots fall, they win. If nothing else, this shows that their system works the majority of the time. A healthy Whipsnakes team by playoffs will be a tough opponent.

The Waterdogs, now second in the standings, has no “quality” wins. They have beaten the Chrome twice, the 1-4 Cannons and the Chaos. Figure 1 shows their offense has been doing well aside from their two bad early losses (both < 33 shots, one < 20 Sh%) and they currently lead the league in scores (90 goals). However, I’m still skeptical because their wins have all been against teams who seemed helpless (hence no “quality” wins) and, when challenged, they have lost. Just to cement my skepticism into this article, their defense has allowed the second most SA (83) behind only the Cannons (97) which means they have struggled to keep up with more potent offensive performances. The Redwoods are a great example of that, and conveniently are in first place because the Woods outscored the Waterdogs in their previous contest 19-16. I don’t think people are surprised they are here. They have produced multiple wins in close and “quality” games and take advantage of unprepared defenses. 

Defining a “quality” win doesn’t necessarily govern who should be higher in the league standings and the past five weeks have clearly shown that past performance is not predictive of future execution. However, there is merit in identifying a target for offensive performance to at least have a chance at a victory (≥ 33 shots and ≥ 20 Sh%) and which teams have demonstrated the ability to more consistently defeat teams who have achieved said threshold. As teams are vying for the ability to continue into the playoffs and a higher seed, the ability to outperform units who are producing competitive numbers will be even more important than we have seen thus far in the season. 

The week following the PLL All-Star Game will be paramount for multiple teams. The focus of the weekend for me will be the Chrome, Archers, Waterdogs and Michael Rexrode. The Chrome has a double-header, facing the Atlas on Friday and the Chaos on Sunday. A loss on Friday makes Sunday against Chaos and Saturday against the Cannons in the final week both must-win games to avoid a score-differential determined playoff spot. The Archers will be suitably tested by the Redwoods, and it is their chance to get back on their feet after a tough losing streak. Assuming a healthier Whipsnakes team, this will be a true test for the Waterdogs. Finally, the rematch of Lyle Thompson and Michael Rexrode happens on Sunday. The Atlas defense will have their hands full with the Cannons offense that just beat the best defense in the league and could be the Cannons ticket out of last place if the Chrome beat the Chaos.

Brian played lacrosse for 14 years, including four years as an LSM at Kenyon College, and coaches part time at his alma mater Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia. He is currently a Biophysics PhD candidate at Drexel University and has worked professionally with statistical modeling in multiple industries. Through his combined experience in data analysis and lacrosse, Brian contributes to the development of lacrosse analytics. His initial flagship project is the PLT Win Probability Engine, which produces pregame and live win probabilities. He hopes his work will prompt investigative analyses that will challenge our intuition of the game.

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