Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Who Has A Chance?

A couple of weeks ago, Svenson asked in the comments just how many players truly have a realistic chance at winning an LPGA tournament each week. The Constructivist and I have opined that the number is around 25 and could easily be higher. Is there a way to prove or disprove that theory?

I started working on one way, but the research required for that is going to take a while so I thought I would attack the question from a simpler direction and later we’ll see if the two methods agree. Here, I’m going to use my Top 30 lists to try to find an answer.

Over the last two seasons, there have been six players who won an event when they began that week not ranked in the Top 30:

Meaghan Francella (07 MasterCard)
Silvia Cavalleri (07 Corona)
Natalie Gulbis (07 Evian)
*Momoko Ueda (07 Mizuno)
Louise Friberg (08 MasterCard)
Leta Lindley (08 Corning)

Several players were ranked in the 20s the week they won – Suzann Pettersen (her first win at Michelob), Young Kim, Nicole Castrale, Sherri Steinhauer, Maria Hjorth. Gulbis ranked #35 going into Evian while the others in the list above were nowhere in sight. I put an asterisk beside Ueda since Rolex ranked her #21 going into Mizuno. Toss out 07 Evian and Mizuno and what do the other four events have in common? Weak fields. Corning’s field was the strongest of the four with only ten of the Top 30 players there. Of the wins by the 20-somethings, Kim’s win at Corning came in the weakest field – Hjorth’s Navistar victory and Steinhauer’s State Farm win both came over slightly stronger fields, while Pettersen and Castrale defeated fields at nearly full strength.

From this analysis I’m going to draw several conclusions:
1) In a full-strength full-field event, approximately 25 players have a realistic chance to win.
2) For each Top 30 player that the field loses, two or three more players can be added to the “realistic chance” category, leading to…
3) If less than half of the Top 30 is entered, perhaps 70 players could win that week, and…
4) If only three or four of the Top 30 are entered, the entire field could have a chance to win.

I’m not stretching logical reason with #4. Even when that group of three or four Top 30 players included Lorena Ochoa, it could not prevent Louise Friberg from grabbing the brass ring at MasterCard or Silvia Cavalleri from taking Corona. Annika Sorenstam could not stop Meaghan Francella and Jeong Jang could not defeat Leta Lindley. Would any of you have considered all four of those unlikely winners to be in the top half of the field at any of those events? The primary reason that lesser players don’t usually win LPGA majors (Hilary Lunke and Birdie Kim aside – the U.S. Open is its own discussion) is that they have so many better players to beat. Thin out that upper level of competition by 50% or more and the task gets astronomically easier.

I can’t go back prior to 2007 with this method because I didn’t begin ranking the Top 30 (only 20) until then and wasn’t ranking at all prior to August 2006. 45 events is a pretty good data set however, so I’m going to be bold and suggest that its results are indicative of reality. Time will tell if they continue to hold true.

In retrospect, much of history seems obvious. The “revelation” that thinning out the field makes it easier for lesser players to win shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. What was surprising to me is the fact that even the presence of one of the top two players in the world can’t always override the absence of the other elite. Strength in numbers, like they say.


diane said...

Essentially what you're saying is that no matter how unintentional, the highest rated players take a mental or motivational vacation whenever they compete in a less-than-stellar field event. Do I have that correct?

Hound Dog said...

I assume you're referring to the last paragraph, but I'm not saying that at all.

My point there was that as good as Ochoa and Sorenstam are, a certain percent of the time they don't show up with their A game and if there isn't a good number of other elite players in the field when that happens, a less-than-elite player has (at least three times in the last 16 months) won that event despite the one superstar's presence.

I would have expected Lorena and Annika to be MORE likely to win over a weaker field. It appears that they are only AS likely to win.

The Constructivist said...

Nice post! I've been playing the Pakpicker for around a year and trying to take into account rankings, past performances, recent trends, and key season stats. So I've done a fair amount of research, although nothing all that serious in that span. I don't put anyone in among my 12 picks (and 3 alts) whom I don't think has a good chance to win. Almost every week I feel like I'm leaving out another 10-20 people who have pretty good odds of winning. So anecdotally I can support your conclusions.

Take this week. I made my picks based mostly on my sense of whom the course layout favors among those who have been playing well in recent weeks, over the past year or so, and over the recent history of the event.

In order to narrow my list down to 15, I had to leave off amazingly talented but somewhat inconsistent or streaky players like Suzann Pettersen, Jee Young Lee, Maria Hjorth, Inbee Park, Christina Kim, and Sophie Gustafson. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if all of them were in contention at some point in the week. Nor would I be surprised if Junior Mints who have been playing quite well this year like Brittany Lang, Teresa Lu, or Sun Young Yoo contended. And any given week Stacy Prammanasudh or Linda Wessberg or Eun-Hee Ji or Na On Min or Natalie Gulbis might find their games again. And I totally dissed Angela Stanford, Karen Stupples, Lindsey Wright, and Laura Diaz. Let's not forget that Shi Hyun Ahn, Jimin Kang, and Meena Lee have shown signs of life in recent weeks, not to mention Michelle Wie.

That's 22 more people whom I could have picked. And I haven't even mentioned folks like Juli Inkster, Catriona Matthew, or Ji Young Oh, who definitely have what it takes to contend this week.

So of course the winner will probably turn out to be "none of the above"--that's what trees can do.

The only conclusion I'd draw from this is that "realistic chance" needs to be better defined. At the LPGA Championship, I noted that half the field was in the "prime-time quadrants" (late morning and early afternoon off #1 and #10) and thought to myself at least a few people from outside them should be in contention at the end.

To bring a long comment to a close, I think the stat to examine most carefully would be "rate of being in contention over the final 9 holes of a tournament" (by which I mean how often a player gets within 3 shots of the 63-hole leader or pulls within a shot of the eventual winner any time before the 72nd hole). I shudder at the work that would be involved in actually tracking this stat, but to me it's the gold standard in terms of figuring out who the realistic contenders are from week to week.

Hound Dog said...

TC, the "three shots from the 63-hole leader" thing is similar to that high-volume research method I was talking about at the beginning of the post. I was looking at players within 3-4 shots of the 54-hole leader (or 36-hole in shorter events). I don't know how you could even research the 63-hole topic - where would you find how every player stood at that point? The boards prior to the final round can be easily found (for this year, at least).

Your words on PakPicking sum up my 2008 season perfectly. The talent pool is SO deep that any logical method can be confounded. I might as well pick names out of a hat (after Ochoa and Sorenstam, anyway).

The Constructivist said...

I hear you on both counts! I have to assume that as the stats get more relevant as the rounds pile up, your method will get better and better as the season goes on. And yeah, tracking the 63-hole leader's relation to her closest competitors thing would be tough, but you could start by looking at the 4th-round pairings page and comparing scorecards from there rather than the leaderboard. Usually aren't more than a handful of people in contention at that point (and sometimes none), so it sounds harder than it probably really is.

diane said...

And my point is that it seems the chance of an elite player showing up with her A game is directly proportional to the number of other elite players of the field. I base my conclusion solely on non-statistical observation and with absolute respect for anyone who has an A game.

Hound Dog said...

That is entirely possible, Diane. I just wasn't addressing that here and I have no idea how I would address it statisically. That would be cool to figure out, though.

TC, maybe we need to start taking screenshots of the lpga.com board around the 63-hole mark? Either that or we need some more LPGA stat geeks around here!

svenson said...

Wonderful analysis. Thanks for your work.

The Constructivist said...

Consider this a p.s. to your excellent analysis!

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