A statistical look at who is most likely to win at Margaret River.
Michael Lewis, in his book ‘MoneyBall’: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game chronicled how in 2002 the Oakland baseball team and their general manager Billy Beane generated extraordinary success with a new methodology. Beane used a revolutionary analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to defeat other far, far richer clubs. The premise was simple; by buying assets (ie players) that were undervalued by other teams and selling ones that are overvalued, they could create a team at far less cost than others in the league.
“People operate with beliefs and biases,” Lewis says in the book. “To the extent you can eliminate both and replace them with data, you gain a clear advantage.”
So just what has that got to do with surfing? I hear you scream. Well, with the Margaret River Pro kicking off today, if we are looking for eventual winners, it might be time to take a more methodical approach. Forget your preferences based on stance, style, age, country of birth, Instagram following and whether it hangs to the left and lets take a cold, hard look at the data.
What I’ve done is built a surfing supercomputer in the garage where the hydroponic set up used to be. Luckily I still have the extension chord plugged into the local substation’s mainframe and by cyberphishing Al Hunt’s battered Hewlett-Packard I have the WSL’ historical data tumbling through a spreadsheet the size of Kakadu. Or alternatively, I simply have ripped the info from the incredible surf nerds at surf-stats.com
In their data it is John John’s historical stats that stands out like a thumb that has been beaten with a hammer. Covering events from 2013 to 2017, he has an Event Average Heat Score (EAHS) of 16.62 over the 17 heats he has surfed, a full two points better than the next surfer Jeremy Flores, who isn’t surfing due to the birth of his first child. Now his benchmark performance last year, where he averaged over 18 in each heat has dragged that average up, but on the flip side, the totals don’t include 2012, the year he won the event as a QS. He’s made the Final twice in the last three years, and is statistically so much better than any of his opponents that we can ignore his 2018 form, which has seen him win a solitary heat in four outings, and average a puny 10.45. The world champ is currently rated at a dismal 27 in the world.
The only surfer, statistically, that can match John John at Margarets is Michel Bourez. The Tahitian has the best event place history in the field, averaging sixth place since 2013. That includes two Quarterfinal finishes and his win in 2014. Unlike Florence, Bourez however also bolts on current form to his historical data, being one of only two surfers to have two keeper results at Snapper and Bells.
Italo Ferreira is also in the front-runners camp. While his electric form at Bells has seen him become everyone’s favourite Brazilian surfer, he too has good data at Margaret River. He sits a surprising fourth on the EAHS, behind Florence, Flores and Wilson and 7th in the place history. And in 2018, his win percentage of 77.78 is only bettered by Julian Wilson (87.5). If he keeps that form up, a World Title tilt awaits.
At the other end of the spectrum, Matt Wilkinson is probably the standout in terms of not touching with a statistical bargepole. There’s no reason why Wilko shouldn’t succeed here. If we are being non-empirical he has a style that should suit the wave, plenty of experience and an attitude that is infectious. Yet of the surfers that have surfed more than 10 heats at Margies, only replacement surfer Miguel Pupo has a lower average heat score than Wilko. No wonder then he’s only won three heats in the four events he has surfed here.
For the purists out there, all the moneyball chat might have your blood running cold. Where’s the passion, the fist pumps and the Ezekiel Lau shark circling? You ask. And Lewis himself says that, “The pleasure of rooting for Goliath is that you can expect to win. The pleasure of rooting for David is that, while you don’t know what to expect, you stand at least a chance of being inspired.” And while all the rooting chat is frankly all rather debased, he has a point. By the end of today we might have a better idea of who will do well at the Margaret River Pro. However, first round, form revelations and statistical analysis, no matter how convincing, won’t stop us having our favorite surfers though.