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LAXMetrics Week 15 | Fields Chasing History

Rochester forward Connor Fields is white hot.

With 25 points in his last two games, Fields is now leading the league in points per game and on pace to break the NLL single-season points record of 137 set by Buffalo’s Dhane Smith in 2016. In the last two seasons, both Smith and New York’s Jeff Teat have come within two points of matching Smith’s 2016 mark, but neither was able to cross that threshold. Could Fields be the guy that finally snatches the record after eight years?

With star righty Ryan Smith his opposite, Fields is part of a dynamic Rochester offense that is capable of scoring north of 15 goals per game. Surely there is no reason to question Fields’ chase for history. Given the consistency of the weapons around him, it’s entirely plausible that Fields can maintain his pace en route to setting a new record. But when we explore the advanced metrics and non-traditional stats provided by LaxMetrics.com, a series of curious phenomena bubble to the surface, raising questions about the sustainability of Fields’ production. In short, there is a rather wide fissure between the advanced stats and Fields’ traditional point production numbers.

Before we explore those metrics, it’s important to understand three concepts that are essential to navigating the LaxMetrics ecosystem.

In the LaxMetrics universe, there are three kinds of assists. Each is tracked independently of conventional box scores. The first type of assist is what we call “First Order Assists” — these are high-quality passes that directly lead to the scoring of a goal. Traditional assists reward a passer for moving the ball to a teammate, but are blind to the impact that said pass has on the play. In this way, not all assists that show up in the traditional box score are created equal. Some reflect excellent passes, but many are statistical fluff. First Order Assists isolates assists that are directly precipitant from good passing. There are no cheap First Order Assists.

The second type is what are referred to as “Second Order Assists” — these are fairly uncommon. Second Order Assists are passes that force a defense to shift either vertically or horizontally, subsequently leading to a First Order Assist. We typically see between zero and three of these per game. They don’t play a significant role in evaluating a forward’s passing.

The final type of assist is an entirely original concept that traditional box scores do not have a means of tracking. “Unrealized Assists” are passes that directly lead to quality shots that do not become goals, either because of good goaltending or bad shooting. The idea behind Unrealized Assists is to pay respect to the idea that a passer has no control over the final outcome of a play once the ball leaves his stick. There are countless excellent passes that traditional box scores miss because they do not lead to goals. The rate at which a forward’s good passes are converted into First Order Assists as opposed to Unrealized Assists is known as the First Order Conversion Rate. The league average conversion rate is roughly 27%, meaning that we can expect most players to finish the season at or near that mark.

These three types of non-traditional assists are used as inputs in metrics that measure overall passing quality. Weighted Assists is one such metric. Weighted Assists is a special average of First Order Assists, Second Order Assists, and Unrealized Assists that assigns different weights to each. The stat has proven over the last three years to be a very good evaluator of a player’s passing quality and also an excellent predictor of his future production. Herein lies the first divergence between Fields’ traditional stats and advanced stats.

Through 11 games, Fields ranks second in assists per game with 4.55, trailing only Buffalo’s Dhane Smith. In LaxMetrics Weighted Assists, however, Fields ranks just 13th with 2.05 per game. As far as traditional stats are concerned, Fields is one of the league’s truly elite passers. Advanced metrics disagree. They see Fields as a very good passer, but not one that is likely to lead the league in assists.

We don’t have to dig very deep to find an explanation for why Fields’ Weighted Assists lag well behind his conventional assists. The left-handed star creates a lot of chances, but not nearly as many as some other players around the league. Because chance creation generally correlates directly with assist accumulation, this detail is significant.

When we add a player’s First Order Assists and Unrealized Assists together, we get another statistic known as Total First Order Chances, or TFoC for short. The best way to examine the volume of a player’s quality passing production is to consult his TFoC per game average. The more First Order Chances a player compiles, the more high-quality scoring opportunities he is responsible for creating, and likely the more assists he is primed to compile. At this point in the season, Fields ranks in the top 10% of NLL forwards in TFoC’s per game with 6.9, an average of just 0.4 more than his teammate Ryan Smith. The league leader in TFoC’s per game is Dhane Smith with 12.6—nearly twice Fields’ average. In traditional passing stats, Smith and Fields are neck-and-neck. The same cannot be said about the metrics.

What is particularly interesting about Total First Order Chances is that the stat exists independent of conversion rate. In essence, it doesn’t matter how many of a player’s TFoC’s end in goals, they all count the same. In theory, the players who create the most chances should also pile up the most First Order Assists. This is not the case for Fields. While he ranks 16th in TFoC’s per game, Fields ranks just 27th in First Order Assists Per Game. His teammates have been failing to convert his best passes into goals, but the assists are still piling up in bulk.

So how do we explain the significant difference between Fields’ traditional passing stats and his advanced passing stats?

For lack of a better explanation, Fields has been the beneficiary of a fairly significant amount of “casual” assists, which are passes that happen to come shortly before a goal is scored, but don’t necessarily reflect good scoring chance creation. Think of passes that swing the ball from one side to another, but don’t do much to set a teammate up with a scoring opportunity. A goal might follow the pass, but that goal wasn’t the direct result of the pass.

For further illustration, consider the ratio of Fields’ Total First Order Chances to his traditional assists. This number is a fairly good reflection of how reliant a player’s assist total is on secondary assists or casual assists. The higher the ratio, the more reliant that player is. Fields has produced assists at a rate of 0.66 to 1, which is really high. Dhane Smith, for example, has a ratio of 0.45 to 1, while Calgary’s Jesse King has a ratio of 0.51 to 1 and Josh Byrne has a ratio of 0.57 to 1. Of the league’s top 10 assist-getters, Fields owns the highest ratio of Total First Order Chances to traditional assists. This indicates a significant amount of good fortune.

With this information in mind, let’s revisit the question posed earlier. Could Fields end up being the player that breaks Dhane Smith’s 2016 points record? The answer is yes. Absolutely yes.

But for Fields to accomplish the feat, he will have to either increase his chance creation or continue to be the beneficiary of good timing and excellent offensive efforts elsewhere on the floor. Given that a lacrosse season is only 18 games and the law of small numbers is capable of reigning supreme, there is no reason to think that Fields can’t maintain an absurdly high chance-to-assist ratio.

That said, if Fields is going to surpass Smith’s mark of 137, it may require a perfect storm over the course of Rochester’s final seven games.

NLL