Stats And Trends: Making Of A Brownlow Medal Winner

It’d be nice to say that Brownlow medalists represent a kaleidoscope of colour and variety and that winners can be plucked from all corners of the football world.

The reality however is that the AFL’s highest individual honour has increasingly become more akin to a generic block of butter.

This of course no way diminishes the audacity and sheer brilliance of any player good enough to win this famous award, though it does help us narrow down our search when thinking about the 2021 edition.

With that in mind let’s explore some of the common themes that have defined Brownlow medalists in recent times, and which could steer us toward who’ll be taking Charlie home this Sunday night.

RELATED: Check out all of Stats Insider's Brownlow Medal projections

A midfielder’s medal

This is a cute description of what Brownlow medal nights have devolved into over the last few decades, and it’s also a highly accurate one.

In 1991 and 1992 we saw both Jim Stynes and Scott Wynd win after dominating seasons in the ruck. In 1993, Gavin Wanganeen not only became the first Indigenous Brownlow winner and youngest in 57 years, but he saluted after primarily plying his trade in the back pocket. 

Looking back, these feats seems kind of astonishing.

In the subsequent 27 years we haven’t had a single Brownlow medalist who hasn’t spent the majority of his time playing as a non-rucking midfielder. Yes Adam Goodes’ first Brownlow in 2003 was accomplished in large parts through his ruck-work (he amassed a club-leading 299 hit-outs) yet he also averaged 18 disposals that season, laid 52 tackles and kicked 20 goals.

Not only are we increasingly seeing midfielders dominate the medal, but we’re also seeing the prerequisite that Brownlow aspirants ought to be doing so with ungodly possession numbers as well.

In recent years we’ve seen the likes of Matt Priddis (2014), Tom Mitchell (2018) and Lachie Neale (2020) all win with massive disposals per game numbers, even if their scoreboard impact wasn’t so graphic.

While Patrick Dangerfield (2016), Dustin Marin (2017) and both of Nat Fyfe medals (2013 and 2019) were all achieved with a more bulldozing presence (as well as more direct scoreboard impacts), their winning campaigns were defined by heavy disposal per game numbers as well.

What does this mean for this year’s medal? 

Well, all five favourites are very much ball magnets ranging from Ollie Wines and Clayton Oliver, (both of whom have fit more of the Tom Mitchell or Lachie Neal vibe), through to Marcus Bontempelli who’s put together a campaign more befitting Martin’s 2017 triumph.

The first player who emerges in our projections that doesn’t fit the 'midfielders award' mould is Max Gawn, yet even then the Melbourne captain holds just a 1.8% chance of even fishing in the top 10.

RELATED: So, Who's Going To Win The 2021 Brownlow Medal?

You better be on a winning team

Whether we like it or not, and just as this is very much a midfielder’s medal, it’s also one that appears to be reserved for players on teams who made finals. 

Nat Fyfe’s 2019 triumph for the 13th place Dockers, Gary Ablett's 2013 win for the Suns and Matt Priddis in 2014 on the 9th place Eagles were all outliers, as too was the 2012 edition which was initially won by Jobe Watson who’s Bombers finished 11th. One of his replacements, Trent Cotchin, was on a Tigers team who had just missed finals for an 11th-straight year. 

With the exception of those seasons, we’d have to go all the way back to Shane Crawford’s 1999 win to find the most recent recipient whose team hadn’t qualified for the post-season. In other words, of the last 24 Brownlow victory speeches, 20 had been made by a player from a team who made finals. 

What does this mean for this year’s medal? 

It means Jack Steele, one of this year’s favourites, needs to have an almighty amount go his way on the night. His Saints struggled this year wining just 10 games which is in sharp contrast to the likes of Wines, Oliver and Bontempelli whose clubs won regularly.  

And it’s a smilier story with Carlton’s young superstar, Sam Walsh. 

Walsh was marooned on a Blues outfit that limped to just 8 wins, and who of course missed finals for an eighth-straight season. While Walsh is a 7.6% chance of winning Carlton its first Brownlow in 11 years, it’s also worth remembering that not since Paul Kelly in 1995 has a player saluted despite his club winning so few matches in a season, with the Swans winning just 8 times that year. 

RELATED: Report Card- Grading All 18 AFL Club's Home And Away Seasons

Can the draft tell us anything about the Brownlow? 

It can actually. Then again, it shouldn’t come as a massive surprise that the sport’s most prestigiously talented teenagers often develop into the game’s finest a little later down the track. 

And that’s certainly becoming a more entrenched theme on Brownlow night as well. 

Since Jimmy Bartel won in 2007, 6 of the last 13 men to win the award have all been top ten draft picks. In all of the preceding Brownlow medals prior to 2007, only Chris Judd in 2004 was a player who had been selected in the top 10 on draft night. 

There have been some exceptions, the likes of which have made for truly exceptional Brownlow stories. Dane Swan and Lachie Nealeboth triumphed despite being draft-night afterthoughts, taken at selection 58 respectively. Matt Priddis’ 2014 win made for a massive shock, but he’s also the only winner who's emerged from the AFL’s rookie draft.

What does this mean for this year’s medal? 

Well, surprise surprise but all five favourites were drafted rather high.

Four of the five favourites were indeed top-ten selections while its possible Jack Steele would have also been a top-ten choice had he not been taken as an academy selection by the Giants out of Canberra.

If you’re looking for a player outside of the regular description to make some noise perhaps Touk Miller fits the bill. 

Despite him being ineligible to win Charlie, our projections are suggesting a bold showing by the Gold Coast gun, securing a top-5 spot in 43.6% of our simulations. With that said, Miller was taken at section 29 in his draft year and had captained Vic Metro at the 2014 Under 18 championships so it's not as though his immense talents hadn’t already been recognised. 

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James Rosewarne

James is a writer and Managing Editor at Stats Insider. He likes fiction and music. He is a stingray attack survivor. He lives in Wollongong.

Email- james@thehypometer.com for story ideas or opportunities.

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