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Is it time to get excited about Jack McBean? A numbers view

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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Jack McBean is a goal scorer on fire. After scoring a hat trick against the Colorado Switchbacks last Wednesday, Jack McBean currently sits atop the USL scoring charts with 9 goals in 623 minutes, which comes out to a ridiculous 1.3 goals per 90 minutes.

With McBean surging, there has been a bit of a hype train building amongst Galaxy fans, with some even calling for him to receive starting minutes for the first team. And the excitement hasn't been a localized phenomenon.  Andrew Wiebe, the features editor at MLSsoccer.com tweeted this earlyier in the year,

and Matt Doyle, who, for my money, is one of the smartest analysts working anywhere in the game, tweeted this after the youngsters' performance against Colorado.

It's the kind of national attention that scoring goals will get you. Of course, it would be unfair to say that goal scoring is all that is driving this. I know that Matt Doyle, for instance, has long been a fan of McBean's game. This tweet is from all the way back in 2013.

It is fair to say, however, that, while excitement has existed around this kid since his debut in MLS, McBean's current goal scoring form has pushed talks to a new level.

But here's the thing about goal scoring stats. They have a notorious history of being incredibly unreliable at predicting future goal scoring skill. In order to better assess this, certain other stats must be also be considered.

So, has Jack McBean truly made a massive leap, or are his numbers a byproduct of the inherent randomness and constantly fluctuating nature of shot conversion data over short periods of time?

Here is how the numbers break down.


Shots

Shots on Target

Goals

Jack McBean

23

13

9

From a numbers standpoint, something immediately jumps out at me, but first a little background.

I recently did a study for American Soccer Analysis, which can be read here, tracking conversion rates in MLS going back to 1996, and, specifically, the statistical thresholds which players, upon passing in terms of conversion of shots on target into goals in a season, are unlikely to repeat in another season.

And this brings us back to the red flag in Jack McBean's current data. Here are the numbers when we strip penalties.


Shots

Shots on Target

Goals

Shots on target conversion

Jack McBean

21

11

7

64%

Now, the number to pay attention to here is shots on target conversion because it's a stat which has fairly useful historical traits. I go into this in full in the American Soccer Analyses paper linked above, but here is what you need to know. In MLS, forwards with 1000 minutes or more in a season from 2011-2015 convert an average of 37% of their shots on goal, and if you adjust for penalties, it's roughly 35%.

USL numbers are slightly higher due to worse defending and goalkeeping, with a 42% shots on target conversion rate, which roughly penalty adjusts to 40%. This means that McBean is over performing USL averages by 24% (roughly 2.38 goals), and for those clamoring for him to get MLS minutes, over performing MLS numbers by 29% (roughly 3.15 goals.)

As a I alluded to earlier, there are conversion thresholds which players simply do not tend to cross more than once in their career, and, from a historical perspective, McBean is well past this mark to a point that one can project with a very high level of confidence that, if he keeps his current pace till the end of the season, he will not be able to get repeat conversion numbers consistently throughout his career.

I don't want to rehash the entire data set presented in my ASA piece linked above to demonstrate this fully, but I do want to pull one paragraph:

Since 1996, there have been 53 instances where a player with 15 shots or more on target has converted over 45% of those shots (stripping penalties). That comes out to about 2.7 players a year. Repeatability of this feat, however, is rare. Of those 53, there are only 8 instances where a forward did it in two or more seasons.

Another telling fact from the study is that only two players in MLS history have scored 15 non penalty goals or more in multiple seasons where they converted over 45% of their shots on target and no one has repeated above 55%. In other words, it is far more statistically likely that Jack McBean's current goal scoring tally has more to do with data noise than McBean suddenly becoming one of the most efficient finishers on the planet. I say that because he is currently at Chicharito levels.

Of course, this is not to say he won't repeat his goal scoring tally in future seasons, but rather, he will not repeat his rate of conversion. In other words, if he scores this many goals next year, it will most likely be because he is getting more shots (which, incidentally, is a much greater sign of player growth when tracking young forwards).

But over performance doesn't mean a player is bad. Good players who get lucky have great years. So just how much is Jack over performing?

If we use USL conversion rates as our baseline, Jack McBean should probably be at 4.62 non-penalty goals in 623 minutes, rather than 7.  That would put him at 0.67 goals per 90, which is consistent with goal scoring in this offense, as Ariel Lassiter was at 0.69 goals per 90 last year. If we adjust for McBean's role as a box striker, which, as demonstrated in my paper, tends to yield slightly higher conversion numbers, it's reasonable to say that McBean is on a projected goal scoring pace greater than that of Lassiter last year (although Lassiter sometimes played on the wings).

When you take his numbers from prior years into account, there is little question that Jack McBean is growing, however, the growth appears to be far more steady, and not the gigantic leap indicated by the goal scoring numbers.