The USST has just officially announced the team for next season, although we already knew quite a bit based on what several of the athletes have been saying.
Probably the biggest news is that Kris Freeman is no longer on the team at all. Not bumped down to the B-Team. Removed entirely, although apparently also being told that he will “almost certainly” still be named to the Olympic squad next year in Sochi.
Heading into this spring, I was actually expecting Freeman’s status on the team to change. He had fallen out of the red group on the World Cup, and generally he’s had two rough seasons in a row now. Let’s look more closely using the simple metric of finishing place, which is generally what’s going to matter to the USST in general:
These are Freeman’s distance results in WC/WSC/OWG races, with his median result by season in blue. Thirtieth place is indicated in red for reference. As we all know, Freeman has always been erratic, which isn’t surprising considering the medical issues he’s had to deal with. From 2006 to 2011 his median, or “typical” result could pretty easily be counted on to be in the points (although not always by much). And he’d typically have one, or maybe two, races each season where he’d get within spitting distance of the podium.
While the 2010-2011 campaign doesn’t include some of his very best races, you could make an argument that with 5 races in the top 15 it was his most consistently strong season.
But the last two seasons have seen a fairly dramatic slide, to the point where Freeman has been considerably more likely to be outside the points. For another look at this same data consider this:
The bars represent each distance race for Freeman, with the light blue indicating top 30 results and the dark blue representing top 15 results. From this perspective, his 2003-2004 and 2010-2011 seasons start to look somewhat like outliers. I was particularly interested in Freeman’s comments about how he believes that part of his problem this year was that he raced too much, and plans on cutting back next year. I wouldn’t have guessed that that would be the big issue, looking at this graph, particularly the last three seasons. But I’m working on very incomplete information, obviously.
On a slightly less data-driven note, I really don’t see the logic behind bumping Freeman entirely, as opposed to simply dropping him down to the B-Team. The rationale has to be almost entirely financial, which sadly is too often a very good reason for making tough choices in US skiing. But as a fan, it’s very difficult for me to judge this decision on the merits because I’m not familiar with the precise financial constraints that the US Ski Team operates under.
Given Freeman’s drop-off in performance, it seems at least reasonable to bump him down from the A-Team. But how much money does the team save by not naming him to the B-Team? What will that money be spent on instead? I’m not aware if the US Ski Team publishes detailed budget information (I doubt it, though), but that sort of information might go a long way towards reducing confusion and consternation amongst US skiing fans. Then again, releasing that information might dramatically increase confusion and consternation as well on countless other issues outside of Kris Freeman. Who knows.
All I know is that I can’t reasonably judge whether this decision about Freeman seems like the right call without knowing exactly how much money it saves the team, and how much money that represents in the context of the rest of the nordic team’s budget.
Kris Freeman and Kikkan Randall have been basically the top US skiers for quite some time now. (I’m sort of brushing Andrew Newell under the rug here, mostly just due to time contraints. I’ll do a follow up on him next week.)
Freeman has been more or less unquestionably the best US male distance skier for what seems like forever, and Randall has been fairly dominant domestically in both distance and sprint events. How long can this last? Not forever, of course. Nothing lasts forever.
But it seems like the shift may happen sooner on the men’s side than the women’s. Here’s what I mean:
This shows the head-to-head results of Freeman against a handful of the better US men’s distance skiers in recent years. Certainly, Freeman has way more wins (above zero, in the pink) than losses (below zero, in the blue). But the gaps are generally narrowing.
Now, there’s a big caveat here in that I can’t say much about whether Freeman is getting slower, or these guys are getting faster, or even if Freeman is getting faster but these guys are getting faster faster. (That made you think for a second, didn’t it?) Or maybe they’re all getting slower, and Freeman is getting slower faster. (See, now I’m just having fun messing with your head.) The point is that these are just relative comparisons, not absolute ones.
In any case, what does the similar picture look like for Kikkan Randall? Read more
As with most stage races these days, the Tour de Ski included some handicap start pursuits. Generally, the athletes will start in a staggered fashion based upon their time back in the overall standings, and the first person to the finish line wins the stage.
This creates some very unusual incentives for the athletes, depending on where they are in the overall standings. Many of the athletes are no longer really racing against each other, only those skiers who happen to be near them in the overall standings. For example, there’s no really sense in which Therese Johaug was racing against Liz Stephen in Thursday’s pursuit. Johaug only really cared about maintaining the gap behind her and trying to catch the leaders.
This means that isolating the times for just that stage is an almost useless way to gauge performance. Johaug, for instance, skied that stage around 15 seconds slower than Stephen, but we probably don’t think that that means much about Stephens’ ability compared to Johaug’s.
So I wonder about these things when I read stuff like this, or this, talking about how well Stephen and Freeman skied in the pursuit based on their times for just that stage. By my calculations, Freeman had the 11th fastest time of the day and Stephen the 13th. But that alone doesn’t mean much to me, since many other skiers were really only racing against the skiers near them, rather than the whole field.
If an athlete says they had a good day, of course, I’m inclined to believe them. They alone know how their body felt and whether it was a good effort. But, you know, I like to measure stuff, so let’s try.
Let’s compare Freeman and Stephen only to those skiers who started near them in the pursuit. Specifically, how did Freeman and Stephen’s times for the day compare to their historical performances against these skiers? Better than average? Worse? About the same?
Here’s the relevant graph for Freeman: Read more
Each weekend seems to be an interesting mix of results for the North Americans. Starting with the women (Davos result circled in blue):
Compared to this season, that was an off day for Kikkan, but compared to last season that was pretty typical. Part of me wonders if she dialed it back a bit late in the race when she knew she wasn’t feeling strong to save some energy for the sprint. But as you can see from her graph, if that’s going to be her “bad” race this season, she’s going have a strong set of results this year.
I’m very cautious about jumping on bandwagons when someone pops a good race or two, but Holly Brooks is beginning to convince me. That’s three good (and one OK) distance results in a row now. More importantly, I like the direction her trend is heading. It’s still early, so it’ll only take a few mediocre races to flatten that trend out, but so far it looks promising.
You can’t deny that Liz Stephen has had some strong results so far this season. My only concern is that they have all been roughly where we’ve seen her topping out before. Can her good days inch up towards the top ten?
As for the men: Read more
A reader asked on Twitter the other day if I’d recalculate the tallies for Kris Freeman’s top ten, top three, etc. results if we went back and removed a certain Estonian skier from prior results sheets.
I’m going to preface this with some standard caveats about how I can’t know for sure when Andrus Veerpalu was clean or not clean. He certainly failed a drug test recently, and the way public opinion works with doping is that basically all his results are now suspect. I’m agnostic on that question, but since this was a fairly interesting data exercise, I thought I indulge the haters out there.
But I’m going to take it one step further and tally the missed opportunities for all skiers, not just Freeman, if we remove Veerpalu. We’ll start with the least important consequences and work our way up.
There were 78 different skiers who would have moved up into the World Cup points (from 31st to 30th) if you removed Veerpalu. There wasn’t really one skier who bore the brunt of this; the most it happened to any one skier was 3 times. North Americans in this group include Kris Freeman, Carl Swenson, George Grey, and Dan Roycroft, all once.
Next, removing Veerpalu will move some skiers up from 11th to 10th. This was also fairly evenly spread out among 43 different skiers, including Carl Swenson again.
More dramatically, removing Veerpalu from the results will bump 13 different skiers up from 4th to 3rd. Here is where we finally include Freeman’s famous WSC “medal”. Also notable is that Mathias Fredricksson would gain three more podium finishes in WC races due to this change.
Finally, the big kahuna, and I was a little shocked at the results. There were five skiers who would gain a victory out of this transaction. Two Olympic gold medals and two WSC gold medals. When Veerpalu’s ten wins get apportioned out, one skier gets five of them: Frode Estil. And it kind of makes sense, since he was another classic ultra-specialist.
I didn’t bother removing any of the Finns or Russians (although a lot of the Russians who’ve been caught haven’t been nearly as accomplished). Perhaps I’ll tackle that in a follow up. Read more
Another season is just around the corner! While the USST saw some changes over the off season, the folks we are most likely to see top results from are still the Big Three: Kikkan Randall, Andy Newell and Kris Freeman.
My expectations and questions for Freeman are summed up in this graph:
This shows his median (and 10th/90th percentile – errorbars) WC results by month, using standardized percent behind the median skier. Freeman has tended to see a big dropoff in January and has had inconsistent results mid-season. The differences between the months may not seem huge, since the y axis units are not something you’re used to thinking in. But keep in mind that a difference of 0.5 can easily mean the difference between 10th and 30th (or more).
So I won’t be surprised if Freeman comes out of the gate skiing fast in November, but I’ll be very curious what happens when we hit January.
As for Kikkan Randall, I think there’s probably a lot of excitement surrounding her, considering the breakthrough season she had last year. I’ve spoken before on this blog about her chances for contending for the WC sprint title, and I think she certainly will be a podium contender in every freestyle sprint she enters. But here’s a minor note of caution: Read more
Continuing on in our over-analysis of the recent New Zealand FIS races, we turn to the sprints. It’s much harder to do anything sensible with these races (even given that I’ve over-analyzing things!) since the fields are so small even the difference in placing between specific skiers is potentially misleading. However, just for fun let’s focus like last time on a younger sprinter, Len Valjas:
Again, this is the difference in finishing place between Valjas and a selection of folks from the New Zealand sprint race. Positive values mean Valjas won and vice versa. Note that he finished a lot closer to some of these Russians that he normally does, but again, that may be a function of the small field. It’s hard to do much analysis on these sorts of races without the heat times.
My only other note is that Kris Freeman slightly underplayed how good his sprint FIS points were from this race. Here’s a graph of all the sprint qualification results I have for him with the New Zealand race in red:
Definitely good sprint FIS points for him, but it’s more like the 5-6th best all time. Of course, a lot of those are from a long time ago in potentially very different sprint race formats, distances and courses.