The NLL MVP Debate That Wasn’t: Appreciating Keegan Bal

Dhane Smith is ruining the NLL MVP debate. There isn’t a conversation to be had, nor is there any room for hot takes. The award is rightfully his.

Now of course, it’s not Smith’s fault that he has robbed us of the conjecture and discourse we love in annual MVP debates. But what he’s done has been so remarkable that the lacrosse ecosystem hasn’t spent enough time talking about the accomplishments of other elite players around the league. Sure, they get mentioned regularly, but seldom do we hear about Zach Currier, Ryan Lee, Joe Resetarits, Keegan Bal, or other similar players as defacto MVP candidates. The framing is important when contextualizing performance. In a season without Smith’s record-breaking dominance, any of those four would be among the group with reasonable claim to the league’s top honor, yet we don’t really talk about them as such all that often.

But since the only drama in this year’s conversation centers around whether or not Smith will eclipse the previously unthinkable 100-assist threshold, we want to direct some attention to one of the victims of his dominance. This post is an ode to the career-best season that Vancouver’s Keegan Bal has put together.

While Smith has been the consensus #1 player for weeks, the LaxMetrics Weighted Average rankings have quietly featured Bal as a top-5 player for three consecutive weeks after ranking him 8th and 6th in the first two editions. But what is it about Bal’s season that is so special? Aside from his incredible story of resilience and self-belief, no player—Smith included—has had a more balanced, yet elite offensive season. Take his LaxMetrics radar chart breakdown as evidence:

Bal scores in the top 10% of all forwards in seven of the eight categories we use to evaluate overall performance. In four of the seven, Bal ranks in the top 3% of all forwards. When averaged, his percentile rankings produced the best Most Outstanding Player Score (MOPScore) of any forward in the NLL. In an average season, the former street free agent would be a serious contender for the league’s MVP, even on a team that won’t make the postseason.

Of chief interest on Bal’s resume is not the incredible display of balance across statistical categories. Rather, Bal exists at an exceedingly rare cross-section of elite production and elite efficiency. No two numbers reflect this truth better than Bal’s Goals Over Expectations (13.05) and his Experimental Offensive Efficiency (5.56).

In each of those two categories, efficiency of different varieties is the primary item of measurement. While Goals Over Expectations measures Bal’s effectiveness as a scorer and finisher relative to the volume of shots he takes, Experimental Offensive Efficiency (eOE) measures his efficiency in all areas other than scoring. The two categories tell different sides of a player’s story, and usually a high score in one comes at the expense of the other. Bal is the only player with elite marks in both categories. Other than Bal, only San Diego’s Wesley Berg ranks in the top-12 of both Goals Over Expectations and Experimental Offensive Efficiency.

Whereas some of his peers like Resetarits, Lee, and Smith each have the ball in their sticks quite a bit, Bal is a surprisingly low-usage player given his production. The eye test might disagree, but the volume of shots and turnovers coming from other player’s on Vancouver’s offense keep Bal’s usage down. At 10.80%, Bal’s usage rate is the lowest of any player on the top-10 lists for Production Rating (pRating) and Facilitator Score (fScore). Both of those stats are cumulative, meaning that a high usage rate will usually follow with higher pRating and fScore values. Additionally, only San Diego’s Jeremy Noble has a lower usage rate (6.96%) among players in the top-10 for Weighted Assists (wA) and Experimental Offensive Efficiency (eOE). In a nutshell, Bal has been hyper-productive without killing the ball in his stick.

But Bal isn’t the only member of the “forgotten MVP discussion,” rather he’s just one piece—albeit the most interesting piece. When compared to Resetarits and Lee, Bal’s remarkable, elite balance is particularly evident.

Despite their excellent seasons, both Resetarits and Lee are performing significantly below the league average in a couple of categories. Bal, however, still ranks among the league’s top 20% in his weakest category, Understated Production (uPro). But even then, Bal’s uPro number suggests that he is a value added in the dirty work areas on the floor, while Resetarits and Lee are not. All three are having elite seasons in a production sense, but only Bal is having an elite season in both production and efficiency. With this in mind, it’s easy to make the case that Bal has been more valuable.

So while it’s a shame that we don’t get to spend the final two weeks of the season agonizing over who deserves to be the league’s MVP, we still can appreciate some of the remarkable work of the non-Smith “candidates”. In Bal’s case, we get to enjoy the rare occasion where the metrics and the eye test wholeheartedly agree on a player’s impressiveness. It’s a rare day when a player’s highlight reel is in perfect harmony with his advanced stats. With just one game left to play, we all ought enjoy the finale of Keegan Bal’s masterclass of a season.

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