Analyzing Stanford Volleyball vs. Michigan St. (6 December 2014)

by Glenn on December 12, 2014

One of the things I’ve learned about volleyball this fall is that a volleyball team actually is six volleyball teams. You put six players on the floor and they rotate around the court. Since each position on the court has different requirements and since each player has their own strengths and weaknesses they bring to that position, there is a kind of calculus to be performed for each rotation since players perform better and worse depending on where they are positioned. The performance of each rotation then affects the overall performance of the team.

Some players operate well in both the front and back rows so they stay on the court through all the rotations. The libero position allows you to take your excellent hitter who is not an excellent digger off the court when they would normally be in the back row. Other substitutions are used to mitigate problems and improve the performance of each rotation.

In last Saturday’s game versus Michigan St. Stanford had 5 rotations that were the same for serving and receiving. It had a sixth rotation (No. 3 on the following chart) where the libero subbed in for the server after the side-out. The rotations looked like this:

The six rotations Stanford used against Michigan St. on Saturday, 6 December 2014.

(Note: These charts show starting positions only. In rotation one, for example, Morgan Boukather and Jordan Burgess immediately switch sides.)

In trying to understand your team, you need to look at how these rotations perform as separate units. Odds are they do not all perform equally. And the NCAA is too competitive to have rotations that do not perform well. You need to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.

I took my game notes and the play-by-play summary of the match and created a spreadsheet for each of the rotations. The following chart shows the six rotations Stanford used against Michigan St. and the effectiveness of each rotation in both serving and receiving.

Stats for the six Stanford rotations vs. Michigan St. on 6 December 2014.

The number under serving is the number of points earned in that formation. For serving, a “-1” means the serve resulted in an immediate side-out and point lost. A “0” means there was one score before a side out. Positive numbers indicate the number of points scored less a side-out.

On the receiving side, a “+1” means an immediate side-out (obviously, the next best thing to earning a point on your serve is earning a point on your opponent’s serve). A “zero” means one score before a side-out. Negative numbers mean your opponent is gaining ground and/or extending their lead.

One game is a small statistical sample, so you want to be cautious about making major changes based on this one performance—as a coach I would be looking for trends over time—but it is interesting to see how these different rotations performed last Saturday.

In set 1, Rotations 2 & 3 broke even. Rotation 5 lost a point, but rotation 6 evened the score. The set was won by Rotations 1 & 4. Those two rotations accounted for the five-point margin of victory.

Four sets give you a larger statistical sample. Here is how the rotations performed over the course of the match:

Rotation Serving Receiving Overall Impact on Score
1 0 +8 +8
6 0 +6 +6
4 -1 +4 +3
3 -7 +8 +1
5 -6 +4 -2
2 -11 +2 -9

So as you look at the team over four sets, I think you have pretty good news. Four out of six performed positively. The negative performance of the fifth rotation is balanced by the four positive performers. What is concerning is rotation number two. They weren’t just in the negative, but significantly in the negative, to the point where Stanford’s best rotation couldn’t balance that number. As the coach, I guess I’m trying to figure out if that match was an aberration or that rotation always struggles like this.

What is interesting to me is that since you have a breakdown of both serving and receiving, you can look at rotation two and say that while on the receiving end that rotation both struggles and excels, the serving was never in positive territory. Is this true for every match? I don’t think so. And probably it’s not true that the first rotation is always as good as it was against Michigan St., although that’s the rotation with three strong hitters in the front row.

Something else I notice as I look at the performance of the various rotations: Stanford never has crazy long runs at the service line. The best service run came with Kelsey Humphreys at the line in the third set. The “+3” means there were four scores in a row before a side-out. Perhaps this is how it is when you have high-caliber teams playing each other, but I do know that Stanford seems a little risk-averse on the serving side.

A strong service game pushes the receiving team out of its comfort zone. It results in ball-handling errors or creates a favorable chain of events beginning with a poor pass followed by a weak set producing a bad attack. Whether you score because the other team makes return or attack errors or because a feeble and manageable attack allows your team to operate with strength “in system,” you don’t really care. The ace is a definite morale booster, but so is the crushing spike following from a precise pass and set.

The thing that impresses me the most as I look at these rotations is the fact that every rotation receives well. There is no rotation in the negative. Here is a chart that shows the performance of all the serving and receiving rotations for the game against Michigan St.Breakdown of Serve and Receive Rotations vs. Michigan St.

The impact on the match is the fact that when Michigan St. had the ball to serve, nearly 65% of the time, Stanford got it right back on an immediate side-out. That has to be really good. If my thinking and compiling is correct, this means that when a Michigan St. player was holding a ball preparing to serve, the Stanford coaching staff could know that nearly 65% of the serves will result in a Stanford point.

On the serving side, Stanford will side-out less often. The one exception was the set they lost, the third set, where Stanford gave a point 60% of the time on their serve and only managed a side-out 56.3%. That isn’t going to win the game, and it didn’t that night, even though it ended up being close.

I found an interesting article written a few years ago (read it here) about the date crunching undertaken by University of Washington head coach, Jim McLaughlin. He talks about the “two percent rule” as it relates to serving and receiving. The article says,

McLaughlin’s statistical analysis shows that the ordinary team will win 60 percent of the time when serving. His studies show that if you improve one percent in both directions — if your offense improves to 61 percent and your defense limits the opponent to 59 percent — you will win 67 percent of the time.

I need to spend more time with the article, but number-crunching aside, it all comes down to out-serving and out-receiving the other team.

Stanford is good, but I think the remaining 16 teams in the tournament are all good too. It’s not going to be easy for Stanford to become national champions. They will definitely earn it. But it’s one game at a time. This afternoon it’s Oregon St., who has never had a win against Stanford. Like never. I imagine OSU would like to change that. But at 3:00 pm on ESPN3—how’s that for prime coverage of the NCAA final 16—I will be cheering for another Cardinal victory. What do they say? “Fear the Tree.”