It is officially the quarter mark through the year and it sure feels like there is non-stop pickleball action. We are constantly learning more about the game, players and the format of MLP. At the same time, it kind of feels like the more you know, the more you don’t really know at all, especially when it comes to MLP. The Daytona MLP featured another weekend with results that differed from the previous event and fitting conclusions into neatly wrapped narratives is not always going to be easy. Regardless, we’ll do our best to synthesize the biggest and best storylines from MLP’s second event of 2023.
1. Anti-Energy Finals (Gritty) – The Seattle Pioneers prevailed over the California BLQK Bears in a somewhat unexpected finals going into the weekend. While Seattle remained one of the favorites prior to the event, it was unclear to me what California had in a squad that was missing Maggie Brascia at the first event. California proved it was more than up to the task of being a title contender as they came first in their group where they had beat Seattle in a Dreambreaker and handed a loss to Ben Johns in men’s doubles – his only game loss in 2 events so far. We can talk about the matchups and the teams all we want, but what stood out to me about is what has not been talked about as much in the MLP post-mortem.
It is always interesting to see how narratives get created. With the Mad Drops winning in Mesa, one of the takeaways for a lot of people was that the win provided confirmation that energy is a crucial part to building a successful MLP team. Although I am not doubting that high energy and positive energy can be very beneficial, I have continued to think that it is not a requirement from a team building standpoint. Owner of BLQK, Ritchie Tuazon, has said on publicly earlier this year that he is simply looking for the best pickleball players.
Despite there being some doubts on my end as to whether Tuazon’s team had the best players, it is clear from his comments that energy is not a primary consideration in roster construction. Take a look at all 8 players in the MLP final. I don’t think you could accurately describe one of them as a high energy player. Ben Johns is kind of a cheat code for MLP so if you want to throw his team out of this discussion, you can look at the California squad and say that nothing looks particularly special about their team from an energy standpoint. Dylan Frazier has historically struggled at MLP, and people have attributed part of those struggles to his lack of energy. It didn’t make sense to either of us that Frazier has struggled so much at MLP and, honestly, it was nice to see him find some success.
California is a team that featured 4 versatile players performing their team assigned role at a high level. Maybe we have a different storyline if Thomas Wilson does not get hurt and the Mad Drops have their full squad. On the other hand, Julian Arnold, Catherine Parenteau and Irina Tereschenko did not have the same level of success as in Mesa, Thomas Wilson’s absence aside, this past weekend.
Energy is helpful but I’ll continue to believe it is not the be all, end all for roster construction at MLP.
2. Substitute City (Slim) – We had two teams, with male substitute players make the playoffs this weekend. The defending champs, the Mad Drops, lost Thomas Wilson but were still able to make the playoffs with Hunter Johnson. The New York Hustlers lost Tyson McGuffin, who seems to have awful health luck at MLP, after day 1 but were still able to make the playoffs after picking up Brendon Long.
At the first MLP event we saw Hunter Johnson, pull off a lot of magic carrying a very flawed Atlanta team to the Challenger semi-finals. He wasn’t able to replicate that success this time around as Atlanta went 0-3 in their pool play, but that meant he was available to fill in for his injured friend Thomas Wilson on the Mad Drops. Johnson performed quite well, helping the Mad Drops earn a 2-1 record in pool play and make the playoffs. His doubles game still seems to be a work in progress at this level, but he looked the part of Premier League player, and will certainly be a player teams are looking at in the second Premier division draft. Johnson has the comfort to be able to fill a right side male role while playing as an alpha in mixed.
Nobody’s stock can be rising faster than Brendon Long’s right now, who has made his own good fortune. He has gone from being completely overlooked in the Challenger Draft, which will never make sense, to going out and making teams take notice of him, by grabbing a gold medal with Bobbi Oshira at the APP’s Daytona event, along with a bronze with Stefan Auvergne in men’s doubles.
Long then got picked up by the Miami Pickleball Club with the second pick in the Challenger Shuffle Draft, and completely changed the fortunes of a Miami team, that had been a laughing stock at the first MLP event, leading them to the semi-finals. As a sidenote, it was sure fun to get the Jeff Warnick experience in meaningful pickleball matches again. When Tyson McGuffin got hurt for the New York Hustlers, it was Long who got the call up to the Premier League in prime time, and looked every part of a Premier League player, helping them secure a spot in the playoffs, with a victory over the Hard Eights, even clinching the Dreambreaker.
What these performances, along with Stefan Auvergne showing well in the first event, and guys like Pablo Tellez and Christian Alshon, winning back to back Challenger Championships, tells us is that competition is going to be extremely tough for the last few men’s spots in the second Premier Season. Ben Johns and Anna Bright were publicly speculating on Twitter about the Challenger players going Premier. Whether they have ulterior motives as Premier players themselves is to be determined but it is interesting social media conversation.
It currently looks like there are more players capable of playing at that level than there are spots available. Also without the ability to add or drop players at the Premier level, it will be a major mistake if a team misses on one of it’s men’s picks, as it is clear there are plenty of guys capable of playing at the Premier level.
3. The Braverman Bump (Gritty) – We had wondered after the announcement of Jillian Braverman’s entry to the Challenger Shuffle Draft whether her entry could slant the entire course of the Challenger division. Our take on the situation is that her ability to enter the Shuffle Draft was a problem because one team would be the massive beneficiary of a Premier level talent in a #2 female spot. It had the potential to reward sub-optimal drafting when every win has an immense impact on the future of each MLP franchise. As the worst team in Mesa, Columbus had the opportunity to draft Braverman but they surprised me by flipping Braverman for Megan Fudge. The trade did not make that much sense as the question for Fudge was whether her game is suited to being an alpha Challenger player in comparison with Braverman’s definite alpha style of play.
In any event, the Braverman bump proved to be a real thing and more for Dallas on the weekend.
Despite her limited pro play over the past calendar year, Braverman was everything that I expected she could be on the court, other than the unprecedented amount of falling that she managed to accomplish. Braverman, along with Shuffle Draft pick-up, Daniel De La Rosa, propelled Dallas to a 2nd place finish in the Challenger division. After watching Braverman, I think there is little doubt that she would be a top 2 women’s pick in Challenger, if not #1, if we were re-drafting today. Her comfort on the left also afforded Dallas the ability to optimize the unorthodox mixed play of Brandon French, who played better than I anticipated at any point.
Even though the trade of Fudge for Braverman was not complete highway robbery, the fit of Jillian Braverman suddenly turned Dallas into a legitimate title contender in Challenger. Without any other information, I’ll have to chalk this one up to savvy maneuvering on the part of dual-division GM, Dave Fleming, and his Mark Cuban owned Dallas Pickleball Club. In acquiring Braverman, it is indisputable that Braverman’s insertion into MLP part-way through the Challenger season has been far more than a bump to the title contention hopes of Dallas and they should be right in the mix for the final event of season 1.
4. California Dreaming (Slim) – The BLQK Bears, had a very average first MLP event in Mesa, where they went 1-2 and missed the playoffs. Despite the fact that they were missing Maggie Brascia in Mesa, the result was not shocking to us, as they seemed to profile as a middle of the pack Premier League team. One that would likely be fighting for a playoff spot, but not a true contender.
However it seems Maggie Brascia, was the missing piece for BLQK as they made an undefeated run to the championship match this weekend, before losing to Seattle. Brascia and Andrea Koop went undefeated in women’s doubles through pool play, and in the semi-finals, won what was one of the most entertaining women’s matches ever, over Anna Leigh Waters and Lea Jansen, before dropping the final to a Seattle team they had beaten in pool play.
It was definitely an impressive performance by BLQK, but one thing to watch for in Newport, is whether this team can keep its dreambreaker success up. BLQK went to a dreambreaker, in all three of it’s pool play matches, and won all three, including against the winless across 2 events, Frisco Clean Cause. The Dreambreaker wins, included an extremely impressive performance by Dylan Frazier against Ben Johns in BLQK’s win over Seattle, in pool play. Both Federico Staksrud and Dylan Frazier, track as plus singles players, so this was not all luck by any means, but neither Brascia or Koop would track as plus women’s singles players, so it is fair to wonder how BLQK will fair if they find themselves in more dreambreakers in Newport. Their 100% win percentage in Daytona, does not seem sustainable.
Nevertheless, winning those close matches and Dreambreakers is often what MLP is all about. California is a very deserving finalist and played best when it mattered most.
5. Competitive Balance (Gritty) – One of the most appealing aspects of MLP is that the draft creates matchups that we would not see in any other context. The best players are forced to play with players who are not also the best. The nature of the draft and the format of the teams provides the potential for a great deal of variance at each event. It is part of what makes MLP really exciting. I think what has also become clear about MLP is that, for the most part, all the teams are competitive.
As always, there are going to be better teams and weaker teams, but most of the teams are in the mix. If you take Clean Cause out of the equation, there is not a single team in this format that is a complete walkover. I thought the St. Louis Shock were going to have very real problems with a legacy #1 female, a questionable #1 male and two other players that seemed to have some versatility limitations prior to 2023. However, it is clear the talent across the board in the Premier division makes for competitive teams and St. Louis is the team I was most wrong about.
6 teams have to miss the playoffs and 6 teams have to make the playoffs. The Florida Smash were a playoff team in Mesa but went 0-3 in Daytona. The SoCal Hard Eights got Riley Newman back and went 1-2 across three Dreambreakers, which included beating the New Jersey 5’s. The Mad Drops were a semi-final team with Hunter Johnson subbing in for Thomas Wilson. The Las Vegas Night Owls have missed the playoffs twice but have generally been competitive in the majority of their matches. Milwaukee has underperformed but are far from a free win for any team. The 5’s have Anna Leigh Waters and have yet to make a final. ATX has JW Johnson and went 2-1 missing the playoffs.
A Dreambreaker or two going a different way can change the whole landscape of the event. There has been tons of draft discussion about the optimal strategy for MLP rosters, but it could be far more straightforward than that. It may simply come down to picking the right players. Yes, I know, thanks Sherlock.
The Mad Drops went female/female with their first two picks and won a Championship while the Florida Smash’s Irvine and Jorja Johnson did not click as a partnership at all and the Mashers Smith/Kovalova partnership has underwhelmed. California went a more standard girl-guy-girl-guy formula and made it all the way to the finals this weekend. The Hard Eights and Clean Cause have not been successful with the guy-guy formula, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the wrong strategy as you can definitely question some of the selections made within that route taken.
With no Shuffle Draft, the Premier division format is extra punishing for teams that didn’t make the right picks. There are limited moves to make in a 3-event season when you can only trade amongst the 48 players that are in Premier. With only one event left, there not nearly as much to lose for teams that have not seen the desired results in season 1 at Premier and there was already a trade announced Monday afternoon between the Florida Smash and Las Vegas Night Owls – Jessie Irvine and Collin Johns for Vivienne David and Kyle Yates. It may only take as much as one move, one break, one call or one Dreambreaker. With how competitive the league is right now, there is not a major difference between a successful final event and a feeling of desperation as we head into season 2 at the Challenger level.
6. Rally Scoring Variance (Slim) – Ben Padula Real Clear Stats, published an analysis the other day, and found that a rally scoring game to 21, are basically identical to traditional scoring games to 11. We see in standard pro tournaments that anything can happen in a game to 11, but over the course of three games, the better team is usually going to find a way to win. Part of what makes MLP exciting is the unpredictability of it, but I do wonder if the rally scoring games to 21, add a bit too much variance, especially as the stakes keep getting higher and higher with MLP.
The first ever MLP event, had traditional scoring with games to 15, and I do wonder if the rally scoring shouldn’t be increased to say 30, to mimic a traditional scoring game to 15. This would also allow teams a little more time, to adjust their strategy in a match as well. We know that in a game to 11, with traditional scoring, it is very difficult for a team to shift their approach, and that sometimes there just isn’t enough time to overcome a poor start, but that a game 15 those few points, can provide a team with enough time to make some adjustments.
In my mind, this change would keep things exciting from an anything can happen standpoint while perhaps eliminating a percentage of that luck of the draw feeling that can accompany MLP matches. Moreover, if MLP continues to grow in terms of viewership and begins to eat into what fans truly care about from a results perspective, it may not be as good for the game to have too much parity with the best players and/or teams subject to such a high degree of randomness.
I would love to know what everyone thinks. Do you like the variance and unpredictability of the games to 21, or would you like to raise the winning score to provide teams, with more opportunity to implement and adjust strategy?
7. Seeding Questions (Gritty) – MLP made some adjustments to tiebreakers coming out of the group stage after Mesa. However, we saw in both the Challenger and the Premier divisions that the net games won played itself out when it came to seedings for the playoffs and which teams would get a bye. In both the Challenger and Premier divisions, the top two seeds getting byes came from the same group – California/Seattle, Bay Area/Dallas. I don’t actually know if this was a change from the first MLP that both byes could come from the same group. Regardless, I can’t say I was a fan.
Something felt wrong with two teams being able to come out of the same group with the top seeds. There are two sides to this. The one side is that groups shouldn’t matter and overall performance should be what counts when group draws are based on luck. On the other hand, it can unfairly punish teams that are in more evenly matched groups and do not have the benefit of having Frisco Clean Cause or AZ drive in their group.
There is never a perfect way to do these things but I have a hard time getting on board with two teams in the same group getting a bye on net games won when the #2 team gets a 4-0 win versus the weakest team out there. This has been an ongoing discussion in other pro sports like baseball with respect to the importance placed on divisions. The difference in those contexts is that those teams are playing every team over the course of 162 games. It isn’t fair when a 95-win Boston Red Sox team has to play in a wild card game while the 86-win Chicago White Sox get a better seed by winning their crummy division. However, you can’t apply season long principles to a short 3-game round robin format.
I’m not saying you can’t change my mind on this topic but, currently, I am not a fan of the ability to get a bye without winning your group.
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