A sparky from Coldstream.
Bayley Fritsch seems a fairly unassuming person, yet his footy is anything of the nature.
The man who dons the famous 31 in the red and blue is electrifying on the field. Clean below his knees, great acceleration off the mark, possesses a classy left peg, strong in the air – despite his slight frame – and has arguably some of the best goal sense in the AFL.
But, and it’s become an increasingly frustrating ‘but’, has an apparent selfish side to his game.
I’ll admit, I was sucked into the media peddling this notion that Fritsch lacks ‘team first values’. The evidence was there for all to see and I witnessed it first-hand in Geelong.
The week before that clash there was the Christian Petracca streaming into the goalsquare snub against Brisbane, then Ed Langdon burnt as he opted for a dribbler and a week later Charlie Spargo was left frustrated, hands up in the air to indicate an almost certain goal to his teammate; if he had passed the ball.
Poor look? Sure. A collection of isolated and exaggerated incidents? Absolutely. And why the outrage at the time? Namely because they coincidentally happened all within a few weeks of each other, while Melbourne were experiencing somewhat of a stressful, nervy run after beginning the season 10-0. Journalists were, and still are, trying their best to feast on a potential Demon demise and Fritsch was an easy target. Thankfully, it dawned on me and I hopefully I can provide some much needed clarity to debunk the myth of his supposed selfish ways.
Firstly, it’s important to quantify Fritsch’s forward category: medium sized. Not a key or a tall and not among the small ranks either, but for the purpose of this explanation we’ll combine smalls and mediums.
Bayley Fritsch is 9th on the AFL’s goalkicking list, botting 43 goals in 19 games. There’s only one small-to-medium sized forward ahead of him this season – Charlie Cameron (44).
But when you fuse his goalkicking exploits with goal assists – the last player to pass a ball to their teammate for a goal – this is where the label of being ‘selfish’ really starts to look quite selfish and misleading.
NOTE: Bolton and Heeney rack up considerable midfield time, however they are used forward for long enough to be considered hybrids and All-Australian selectors could have them in the reckoning for half-forward spots.
Stacks up pretty nicely doesn’t he? It’s a prolific return and there’s a few layers to it.
Last season Fritsch accumulated seven goal assists for the entire season (24 games) and he’s already got 15 to his name this time around. That alone would appear that he’s making a more concerted effort to help aid his team and has no problems being in the final link in the chain.
Another reason why those over-exaggerated ‘incidents’ blur into idiocy is because this a man having to contend with the pressure of being Melbourne’s primary goal source every week. There’s no doubt, the coaches given him licence to shoot on sight, when Fritch feels he’s in range.
Moreover, Melbourne’s biggest perceived problem is their offence, which is a two-pronged argument of average ball use going inside 50 (ranked 9th in the comp for scoring efficiency), coupled with the lack of another key tall target outside of Ben Brown, Tom McDonald and Sam Weideman. This leave’s Fritsch, who stands at 188cm having to regularly play on taller and bigger-bodied defenders, not to mention feeding off what is sub-par entries into the forward line.
And this is the kicker, Fritsch either kicks or directly sets up a goal with 32% of his possessions – the highest of any player in the competition. The two other standout recognised small-to-medium forwards this season are Cameron, who sits at 26% and Stengle just shy of 18%. To add more weight to this, leading goalkickers Charlie Curnow and Tom Hawkins hover around the 30% mark.
Low possession Fritsch, only averaging 9.5 disposals per game is quite simply deadly in and around the 50 – his role is to stay close to goal and the numbers solidify his case for being encouraged by the coaches to hit the scoreboard. These stats reflect an extremely clinical and high impact player.
To the Fritsch cynics, turned the corner now? Let’s indulge to round this off, shall we…
The Dees’ soon-to-be three-time leading goalkicker was the first player since Darren Jarman in 1997 to kick six goals in Grand Final. A simply astonishing feat. Only Petracca’s ridiculous 40 (trust me it was 40 Champion Data!) and 2 goals prevented him from claiming a Norm. It was flag winning season where only Toby Greene would average slightly more goals (2.50) than Fritsch (2.46) in the small-to-medium category.
Finally, All-Australian calculations should be a non-negotiable. Only regrettably the selectors and how they choose the 22 has become a midfield fest – specialised wingmen and especially medium sized forwards are unfairly swept aside in their calculations. I’m not expecting anything different in 2022, but it would be refreshing to see an All-Australian side selected on balance and not midfield and number driven infatuation. Don’t hold your breath, though.
The path Fritstch took to the big time shouldn’t be lost on people either, taking the longer route.
After kicking 42 goals in 19 games for Casey, Melbourne’s VFL affiliate club, in 2017 he put himself firmly on the radar of recruiters Jason Taylor and Tim Lamb. Out went maligned and former No. 1 draft pick Jack Watts to Port Adelaide in exchange for pick 31 – the selection that secured Fritsch in the draft. A hell of a coup in retrospect.
His story to stardom and talents should be lauded more and at the age of just 25, he’s only just starting to approach his peak.
What a terribly exciting proposition to look back and see what a 150, 200 and potentially 250-gamer Fritsch has produced in his Demons career.
It’s been red-hot, consistent form for a good two years now and Bayley’s star looks set to continue on an upward trajectory.
Maybe it’s time for some to appreciate the sparky, just a little bit more.