OPTA Spotlight: Crew's Gruenebaum making All-Star case

OPTA Spotlight: Andy Gruenebaum

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Andy Gruenebaum waited six years for his shot. He didn’t waste a second once opportunity finally struck.

As a rookie, Gruenebaum watched Bill Gaudette, Noah Palmer and Jon Busch split time between the pipes in Columbus into thirds. Then Will Hesmer arrived from Kansas City, forcing the University of Kentucky product to subsist on US Open Cup and Reserve League table scraps until the occasional injury gave him an opening on the big stage.

All the while, even as the years ticked by and no starting job materialized, Gruenebaum bided his time, waiting for a break. Waiting for an opening to show his ability.

SAVE: Gruenebaum robs Montero

Then this spring, in an unfortunate turn of events, his chance arrived. Hesmer underwent microfracture surgery on his hip, ruling him out for the season and elevating Gruenebaum from understudy to Robert Warzycha’s main man.

Now, three months and change into his first season as the Crew’s No. 1 netminder, Gruenebaum has put together an MLS Best XI-caliber season. His teammates and coaches praise him without prompting, and he even has reporters helping kick start his MLS All-Star Game campaign – deservedly, we might add.

And, for what it’s worth, the stats love him, too.

Making the case for Gruenebaum

Casual MLS fans might not recognize his name, but anyone combing through this season’s goalkeeping stats would inevitably flag Gruenebaum’s excellence.

His performances have simply been that good from an analytical point of view.

Among goalkeepers with more than 1,000 minutes played in 2012, Gruenebaum’s name pops up at the top or within striking distance in nearly every significant statistical category.

Despite playing fewer matches than many of his direct competitors, the Crew ‘keeper is second in saves (57), first in saves made on shots inside the penalty area (36), second in goals allowed (13) and goals against average (1.00) – behind only Jimmy Nielsen – and second in shutouts (five).

And this without the services of the two center backs – Chad Marshall and Julius James – that anchored the Crew’s backline a year ago.

Andy Gruenebaum vs. League Average
  Percentage of shots that result in goals Saves to Shots ratio Saves to shots inside the box Saves to shots outside the box Big chance prevention percentage
Gruenebaum 9.2% 81.4% 76.6% 91.3% 57.1%
League Average 13.1%

70.6%

60.5% 88.8% 36.5%

But even more important than the raw saves, shutouts and goals conceded, is the rate at which he has kept shots allowed by the Crew defense, especially those inside the box, from turning into goals (see chart at right).

Perhaps the best way to measure Gruenebaum’s value to the Crew this year is by examining the “big chance” statistic gathered by Opta, which is defined as "a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score."

Through 274 games so far this season, MLS sides have created 367 big chances. They’ve scored 155 of the total 354 goals recorded in 2012 via these opportunities, converting 43.8 percent of big chances into goals while 25.1 result in saves and 31.1 in misses. (For perspective, any given shot has a 13.1 percent chance of resulting in a goal.)

Simply put, Gruenebaum has performed well above league average in big-chance situations, which makes sense considering his high save percentage inside the area.

Shots on target vs. Gruenebaum in 2012

Of the 18 big chances he’s faced through 13 games, only six have resulted in goals – a 10 percent drop from the league average. That doesn’t seem like much of a discrepancy until you consider that his eight saves are just two behind Dan Kennedy and Tim Meara, who both have 10 saves while facing 29 and 31 big chances each.

Through 13 games, Gruenebaum is four percent less likely to allow a goal on any given shot than the league average and 20 percent more likely to save a big-chance opportunity on goal.

Without context, that doesn’t sound particular awe-inspiring. But extrapolating Gruenebaum’s averages to a full season and comparing that to the league average puts the first-year starter’s value at a premium.

Through a 34-game season at this pace, Columbus would give up 34 goals with Gruenebaum in goal. With a goalkeeper performing at league-average level, they would allow 48, a discrepancy of 14 goals that could certainly make or break the Crew’s season. (Through 13 games, a league-average ‘keeper would be expected to allow 18 goals to Gruenebaum’s 13.)

Of course, that makes one big assumption: that Gruenebaum can keep this up through 21 more games. Is it likely? Not very. But that shouldn’t keep All-Star voters from casting a vote for MLS’ most underappreciated goalkeeper.

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