The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

The Scores: Post-Nationals Edition

Now that the US national championship has provided a lovely, juicy, delicious (can you tell I’m hungry) chunk of new numbers to bolster and clarify Spreadsheet Nation, let’s take a new look at the updated scoring hierarchy and what it could mean for potential worlds team selection.

First, the athletes are ranked by peak score recorded on each event so far in 2019, with the top 3 on each apparatus highlighted.

Using those numbers, the highest-scoring team in a 3-count scenario would be as follows:

That team would be “burn down the world” good on bars and beam, though I do think the peak scores somewhat misrepresent vault because this group of 5 is far from the strongest vault team the US could come up with. It would be perfectly reasonable for the US to object to heading into worlds with McCusker, Lee, and Eaker on the same team knowing that one of them would have to vault in the team final.

Now, you could counter that argument with “but the other events are so good they make up for it” or “they’re going to win the team final anyway, so why not maximize event medal possibilities” in support of this team of five. Your choice.

Basically, counting the McCusker vault is the only non-amazing part of that team (should everyone hit), and there’s no other permutation of gymnasts that comes very close at all to matching this peak team score.

What the peak team doesn’t take into account, of course, is consistency, so it doesn’t mind if you fall 80 times as long as you hit once and that hit was an amazing score.

This kind of best-case-score team approach is my preference for the US women specifically because they have so much leeway to count falls, but if that kind of potential risk isn’t your jam, may I instead interest you in the gymnasts arranged by average score on each event in 2019, with once again the top 3 on each apparatus highlighted.

I’ll be spending much more more time on this one, because if you value average instead of peak for team selection, things get a lot more complicated and interesting.

Compared to the peak-score group, the top 7 remain the top 7, but only Simone remains in the same spot on the list. That’s why I feel pretty comfortable saying that a compelling group of 8 gymnasts has separated itself from the pack, that group being the top 7 in these breakdowns—Biles, McCallum, Lee, Wong, McCusker, Hurd, Eaker—along with Jade Carey.

If the US women were constrained to the same standards as the US men and able to bring only 8 athletes to selection, those are the 8 I would have chosen (with Chiles, Skinner, and Thomas as the next-closest replacement athletes).

If you try to narrow things down beyond that 8, however, we’re talking about margins of a tenth here and there, especially when it comes to the last couple spots. Still, the highest-scoring team in a 3-count scenario using average scores would be this one:

Compared to the top-score team, the only change is Wong replacing McCusker, which highlights what will be a key dynamic when narrowing that 8 down to 5—peak ability versus consistency. We have seen McCusker miss recently. Her bars average is no longer compellingly high, and when she doesn’t have a bars score to rely on, it undermines her team argument dramatically.

Instead, McCusker’s team argument is that when she hits, she’s easily on your best-scoring team for those bars and beam routines.

Wong, meanwhile, has displayed the ability to hover around 14 on both bars and beam throughout the year, with no bars scores lower than 13.750 and no beam scores lower than 13.650, which helps the average argument. But most critically, it’s the DTY score that gets her into this group of five, providing her a couple tenths over Hurd and more than half a point over McCusker. Especially on a potential team containing both Lee and Eaker, you really want a third high-scoring and reliable vault, and Wong’s DTY fits the bill.

A couple more interesting things going on with this potential team: 1) Kara Eaker is on it. We have seen Eaker fall on beam twice recently (Pan Ams AA, Day 1 Nationals), and yet her beam average for 2019 is still 14.600 and she’s still part of the highest-scoring US team in the average-score table exclusively because of that beam number. That’s a pretty good “worth the risk” argument, when your average beam score with two falls is still almost the highest in the country.

2) Grace McCallum’s average event scores put her 2nd overall among everyone—even after nationals night 1—yet she’s still not on the highest-scoring team because she can’t break in on any individual piece. Looking at that prospective team of five, there’s no place where you’d categorically say, “I’d rather have McCallum’s routine counting on this event.” McCallum has indicated that she wants to put the Amanar into her repertoire at selection camp, and she may need that to make an event argument.

McCallum would, however, benefit from any all-around-standings-based method of team selection, as we see from her 2nd-place position on the average-score table and her performance on night 2 of nationals. If you’re just going down the list, naming five people, and heading out to lunch, she’s probably on the list.

Hurd is in a slightly different position from McCallum because she does have the #1 position on bars by average, which is a useful individual event argument. It makes her essentially interchangeable with Wong in terms of overall team total (the team above with Wong in it goes 174.272, while a team with Hurd replacing Wong goes 174.204—so it’s basically the same).

In other ways, Hurd’s position is similar to McCallum’s in that she doesn’t currently have the numbers to get into that peak-score team of five because she can’t use bars to break in among Lee, McCusker, and Biles. That means Hurd is going to have to make her worlds team argument on all-around placement and consistency shown at selection camp.

Also some notes on Jade Carey and Sunisa Lee, who appear in both the peak-score team and the average-score team, which makes them start to look like very convincing choices.

If we focus affairs solely on the average score chart, the best team you could come up with that doesn’t include Jade Carey would have Grace McCallum in her place and would be at 173.707, five tenths lower than the peak team. No non-Jade Carey team breaks the 174 barrier at all. So yes, you can come up with a very reasonable worlds team that doesn’t include Carey—that has Biles, McCallum, Wong on vault and Biles, Lee, McCallum on floor—but it noticeably doesn’t score as well.

Going through the same process with Sunisa Lee, you can get closer to the peak team score for a group without her—Biles, Carey, McCallum, Hurd, Eaker would be at 174.048, just about two tenths away—but once again, options with Lee in them score a little better.

The other argument in Lee’s favor is that she gets a spot on average-score team even though her current bars average understates her usefulness there by including that 11.650 from American Classic. Overall, Lee is 5 for 6 on bars this year and in a similar situation to Kara Eaker on beam where, even with a bad number factored into average, she’s still part of the most useful team there. Having also gone 5 for 6 on beam this year and having scored no lower than 13.950 on floor, the breadth of Lee’s team contribution argument is quite compelling.

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering about the other athletes I haven’t mentioned as part of the core 8, the best average-score team that includes any of them would have Jordan Chiles on it and would be at 173.837, so not quite there with all the various Hurd, McCusker, McCallum, Wong options in the 174s, but not abysmally far away.

So, what have we learned?

We’ve learned that many and various team compositions of about 8 gymnasts all make fairly logical sense, and much of ultimate selection depends on what qualities are valued. If peak possible score is valued, you have what honestly looks (right now) to be a clear team of five—the one from the first table. You look at that team and say, “Well you can’t afford to be without McCusker’s bars and beam, or Lee’s bars, or Eaker’s beam, so duh, this is the team.”

But I don’t think that is what’s valued right now.

Based on all of our observational experiences over the last year, it seems like all-around standings at selection camp are going to be considered far more significant than who has shown the ability to score a 15 at some point in the year. And if that’s the case, it bodes well for athletes like Hurd and McCallum, who appear in neither of the best-scoring teams above currently but can absolutely finish 2nd AA among this collective on any given day. And for Hurd, that given day is usually selection camp—if the last two years are any indication.

When going by average, then your second most necessary gymnast for the worlds team (behind Biles, obviously) is not going to be Riley McCusker, which is what it would seem like if you were going by peak score. Instead, it’s going to be Jade Carey, the only thing getting in her way being a potential too-heavy reliance on all-around finish. It’s unusual to consider a 2-event-contributing gymnast the 2nd most necessary member of the team, but no one else is replicating those vault and floor scores, and certainly not with the same consistency.

After Carey, average tells us that it’s Lee and Eaker as the next most necessary athletes, but teams with them are so close to teams with McCusker, Hurd, McCallum, and Wong in place of them that it’s acceptable to say, “INCONCLUSIVE RESULTS!” and determine that selection camp is the tiebreaker, using the best-scoring team—note “best-scoring team” is not the same as “all-around standings”—from that event to decide the worlds five.

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