Pro SX - Way-Too-Early 2017 Predictions
-- UPDATE: Official predictions for SX 2017 are up: Supercross 2017 Predictions --
Just like with the Outdoor National predictions, please keep in mind these are NOT the final predictions for any of the series, just a working draft -- in particular, the younger riders' predictions are far from set in stone.
The #1 rider might be a surprise: Ryan Dungey. Considering how Ken Roczen dominated the outdoor season, I would guess Roczen's the public's perceived favorite coming in to 2017 Supercross. But what the numbers see is that Dungey was nearly as dominant in 2016 Supercross as Roczen was in Motocross. And while MX numbers do play a part in the SX predictions, the numbers also see that Dungey wasn't that much slower than Roczen in 2016 MX for the few races they had together. So Dungey is the #1 based on his past superiority in Supercross.
But, there are 3 things (at least) that the numbers aren't seeing. One, at the end of 2016 Supercross, once things had started to click for Roczen and his bike setup (apparently), Roczen was faster than Dungey -- except in Vegas, where it was rainy and muddy as all get out. If Roczen is still feeling it, like he was then and like he was in outdoors, then Roczen deserves to be the favorite. But, there's number Two: Roczen changed teams and changed bikes -- so all the harmony that he worked to create between himself and his bike setup over the past seasons is in jeopardy. 2017 may very well be a repeat of 2016 for Roczen where we see inconsistency early, which leads to too big of a deficit to make up, no matter how good he looks in the final few weeks. But only time will tell. Third, Dungey will be returning from an injury -- something he hasn't really had to deal with in his career. Does he return recharged and back at 100%, or is he a bit rusty with a bit of hesitation lurking in the back of his mind? Again, we won't really know until he's shown us for a few weeks that he's returned and banging bars without missing a beat.
There are plenty of other riders with question marks, just like the top 2, but we'll get to that below.
450 SX Prediction for 2017, with riders advancing from the Lites class in 2017 (based on news reports (and some rumors)):
Eli Tomac is no surprise at #3, but it seems a bit of a surprise that there's such a gap between him and the top 2. Tomac is closer in points to Jason Anderson at #4 than he is to Roczen at #2. Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise, after all Anderson did finish 3rd in 2016, but we chalked that up to Tomac being less than 100% as he recovered from his double shoulder injury during the 2016 season. On one hand, Tomac is another year removed from his injury and has another offseason of testing to get his bike settings where he wants them. But on the other hand, are we sure that the guys behind him, like Anderson and Marvin Musquin, aren't actually better than Tomac at Supercross? Would it be all that surprising if Tomac stayed healthy but still finished behind some of the guys in 4th through 7th?
For instance, Anderson finished ahead of Tomac in 3 of 8 motos during the 2016 summer season, and 10 of 17 SX finals in 2016. As I'm typing this, I'm really starting to wonder why in the world is Tomac at #3 and not Anderson? It comes down to 2 things. Tomac was better than Anderson in the outdoor season, and while they were virtually even in 2016 Supercross, Tomac was much better than Anderson in 2015 SX. If you believe 2015 Anderson is no longer valid because the talet that Anderson showed in 2016 is the new, real Anderson, then he should be predicted 3rd, not Tomac.
Another rider with something behind the numbers is Musquin, predicted at #6. Since Musquin's rookie 450 season was 2016, there isn't a lot to go on for him in the upper class. His results for each of SX and MX are pretty good, obviously since he's in 6th, but if you look at his progression week by week, his average results might not be the best judge of his current true talent.
Musquin's average SX finish was around 8th; his average lap times for MX were around 5th. But as you can see, he generally improved as the season when on -- assumedly as he adjusted to the bigger bike. His early results from both 450 SX and MX bring down his average for the season. If you focus on the latter portion of each season (for SX, right before his injury at Santa Clara in Week 12), he was in the Top 3 or 4 for both SX and MX:
(One caveat about the 2016 MX season is that Musquin's late-season results are buoyed by the rash of injuries that swept through much of the field, limiting the competition for those that did ride.) If you believe that the true talent for Musquin is how he looked in weeks 8 through 11 of the 2016 Supercross season, then there's no reason he can't be the favorite for the #3 spot and even hypothetically challenge a rusty-from-injury-Dungy and an adjusting-to-the-new-bike-Roczen for the top 2 spots.
The rookies' transitions to the most competitive class are always difficult to predict, and that goes for Cooper Webb, Christian Craig, and Malcolm Stewart as well. Webb is predicted at #8 right now, which seems about right for him. It's hard to picture him coming in and being immediately better than the guys above him in the prediction, including Trey Canard and Cole Seely (if all remain healthy). And below Webb, I don't see anyone that jumps out as being definitely better than him.
Craig at #12 sounds a bit high to me, but he's got a good result from 2016 in the 250 SX class (3rd place, but very close to #2 and #1), and he also has youth on his side, being only 20.
Malcom Stewart at #15, on the other hand, sounds a bit low. What's holding him back is a less-than-great 2015 in SX and that he's slightly old for a 450 rookie -- 23 -- basically the same age as Eli Tomac and Justin Bogle. Without any MX results from 2016 to balance out the SX numbers, the 2015 season weighs pretty heavily -- if we excluded it, Stewart would move up to #10. So for him, it seems that the key is whether he can ride his wave of success from the end of the 2016 SX season or whether his performance over 2014, 2015, and 2016 in total is the better predictor.
The field for 450 SX was loaded in 2016, and it only seems to be more competitive in 2017. I mean, fairly big names such as Benny Bloss (#21), Davi Millsaps (#22), James Stewart (#23), Wil Hahn (#25), Jake Weimer (#25), and Vince Friese (#28) aren't even on this preliminary Top 20. Are we going to see factory-ish guys like these go to the LCQ or not make the finals every week? Injuries will thin out the field a little bit, but that doesn't account for other riders (younger or international guys) who might be breaking into the Top 20 who aren't yet on my radar. It's the new state of affairs in pro motocross -- being "really good" used to get you in the Top 20 and win some points, but nowadays you have to be better than just "really good" if you want to be in the points each week.
A couple thoughts on Benny Bloss and James Stewart, who are outside the Top 20. Since Bloss doesn't have much Supercross data, his prediction is not a robust one. He's nearly tied for #20, largely because his MX results were very good for a rookie. In his 2 races in 2016 SX, though, he was 19th and 19th, but he was doomed by crashes more than his speed -- he rode near the front of the pack for a while in those races. So, with such little historical data, a few finishes closer to #10 than #20 would jump him up toward the Top 10 pretty quickly.
James Stewart's prediction looks very pessimistic, at 23rd. Neither his 2016 SX or MX numbers signal that he's still a Top 10 guy, much less a Top 5 or Top 3 one. And at 30 years old, his skills are almost certainly declining. Even if we take an optimistic view and ignore his 2016 SX numbers under the assumption that the Week 1 concussion was the source of all the problems, he still checks in at only 14th.
If you want to go for the crazy James-Stewart-fanboy prediction, we could also remove the 2016 MX numbers, again under the assumption that it was a chain of injuries that stems all the way back to the Week 1 SX concussion -- if we do that, he jumps up to #8, but it means we're basically saying he is the same rider from 2014 (since he has no 2015 results due to the suspension), minus about a half point per week due to the age factor. So, long story short is that it depends on whether you think 2017 James Stewart will look more like 2014 James Stewart or 2016 James Stewart -- in the optimistic case he's a Top 10 guy, but in the realistic case he may have a tough time even getting into the teens.
A lot could change in 3 months before the season kicks off, especially in terms of injuries. I'm also working to refine the model, add in better age factors as well as looking at lap times rather than just overall results, so that may cause some minor shifts, too, when the real Preseason Supercross rankings are done. Until then, this will have to tide you over as we get through the offseason, looking for scraps of news about Dungey's back, Roczen's new bike, Tomac's struggle to rediscover his mojo, and everyone who's still trying to find a sponsored Supercross ride.