Mid-season evaluation: Part 2

Kudos to Randy Howell, who leads the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race at the midway point. As solid as Howell has been over the years, this is considerably higher than he's ever ranked halfway through an Elite season. His previous best at the midway point was 14th in 2009, and his best AOY finish was fifth that same year. Howell definitely has the chops to claim the sport's most prestigious title, and he's traditionally been a strong season closer, so this could be his year.

No one in the top nine of the AOY race has ever won the title before, though anglers like Todd Faircloth, David Walker and Edwin Evers are perennial challengers. Of course, you can't have a real discussion of the AOY race without mentioning seven-time champ Kevin VanDam. He's currently 11th, but he has half a season to go and seems to fish better under pressure.

The new scoring system is a b@%$& for anglers who fall behind with finishes in the bottom 25 or so. Randy Howell currently leads the way with 358 points; Dave Smith is last with 45 points. If Smith wins the next four Elite tournaments and Howell finishes 79th in all four, Howell will beat him by a point. That's how unforgiving a slow start is in the new system.

And will the new scoring system create a real difference at the top of the AOY standings? It certainly can. If you look back to what most fishing fans call the best regular season performance in Elite history (Skeet Reese in 2010, when he won two events and finished in the top 5 of four others) and re-run the numbers according to the new system, Reese isn't the regular season AOY leader for that year anymore — it would be Edwin Evers.

So who's got a legitimate shot at AOY this year? Certainly Howell and Walker, but Chapman (currently third) is already further back in terms of his percentage of AOY points at the halfway point than any eventual AOY in Elite history. What's more, Chapman just had a worse finish (68th) than any angler has ever had in an AOY season. If he's going to win AOY this year, he'll make history doing it.

As long as Howell and Walker avoid disaster (a finish below 65th place), it'll be tough to catch them, though the top dozen or so anglers in the race certainly have a chance. I wouldn't look any further down the list than that for two reasons: (1) anyone further back is probably too far behind in the points and (2) they'd have to leap frog too many other anglers to get there; it's one thing to catch a leader (he could stumble) but quite another to stay ahead of the pace set by every other competitor between you and that leader.

Of course, what everyone wants to know is whether or not Kevin VanDam can win his fifth consecutive AOY title. Right now, he's 76 points behind Howell. That means that for the final four tournaments, he has to average a finish that's 19 places ahead of Howell just to tie him.

What to hear a strange statistic? (That's why you're reading "Bassonomics," right?) Well, I ran the numbers from last season using the new scoring system (yes, I stay up late to do this stuff), and VanDam finished exactly 76 places ahead of Howell in the final four events. Spooky, isn't it?

At West Point, Howell was 46th and VanDam was seventh (+39 for KVD); at Murray, Howell was 51st and VanDam was 29th (+22 for KVD); at the Arkansas River, Howell was 13th and VanDam was 10th (+3 for KVD); and in the finale on Wheeler, Howell was 14th and VanDam was second (+12 for KVD). If it plays out the same way this year, they would tie for points.

What about the other years? Yes, I ran through them, too. In the six years of the Elite Series, when you compare VanDam's finishes to Howell's finishes in the final four tournaments, VanDam would make up the gap (76 points) four times. He'd fall short twice (2008 and 2009), but every year of the six VanDam would close the gap at least some. That's how good a finisher he is.

At the moment, Randy Howell is fishing 24 percent better than his career average as an Elite angler while VanDam is fishing 10 percent worse. It's significant. To give you a different perspective on just how good he is, VanDam is the only angler in the top 20 of this year's AOY race (and that's as far down as I checked) who isn't having a better year than his average. So, not only is VanDam typically better than anyone else when he's going good, even in a "down" year he's better than almost everyone, too.

So, should Howell worry? Of course not. Worry doesn't help, and Howell is more than talented enough to take the AOY title. Whatever he's doing right now is working. You've got to go back to Skeet Reese in 2010 to find anyone who's started this strong. Howell is on a pace to have the best Elite season ever. He's averaging an 11th place finish. The only anglers who have ever come close to that were VanDam in 2006 and Reese in 2009.

So what are the best and worst years in Elite history? Check back next time.

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