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Deconstructing Macha: The Mirage Of Early Leads

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Let me explain what I believe was Ken Macha's thinking (which I happen to agree with) leaving Haren, Loaiza, and Blanton in longer instead of shorter, in the ill-fated Metrodome series.

I think a lot of fans were frustrated because Haren, Loaiza, and Blanton were left in to give up extra runs in "winable games"--games the A's had led, 4-0, 3-0, and 2-0, respectively--which the A's went on to lose. Why didn't Macha put his best foot forward, pulling his struggling starter and getting one of his front-end relievers in before the lead evaporated into a late-inning deficit? Granted, Macha can't "go to the well" too often for Duke, Calero, and Street, but that means he needs to try to find the "winable games" to get them in--so why did the front-end relievers watch, for three "winable games" in a row, while others squandered the lead, and the game?

Here's the point I want to make today: Those were not, by a manager's standard (or mine), "winable games". You have a much better chance of winning a game if you take a one-run lead into the 9th inning than if you take a 3 or 4 run lead into the 2nd or 3rd inning. Just because you hold a nice lead at some point doesn't mean it is "your game to lose". In the entire Twins series, the A's did not once have a game that was actually, at any point, "theirs to lose". Here's what happened:

  • Haren had a sizable lead and pitched great for 2 innings, but when he struggled there were still 6.2 full innings ahead. To pull Haren just because he had given up a string of hits, and three runs, would have left the A's with a long-reliever in the game, protecting a one-run lead with 6+ innings to go. It was too early to go to Duke, Calero, or Street, and the others are back-end relievers for a reason. One hitter and a three-run bomb later, it was too late anyway; the A's trailed and would never catch up.
  • Loaiza had an early 3-0 lead, but by the time Justin Morneau came to the plate with a couple on, it was only 3-1 and it would have been insanity to pull the starter in the 3rd inning, with 6 full innings still ahead and when the starter had allowed only one run. One hitter and a three-run bomb later, it was too late anyway. Sure, the A's tied it briefly, but they were behind to stay by the bottom of the 4th and Loaiza would never even get the A's 13 outs.
  • The A's were 12-1 last season when they scored at least 2 runs for Blanton, so Baby Winexp probably had the A's as 92% of the way home before Cupcakes ever threw a pitch. But by the end of the 1st inning, the Twins, not the A's, had a lead to protect, and the A's could not score again, instead crawling from behind for the last 8 innings.
To me, a "winable game" is a game in which you are tied, or in the lead, at some point in the game late enough that you can go to your best relievers--or a game in which your starter can go deep into the game and get you past the innings reserved for your least reliable relievers. The A's did not play a game like that in Minnesota. Macha could have followed any fan's preferred strategy pitch by pitch, and the A's still would likely have been swept; such is the nature of getting 3 starts in a row in which your pitcher allows a crooked number before the 3rd inning is over.

So Macha punted. Given a hand that had "swept" written all over it no matter what he did, Macha opted for the next best thing to a win: a fresh bullpen in the next series. And thanks to those extra outs Haren, Loaiza, and Blanton got after "the damage was done," Zito takes the mound tonight with Street, Duke, Calero, Kennedy, Saarloos, and Halsey all fully available--not a bad deal following three rocky starts in a row and no off-day. Ken Macha may be dumb, but he's not stupid.