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Good Designated Hitters Field Better Than You Think

Count me amongst the fans excited about Chris Carter's potential for the years 2012-17. This is especially noteworthy because I have seen enough to conclude that the only position Carter can play well is DH. (Personally, I'd like to see the A's give up on him as a LFer or 1Bman and let him focus on being the best DH he can be.)

When you look at the "positional adjustment penalty" given to DHs -- Tom Tango assigns a whopping -17.5 run penalty just for being a DH, before he ever actually sees a pitch -- you can easily conclude that DHs aren't that valuable and that a guy like Carter, even if he can mash big league pitching, isn't going to be all that useful if he can't play in the field. 

So when you see an article, perhaps one a lot like this one, that is about to espouse the virtues of a mashing DH, you might think it's going to talk about how important hitting is, and overlook how critical defense is. And yet I'm here to talk about defense too, and how Chris Carter, if he's a good enough DH, can help the A's in the coming years both at the plate and in the field.

As you look at the current A's lineup, you see a middle of the order that is, at best, "ok" and a bottom of the order that is offensively poor (in both senses of the phrase). The A's, however, do put a good defensive team on the field overall. The problem is that mostly the same guys who hit also play defense, and if you're Mark Ellis, Cliff Pennington, Kurt Suzuki, or Kevin Kouzmanoff, most of your value comes from your defense. So the current A's have put together a team of mostly excellent defensive players, flanked by two decent hitters who don't help you defensively: Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui.

The problem is that you can't afford to have "defense only" players flanked by "defense only" players, because then you get what the A's have: A team that can field but can't hit. Yet you can't afford to just replace these guys with poor defenders who are better hitters, because then you get a team that can hit but can't field -- and if that sounds appealing right now, ask Marlins fans about infield defense or Twins fans about OF defense.

What you need is a really good hitter who can afford you the luxury of putting a couple "defense only" guys at key defensive positions -- but who doesn't hurt you defensively himself. There are two kinds of players who fit that description: Stars (like Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, Carl Crawford, etc.), who cost a fortune, and DHs. The beauty of a good enough DH is that he can help afford you the luxury of an Ellis, or a Pennington.

I know the A's are legitimately high on Carter's potential as a hitter, and I am too. I see him as potentially a legitimate "masher," while I also see him as an inadequate defensive player. As one of the few "40-HR potential" guys the A's have had in a long time, but one who also has good plate discipline, Carter's ceiling as a hitter (and remember a ceiling isn't a "likely projection," it's a best case scenario) is to be similar to Ryan Howard or Prince Fielder. Other apt comparisons might be to David Ortiz and Travis Hafner, circa 2003-04: Basically someone who should be DHing, who at the plate can give you a .250/.350/.550 line, with 35-40 HRs to help you forget about his 100+ Ks. Carter may or may not reach that level as a hitter, but even if he doesn't he might come close.

He just won't help you in the field -- or rather, he WILL help you in the field if he allows you to put a good hitting lineup out there even when you include a couple light-hitting defensive whizzes.

I want you to close your eyes (ok that was a bad idea, now you're not them again and just do some visualizing) and imagine Ryan Howard, or Prince Fielder, or the in-their-prime versions of David Ortiz or Travis Hafner, as part of this lineup right now. For simplicity, I'll use Howard to represent that type of hitter:

Crisp - CF
Barton - 1B
Willingham - LF
Howard - DH
DeJesus/Jackson/Sweeney - RF
Suzuki - C
Kouzmanoff/LaRoche - 3B
Ellis - 2B
Pennington - SS

It's already starting to look a lot better, because the upgrade from Matsui to a true masher has made the lineup a lot more potent while keeping it just as strong defensively. Right now, the A's can't really afford Ellis' bat, or Kouzmanoff's bat, or Pennington's bat, because there's too many of them and not enough oomph around them.

So if Carter can develop into what Ortiz and Hafner became to their teams, for the 2012-17 A's, they will better be able to afford to put an Ellis (though it won't be Ellis himself) or Pennington in the lineup and keep the defense strong while still generating enough offense overall.

DH is the only position where you can do that, which is why I believe a really good DH is valuable, and I'm excited about the possibility that the A's could have one, one who is affordable and under contract control, arriving on the scene in the near future.