Evaluating the Nationals’ new lineup

When Jim Riggleman shook up his lineup before Thursday’s game against the Cardinals, the Nationals manager admitted he was partially trying different things until something worked. Frankly, I’m surprised the Nationals’ current look is what’s succeeded. But, at least for a few games, it has.

The Nationals are 4-0 with Adam Kennedy in the leadoff spot, and 4-0 with Roger Bernadina batting third. The last three games, Kennedy has batted first and Bernadina has hit third, and the Nationals have won all of them, scoring 27 runs in the process. They’ve put 40 runners across the plate in their last five games; they’d scored 23 in the previous nine.

So why has it worked? For one, Kennedy takes pitches; he’s seen 4.03 per plate appearance this season, compared to 3.73 per plate appearance for Nyjer Morgan. He also swings at just 26.8 percent of pitches outside of the zone, which would be third-best on the team and 22nd in the National League if he had enough plate appearances to qualify (Morgan, by comparison, swings at 31.5 percent of pitches outside the strike zone). The primary goal of a leadoff man is to get on base, but the second is to see pitches. In both of those spots, Kennedy has been better than Morgan this year.

Ian Desmond seems to have found a home in the No. 2 hole, where he’s hitting .333 this year. And Bernadina, while not the traditional No. 3 hitter, has at least played well enough for now to make it work; he’s homered four times this month and is 7-for-17 with a 1.268 OPS over four games in the third spot. If both Desmond and Bernadina are able to do that, and Michael Morse hits in the sixth spot, it gives the Nationals some of the length in their lineup that they lost when Josh Willingham went down, and it creates more RBI opportunities for Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn.

Part of the reason it works, though, is because it’s a side effect of Desmond, Bernadina and Morse all hitting well, and depending on your viewpoint, they’d be doing that no matter where they hit. Which brings us to Morgan, who has made no secret of his displeasure hitting in the eighth spot.

He was struggling before being dropped in the order - his OPS was .556 in the prior 11 games - and Riggleman didn’t have a better place to put him than the eighth spot. But how long he stays there, and how he handles the move, will be telling. His back-and-forth with Riggleman has been the most public spat the Nationals have had this year; other players have quibbled about playing time or their spot in the order, but it’s been more private than this. That, combined with Morgan’s looming seven-game suspension for throwing a ball in the stands and his season-long struggles, has devalued him somewhat from when he hit .351 in 49 games for the team last year, and it’s entirely possible the move down the lineup is a precursor to him losing his starting job or being non-tendered this winter.

But one of the keys to this season has been evaluating Desmond, Bernadina and Morse, and making decisions on all three for the future. This lineup puts all three players in key spots, and for the moment, it’s helping them score runs, which they hadn’t been doing at all.

Funny what you stumble upon sometimes when nothing else is working.

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