The Nats have been carried most of the year by two bats. Daniel "MVP" Murphy and Wilson "MVP" Ramos. (Yes - let them split it). They both rank in the Top 10 of OPS and wRC+ and haven't seemed to slow down a bit. However, there are still 50 games to go and that's like 30% of the season. Is there any chance these guys will stop hitting?
For Murphy, I'd say it's unlikely. Murphy hits. That's what he does. His lowest batting average since 2011 is .281. He has hit at least .280 in something like 21 out of 27 (over 75%) months of playing. His BABIP (.346) is high, but not strangely so, and it's not that out of line with BABIPs past (.345 .329 .315 .322) He could slump, anyone can, but a profound one is unlikely. Instead the question with Murphy is one of power.
Murphy has hit 21 home runs this year, already well over his career high of 14. True he's hitting more fly balls (over 43% when his previous post 2011 high was around 36%) but the real driving force is a change in his HR/FB rate. It is up around 13.3% when it had previously peaked last year at 8.3%. But that last year peak is part of the reason to feel optimistic about the power staying. Last year he started to pull the ball more in August and September and he started to hit more flyballs. In short, he started to go for the home runs. His HR/FB rate went over 10% and he hit 8 homers in two months after hitting 6 in the previous 3+. It looked like he fundamentally changed as a hitter.
He didn't quite pick up right where he left off when the season started. His April numbers were more average and doubles driven, and he ended the month and went into May on a 19 game homerless streak. But in early May he turned the homer power back on and it's mostly been on since then. He had a dip of 1 homer in 17 games in mid June (he hit 5 doubles and a triple during that time) He bounced back from that just fine.
So is there any cause for worry? Well if you are that type he may be on a similar snide right now (1 homer in 11 games) and while I'd expect a bounce back there's no guarantee that it has to be in the next week. This could drag on longer than the previous streaks especially with the built up fatigue of a season in place. The other thing that might cause a slight worry is there's been a minor drop in "hard" hit balls and increase in "soft" hit balls. These numbers (33.3% and 18.5%) are the lowest and highest of the season for him, respectively. At the same time in those months at the end of last year he "beat" both those low marks and he ended up with months that were perfectly fine.
If I had to guess I'd put money on Murphy's power slowing down a little bit. Along with the soft percentage steadily going up, there's a drop in his ability to get hits off high pitches. Small sample yes yes. But I'm just riffing here. I think he's getting a little tired. It's a long season and he's on pace to play 154 games, more than either of the past two years (143 and 130). He may still hit over .300 these past two months, but I think with perhaps with a little less power, maybe similar to how he ended last year (which was very good!)..
Ramos is trickier. He doesn't have Murphy's same history of hitting and his current average (.336) would best his previous major league high by over 60 points. You'd have to go back to his minor league days to find a time where he hit for average. But that in itself might be telling because the question with Ramos is how much LASIK helped him. If he could see better when younger, a pretty fair assumption, then him being a high average hitter in the minors might be linked to how he should do now, with presumably clear vision. But that's a LOT of speculation. For Ramos we really have to look at this year and see what we see.
One of Ramos' biggest issues is he's slow. Super slow. If the GB doesn't go exactly where it should then it's an out. This year the GBs are going exactly where he needs them to. Generally GBs are base hits at about a .230 clip. For Ramos this year it's happening at a .255 rate well above the .160 and .170 of previous years. Could something else be driving those low BABIPs? Well in the past two years he hit grounders very slowly. Only 12% of his grounders were hit hard. The softer they are hit the more that are gotten to and for Ramos the more outs that are made. This year it's up over 20%. So voila? Not quite. In 2012 and 2013 he hit GBs even harder, and had far fewer softly hit balls. In the two years combined (it's Ramos here - full seasons are rare) his BABIP was around .214. So it really feels like for GBs things should be more like those years and that we're looking for a drop in average.
Of course if he's hitting more liners and homeruns this year that would soften that fall. Well we get half that - he is hitting more line drives this year. While his average there is also a little high - he is crushing the liners and his leg speed matters a lot less here. I'm not going to knock him here like I did for the GBs. However, he isn't hitting more homers, or at least his HR/FB rate isn't any higher. So that isn't going to help the average stay up.
What will though is the decrease in strikeouts. Ramos' K rate had climbed to 20% last year. his swinging strike rate rose to 12.1%, his contact rate down to 77.5% all career worst. This year those numbers are much improved surpassing the numbers he put up in the 2012-13 years.
Looking at this data - there is clearly a Ramos that existed pre 2014 and one that existed in 2014-2015. The one that existed previous to 2014 hit the ball hard and hit a lot of homers (16 in 287 at bats in 2013, better pace than this year). There was some bad luck involved, especially in 2013 that kept how well he was actually hitting from being immediately apparent. The 2014-15 Ramos didn't hit the ball hard, and struck out a lot. There was probably a little good luck involved to make 2014 look ok, but it all came to a head last year. What is 2016? It feels like the natural progression from 2012-2013. He's hitting the ball so much like he did in those years, it makes you feel like 2014-5 were anomalies. I'd say he is player who is healthy, learning to ID pitches better and make better contact, not necessarily hitting the ball differently but becoming a better hitter around the edges.
I don't think Ramos will be the hitter he was in 2015. I don't think that's possible from the player I see today. But I do think he'll probably hit in the .280 range from here on out. That just fits the data better than the .335+ he's hitting now. But with Ramos because he's so slow, I can see the opportunity for a deeper slump. He's not going to luck into swinging bunts and legged out hits that might help a Murphy in the midst of a run of bad luck. So he could hit something like .240 pretty easy, it's just one or two hits breaking the wrong way.
In either case though I don't see any reason to believe these guys have lucked into being productive offensive players. I think Murphy is a changed man, finally figuring out how to turn his innate ability to make good contact into one that generates power. He might tire a bit down the stretch costing him some homers but that's the worst I see. Ramos is a player finally completely 100% ready, with a healthy body and, we assume, sharp eyes. He is back to hitting as he had before and even better continuing the progression that a hitter can take as they get used to playing in the majors. He might stop lucking into grounders going where they ain't and maybe even have that luck turn but he's not going to shut off like a faucet, not if he keeps hitting the ball as he is now.
These two can and should keep hitting. Obviously you never know but that's how I see it. Now - if Murphy slows down the pop and Ramos' average drops well then they become less likely as a pair to carry the team. Two very good hitters are not enough. So the offense still needs more, but it doesn't need to worry about these guys.