Major League Baseball does not agree with the Red Sox' claims that the strike zone has changed or gotten wider this season.
It's been a lament of Red Sox hitters, manager John Farrell, general manager Ben Cherington, and owner John Henry the past few days.
According to MLB spokesman Michael Teevan, based on data MLB has accumulated, "the strike zone this season has been consistent with the past few seasons. There has not been significant change in the numbers."
Farrell, when asked recently about whether there's data to back up his team's claim, answered there was, and that he could see it with the naked eye at times that the strike zone was from chalk line to chalk line of the batter's box. Obviously an exaggeration, but the Sox' sentiment is ingrained to the point that the team has started changing its approach to hitting, Cherington said.
"The game has changed over the last year or two," Cherington said on Friday. "The data suggests the strike zone is bigger this year. We've played two months and that may not continue. It may just be random but we see these things happening. We've talked about this and some of our offensive decision-making has been reflective of that. We have to adjust as the game adjusts."
One MLB source indicated that there are certainly individual games where umpires either miss calls or expand the zone for a few pitches here and there, but in totality not much has changed. The source indicated there was no mandate by the league to widen the zone.
The Red Sox want to turn things around from within, with the players they paid handsomely for this offseason.
But first they must identify whether they'll be good enough to stay in the race and compete. That determination may not come until around the All-Star break, when they've either made a substantial run or continue to run in place.
If they reach the point where they need an ace pitcher or a right fielder with power, will they have enough to get someone?
According to one National League executive, the Red Sox are suffering from a narrowing of possibilities to deal for their future needs. The executive cited their elimination of three young players — Blake Swihart, Mookie Betts, and Eduardo Rodriguez — from the list of prospects that teams looking to sell would want in return.
When Orioles general manager Dan Duquette needed to acquire Andrew Miller from the Red Sox last season he had to part with Rodriguez. Would the Red Sox do the same if they were in contention and had a pressing need?
"The Red Sox have attractive prospects and young players, but none of the ones you would want for an established pitcher or players are ones they're willing to give up," said the executive.
There are the second-tier types such as lefties Henry Owens and Brian Johnson, and Double A Portland reliever Pat Light. Center fielder Manuel Margot and third baseman Rafael Devers are also attractive to teams, but there's difficulty projecting Single A players into major league All-Stars. Thus, it's awfully tough for a team giving up a veteran such as Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto for lower-level players.
Nobody knows if the Red Sox will be in position to be buyers. But if they are looking to buy, the pool of attractive players seems to be dwindling. Players once thought of as prime pieces — Jackie Bradley Jr., Deven Marrero, Garin Cecchini, Bryce Brentz — appear to be more complementary ones.
"Brentz has good righthanded power against lefthanded pitchers," said the executive. "Bradley Jr. is a guy you'd take the chance on because at worse he's a great defender. Who knows if he's taken away from the microscope of Boston if he emerges as a good major league hitter? He's certainly had a good season in the minors. Marrero can really play 'D' but he's so suspect with the bat."
Right now the Phillies wouldn't even want to make a deal with the Red Sox unless they gave up one of their untouchables.
The Red Sox are probably correct in saying publicly they can win with the group they have. That might be their only recourse, anyway.
Playing the field
Hanley Ramirez spent a little while Saturday discussing things with Farrell. It wasn't known what they talked about, but Ramirez, who finally took fly balls off the wall with outfield coach Arnie Beyeler on Friday, was back in left field on Saturday. He homered and went 3 for 5 in the Sox' 4-2 win over the A's.
Asked how Ramirez was taking the criticism levied against him, Farrell said, "He's OK but he's also a guy who expects a lot out of himself. I think for the most part he's been upbeat even though things haven't always been smooth. When Hanley has shown the way he's been for so much of his career, he's a dynamic player."
Farrell said Ramirez's shoulder injury has had some effect on his production at the plate, but cannot quantify how much.
"A couple of days to take some extra [batting practice] in the cage, smooth some things out. Little bit of a breather," Farrell said. "We've had a chance to talk briefly over the past couple of days and some of the thoughts behind it to give him little bit of a breather. I would expect him to be back at third base [Sunday]."
Brock Holt started at third base for the second straight day in Sandoval's absence.
The moves paid off. Holt reached base three times and scored a run and Ortiz doubled in a run.
Sandoval is the ultimate streak player. He hit .312 in April, but has slumped to a .123 average in his last 20 games.
Decisions on deck
So, when Justin Masterson is ready to return from his rehab assignment, then what?
Farrell said that has yet to be determined, but it sure looks as if Masterson is headed to the bullpen. The Red Sox are already in need of figuring out how to reduce their six-man rotation to five. Knuckleballer Steven Wright could be the odd man out.
Masterson, who went on the DL May 14 with arm fatigue, made his second rehab start Friday night. He allowed eight hits, two runs, and struck out two in 4⅔ innings for Portland. In his first rehab start, with Pawtucket, he went only 1⅔ innings. He didn’t allow a hit but walked five.
"Final three innings were stronger and more consistent than the first two. He came out of it, I think, feeling improved over his last outing," Farrell said. "There's a definite progressive step being taken here. We'll probably wait until he throws his bullpen tomorrow to determine if there's another one needed or we insert him back there or back with us.
"He got to 80 pitches [Friday] night, which is a minimum that someone has to throw on rehab to come back in a rotation spot. A step of improvement, but we'll have a chance to be a little bit more specific with Justin once we get around another bullpen session."
Masterson was 2-2 with a 6.37 earned run average in seven starts when he was shut down.
"In talking with [pitching coach] Kevin Walker in Portland, there was some increase in consistency to the action to his sinker. But that really started to settle in, in the third inning," Farrell said. "The first couple of innings, it was kind of getting his feet on the ground and getting a feel for the game. We wouldn't want that to show up in a major league game."