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Don’t Blame The Trade Deadline For This Red Sox Swoon

Cause-and-effect in baseball is rarely so clear cut

Kansas City Royals (2) Vs. Boston Red Sox (6) at Fenway Park Photo by Vincent Alban/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

On July 24, 2004, Bill Mueller blasted a walk-off home run off Mariano Rivera and the New York Yankees. It wasn’t just any walk-off home run. Several hours earlier (and it was several hours — thank Pedro for the pitch clock) Bronson Arroyo had stung Alex Rodriguez in the arm with an errant curveball. Jason Varitek didn’t take kindly to A-Rod’s jawing as he slow-walked to first, reportedly (but almost certainly apocryphally) telling the all-time great “we don’t throw at .260 hitters,” and then shoving his mitt into A-Rod’s spray-tanned face.

Up to that point, the 2004 team had largely been a disappointment, a high-priced collection of talent designed to finally break The Curse that instead struggled to reach its potential for most of the year. This game came to be viewed as the turning point for not just the season, but the franchise as a whole. It is now a foundational pillar of the Red Sox-Yankees myth that the brawl and subsequent walk-off that day sparked a somnambulant Red Sox team, igniting a fire that would burn all the way through Game 4 of the World Series in St. Louis.

But it’s not true.

Over the next few weeks, the supposedly rejuvenated Red Sox compiled a record of just 11-8 all the way through mid-August. Entering play on August 16, the Red Sox sat at a pedestrian 64-52, 10.5 games behind the dvision-leading Yankees (who actually responded to the brawl by winning 14 of their next 20 games) and stuck in a virtual four-way tie for the Wild Card with the Rangers, Angels, and Twins. In truth, it wasn’t until several weeks after the Tek-A-Rod brawl that the 2004 team finally took off, going an absurd 20-2 from August 16 through September 8, a stretch that started with a 7-inning gem by Derek Lowe against the Blue Jays.

Did it simply take the 2004 team that long to emotionally process the events of July 23? Or, rather, were the 2004 Red Sox merely an incredibly talented team who were bound to get hot eventually?

I’m sorry to say that the answer is disappointingly boring.

The last few weeks of Red Sox baseball have given fans symptoms of whiplash. For a stretch leading up to the trade deadline, they were the best team in the land. Then, after a deadline in which the front office failed to reinforce a pitching staff held together by prayers and Nick Pivetta, they became very much not the best team in the land. A chaotic and ugly sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays seemed to end the season before the stretch run even began, only for the Pablo Reyes Game to seemingly resurrect it, only for that game to be followed by a depressing blowout against one of the worst teams in the league.

Through it all, fans have been trying to connect the various dots to make sense of these wild swings. Was Rafael Devers left unmotivated and unengaged by a do-nothing front office? Would the returns of Trevor Story and Chris Sale give the team an emotional lift up the standings? Is Alex Verdugo poisoning what was once thought to be a calm and steady clubhouse?

As with the 2004 team, the explanation for the Red Sox recent swoon is likely much more boring than story-telling human beings trying to make sense of the would like it to be. The Red Sox are not playing poorly because anything that was or was not done at the trade deadline. They’re not playing poorly because Alex Verdugo keeps missing the exit for Fenway on the pike and has to drive all the the way to the Seaport to turn around. The Red Sox are playing poorly right now because they cannot hit right now. That’s really all there is to it.

Since the ebullient sweep of the Atlanta Braves, the Red Sox offense has completely disappeared. They sit 25th in the league in slugging, 28th in batting average, and 29th in on-base percentage. The pitching, to be fair, hasn’t been any better (29th in ERA) but we always knew the pitching situation would be precarious until reinforcements arrived. The hope was that an offense that’s spent most of the season towards the top of the leaderboards would be able to carry the team in the interim. It hasn’t.

And sure, if you want to go ahead and blame the trade deadline or clubhouse issues for a slumping offense, you can do that. But the truth is that this lineup has already been this bad before, even without any supernatural causes. For nearly a month from mid-May through mid-June, they slashed just .237/.313/.375, all three marks firmly in the bottom third of the big leagues.

Looking at the big picture, it seems like the overall solid season-long numbers (9th in runs and OBP, 7th in slugging, 4th in batting average) are somewhat of a mirage, buoyed by a few unsustainably hot stretches:

Looking at the chart above, it’s clear where the outliers are. The Red Sox offense, overall, is mediocre, capable of looking outstanding for small stretches, brutal for small stretches, and just kinda meh most of the time. The Red Sox team overall is mediocre, ditto, ditto, ditto.

And if you’re looking for an explanation for this recent, possibly season-ending rut, look no further than that. It’s not the lackluster trade deadline that caused this swoon; as much as it would have been eminently reasonable to trade a mid-level prospect for a starting pitcher to stabilize the rotation, that wouldn’t have saved the season. It’s not the weird clubhouse vibes, either; while the bizarre Verdugo situation certainly takes a mental and emotional toll on the players, that’s not enough to sink the season. And, sorry, the color of the jerseys doesn’t have anything to do with it either.

The Boston Red Sox aren’t very good right now for the disappointingly boring reason that the 2023 Boston Red Sox aren’t very good overall. No brawl or walk-off home run can fix this. Though, of course, if Tek wants shove his mitt in ARod’s face the next time the national broadcast team is in town, it’s worth a shot.