Carlos Beltrán’s Job and Legacy Are in Limbo

This article was published before the Mets and Beltrán “agreed to mutually part ways” on Thursday. Jay’s follow-up is available here.

This has not been a good week for Carlos Beltrán. Though he evaded punishment from Major League Baseball for his involvement in the Astros’ 2017 electronic sign stealing scheme, as did every other player, Beltrán was the only one singled out by name in commissioner Rob Manfred’s report. What’s more, he’s now the only one of the three managers who were caught up in the scandal — or at least its initial wave — who still has a job, though he’s already on the hot seat before managing a single game. Suddenly, what appeared to be a very promising second act to his career is in jeopardy, as is the possibility that Beltrán will be elected to the Hall of Fame once he becomes eligible in 2023.

Per Manfred’s report, which I dissected on Tuesday, the Astros’ efforts to steal signs using electronic equipment — a practice broadly prohibited by MLB rules but not strictly enforced at the time — began early in 2017 and grew more elaborate as the season went on. “Approximately two months into the 2017 season, a group of players, including Carlos Beltrán, discussed that the team could improve on decoding opposing teams’ signs and communicating the signs to the batter,” wrote Manfred. The intent was to upgrade a system that had been rather simple to that point, with employees in the team’s video replay room viewing live footage from the center field camera, and relaying the decoded sign sequence to the dugout, where it was signaled to a runner on second base; the runner would then transmit the signs to the batter.

In the wake of Beltrán’s intervention, bench coach Alex Cora arranged for a monitor showing the center field feed to be placed in the tunnel near the dugout. After decoding the sign from that monitor, “a player would bang a nearby trash can with a bat to communicate the upcoming pitch type to the batter,” according to the report. The practice continued through the end of the regular season and the postseason, and into 2018, even after Manfred issued a stern warning to all 30 teams on September 15, 2017, in the wake of separate allegations regarding the Red Sox engaging in their own abuse of the system. At that point, Manfred said that he would hold general managers and managers accountable for their teams’ efforts to subvert his prohibition on using electronic means to steal signs.

As part of the punishment handed down on Monday, Manfred suspended Astros manager AJ Hinch and GM-turned-president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow for the 2020 season; both were quickly fired by owner Jim Crane. Discipline for Cora, who was named Red Sox manager following the 2017 season and led them to 108 wins and a championship in his first year, is being deferred until Manfred finishes his investigation into allegations regarding that team’s 2018 sign-stealing operation. Even so, the handwriting on the wall regarding a pending suspension is so clear that the Red Sox “mutually agreed to part ways” with Cora on Tuesday, despite his being under contract through at least 2021.

Given his previous directive towards GMs and managers, Manfred chose not to punish any players, both for their bosses’ failures to police their own players and on the grounds that the investigation could not determine “with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability.” Beltrán, the Astros’ designated hitter in 2017, thus evaded punishment, though it’s fair to question that decision in light of the centrality of his role and the fact that he retired just after the World Series, and therefore could not have been defended by the Players Association in a disciplinary action the way an active player could.

Though he’s only mentioned that one time, Beltrán’s stands out because no other Astros position player was named; the only other player who appears in the report is pitcher Mike Fiers, the whistleblower who went on record to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, confirming the trash can system in their November 12 report. That article did not mention Beltrán, but it precipitated the opening of Manfred’s investigation. A day later, Rosenthal and Drellich reported Beltrán’s role along with those of Cora and Hinch. That article provided less detail than Manfred’s report but did position Beltrán centrally: “[S]ources said both Cora and Beltrán played a key role in devising the sign-stealing system the team used that season.”

While Beltrán was not mentioned by name in Rosenthal and Drellich’s January 7 report of the Red Sox’s own sign-stealing efforts, last week I noted that it was possible to connect the dots between him and the timeline laid out by The Athletic’s intrepid pair. “As far back as 2015, the Yankees used the video replay room to learn other teams’ sign sequences, multiple sources told The Athletic. Other teams likely were doing the same. Sources said the Red Sox began doing it no later than 2016.” Beltrán played for the Yankees from 2014-16 before being traded to the Rangers on August 1 of the latter year; he signed with the Astros in December 2016.

Such circumstantial evidence hardly proves Beltrán’s involvement in New York, but as noted within that article, player movement from team to team appears to have played a significant role in the proliferation of electronic sign-stealing efforts throughout the game. “Oftentimes it takes a player to show up and be like ‘You f—— morons, you’re not doing this?’” one American League executive told The Athletic.

(Needless to say, reports of the Yankees’ 2015 participation should also serve as a reminder that the apparent guilt of the Astros and Red Sox may be the tip of the iceberg in this mess, a point that The Athletic has frequently underscored but that appeared to escape Manfred back in November when he said he had “no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”)

In The Athletic’s November 13 piece, Beltrán denied wrongdoing. Via text message, he told the site:

“We took a lot of pride studying pitchers in the computer – that is the only technology that I use and I understand. It was fun seeing guys get to the ballpark to look for little details.

“(In) the game of baseball, guys for years have given location and if the catchers get lazy and the pitcher doesn’t cover the signs from second base, of course players are going to take advantage.

“I don’t call that cheating. I call that using the small details to take advantage. I think baseball is doing a great job adding new technology to make sure the game is even for both teams.”

Similarly, Beltrán told the New York Post’s Joel Sherman via text message at the time, “I’n not aware of that camera,” referring to the center field camera that provided the video feeds used to decode signs. “We were studying the opposite team every day.” Two days later, he told the Post via text, “I’m not concerned. There’s nothing illegal about studying your opposite team. We all have the same opportunity to look out for information and tendencies.”

At his introductory press conference as manager, Beltrán’s studious attention to detail was noted by general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, who said, “He looks at the little things. He looks for tips. He looks for any weaknesses that he can exploit in game planning.” Those traits were similarly lauded during his time with the Astros, never moreso than after Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, when the team battered Dodgers starter Yu Darvish and chased him in the second inning, just as they had done in his Game 3 start. Beltrán was credited with spotting the way that Darvish tipped his pitches, which would only have run afoul of MLB’s sign-stealing prohibitions if it involved the in-game use of electronic equipment. It’s unclear from the way that Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci described his conversation with an anonymous Astro as to whether that was the case, though teams were spotting pitch-tippers long before the advent of video replay rooms and the unintended consequences that have followed in their wake. Nonetheless, Manfred’s report offers a new and less savory interpretation of Beltrán’s studies.

The Athletic’s first article mentioning Beltrán’s role ran 12 days after he was named to succeed Mickey Callaway as the Mets’ manager. While that report couldn’t have come up during his multiple job interviews due to the timing, rumors about various teams’ sign-stealing efforts were surely circulating by then, and it seems plausible that the topic would have been broached in such a context, at least as a hypothetical scenario. Furthermore, the Mets surely asked Beltrán about his involvement once he was named by The Athletic. As Rosenthal and Drellich wrote on Tuesday, whether the new manager was truthful with the team is now in question, and it could affect his job status.

When Beltrán’s name initially surfaced, Van Wagenen was attending the general managers meetings in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he told reporters, “I don’t have nearly enough information and I would defer to MLB on any of those questions… Anything that happened, happened for another organization with Houston. I have no idea if anything did or did not. But at this point, I don’t see any reason why this is a Mets situation.”

Beltrán subsequently met with MLB’s investigators and presumably was forthcoming in disclosing his role, given that he avoided punishment, but his previous statements to reporters are at odds with Manfred’s report. In short, he lied, as Sherman, Post colleague Ken Davidoff, and many other writers and outlets have pointed out.

That puts the Mets, who have yet to comment since the Manfred report was released, in a very difficult spot. How will the players regard a rookie manager who recently lied and broke rules — some, perhaps, while competing against them in early September 2017, when the Astros swept the Mets during a three-game series in Houston? Even if he comes clean with a public apology for his involvement, wrote Rosenthal and Drellich, “Beltrán would face a credibility problem with the New York media due to his initial public comments.” Given any manager’s role as the public face of a franchise, that’s a problem; for the Mets, who play in the country’s largest media market, it’s an even bigger one. And that’s before acknowledging that the franchise, while under the Wilpons’ ownership, has had a long history of credibility problems to go with their post-Madoff financial woes, and little claim to the “integrity” that they apparently value so highly.

The Mets are said to be assessing the situation internally, no doubt with one eye towards whether they would be on the hook to pay their new skipper the entirety of his three-year contract at a time when they’re still paying Callaway for his final year. Beltrán is currently at the team’s spring training facility in Port St. Lucie, involved in tasks such as organizational meetings, “but that doesn’t mean that his position in the organization is necessarily secure, and won’t be until the Mets come out and say that it is,” said SNY’s Andy Martino on Tuesday.

If the team does fire (or “part ways”) with him, they could circle back to Eduardo Perez, the other finalist in their managerial search, and one who had an ownership-level interview. They could also turn to new bench coach Hensley Meulens, who has interviewed for several managerial openings in recent years and was thought for a time to be Bruce Bochy’s likely successor in San Francisco, where he spent the past decade as a hitting and bench coach. If Beltrán is dismissed, he would join another ex-Met, Wally Backman, as managers fired before their first game. Hired in November 2004 by the Diamondbacks, Backman lasted just four days before the team discovered that he had been arrested twice and had field for bankruptcy, issues that the team was not aware of because it didn’t perform a proper background check. Can the Mets similarly afford to look as though they came up short in the due diligence department?

If Beltrán is relieved of duty, it will at least temporarily thwart what was though to be a promising managerial career, but even if he’s allowed to proceed, his position in the Manfred report could cast a shadow when he becomes eligible for election to the Hall of Fame on the 2023 ballot. Putting his prominence in the report aside for a moment, he’s got a case that can appeal to both traditional-minded voters and statheads. While Beltrán did not reach the milestones that tend to lead to automatic induction, he was a nine-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner during his 20-year career with the Royals, Astros (twice), Mets, Giants, Cardinals, Yankees, and Rangers. He built a reputation as one of his era’s top postseason performers, batting .307/.412/.609 with 16 homers in 256 PA spread out over seven trips to the playoffs. He’s one of just 13 outfielders with at least 2,700 hits (he has 2,725) and 400 home runs (he has 435). Of the other 12, only Barry Bonds is not in the Hall of Fame, due to his connection with performance-enhancing drugs. Beltrán scores 126 on Bill James‘ Hall of Fame Monitor metric, which dishes out credit for things like seasons or careers with batting averages above .300, awards, league leads in key stats and playoff appearances — things that have tended to sway Hall of Fame voters; a score of 100 is considered “a good possibility,” 130 a “virtual cinch.”

Meanwhile, Beltrán’s 69.6 career bWAR ranks eighth among all center fielders, 1.5 wins below the standard at the position but ahead of 13 of the 19 enshrinees. His 44.4 peak WAR ranks 11th, 0.1 below the standard but ahead of 11 of the 19. His 57.0 JAWS is 0.8 points below the standard but ranks ninth, ahead of 12 out of the 19 as well as recent or current candidates Kenny Lofton (55.9), Andruw Jones (54.7), and Jim Edmonds (51.5). Those rankings aren’t changing anytime soon, either, because Mike Trout already passed Beltrán, and no other active center fielder is within 20 WAR.

About that Bonds exception… while the current sign-stealing scandal may be this generation’s version of the PED mess, it’s far too soon to say whether a player’s involvement will carry the same stigma, or what kind of nuance BBWAA voters will bring to their analysis. Opinions on PED-linked players with respect to Hall elections run the gamut from “hang ’em high, I’ll never vote for a cheater cheater pumpkin eater” to “performance only, I’m not a cop.” So far, voters haven’t elected a single player who was suspended for PEDs. With the exception of Bonds and Roger Clemens, both of whom received a hair over 59% of the vote last year and are expected to improve upon that this year, the others with allegations connected to the pre-testing era — most notably Mark McGwire, Andy Pettitte, Sammy Sosa, and Gary Sheffield — have lagged considerably relative to their stats, though Sheffield is currently poised to outdo McGwire’s 23.6% as the highest share by any such candidate. That Beltrán has been outed for a transgression that occurred during the final year (or at least late in his career) may not matter to voters, but it certainly could; just ask Rafael Palmeiro. Likewise for the fact that he was not punished, given the litany I just noted.

Speaking as a voter who will get his first ballot next year and thus be eligible to consider Beltrán three years from now, I’m honestly not sure what I’ll do yet, and am glad I have time to decide; that’s the point of the waiting period, after all. We’ll see whether Beltrán changes his tune in public, how he conducts himself if he keeps his job, and what kind of path he takes if he does not. We’ll also see how the other elements of the sign-stealing scandal unfold, in Boston and perhaps beyond.

Beltrán’s status with the Mets isn’t likely to remain in limbo much longer; he could be out of a job by sundown. Regardless of what happens, he has three more years until BBWAA voters will decide whether his role in the sign-stealing saga has changed their view of a player otherwise well-qualified for Cooperstown — three years to make amends and attempt to rebuild the credibility he earned over the course of his storied career, and three years for the rest of the industry to come to terms with the larger picture of how MLB allowed this to happen, and where the game goes from here.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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4 years ago

Peak Mets that the Astros and Red Sox are caught cheating, and somehow the Mets come out worst in the end…

4 years ago

/insert deep Keith Hernandez sigh