JAWS and the 2023 Hall of Fame Ballot: Carlos Beltrán

Carlos Beltrán
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2023 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule, and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Carlos Beltrán was the quintessential five-tool player, a switch-hitting center fielder who harnessed his physical talents and became a superstar. Aided by a high baseball IQ that was essentially his sixth tool, he spent 20 seasons in the majors, making nine All-Star teams, winning three Gold Gloves, helping five different franchises reach the playoffs, and putting together some of the most dominant stretches in postseason history once he got there. At the end of his career, he helped the Astros win a championship.

Drafted out of Puerto Rico by the Royals, Beltrán didn’t truly thrive until he was traded away. He spent the heart of his career in New York, first with the Mets — on what was at the time the largest free-agent contract in team history — and later the Yankees. He endured his ups and downs in the Big Apple and elsewhere, including his share of injuries. Had he not missed substantial portions of three seasons, he might well have reached 3,000 hits, but even as it is, he put up impressive, Cooperstown-caliber career numbers. Not only is he one of just eight players with 300 homers and 300 stolen bases, but he also owns the highest stolen base success rate (86.4%) of any player with at least 200 attempts.

Alas, two years after Beltrán’s career ended, he was identified as the player at the center of the biggest baseball scandal in a generation: the Astros’ illegal use of video replay to steal opponents’ signs in 2017 and ’18. He was “the godfather of the whole program” in the words of Tom Koch-Weser, the team’s director of advance information, and the only player identified in commissioner Rob Manfred’s January 2020 report. But between that report and additional reporting by the Wall Street Journal, it seems apparent that the whole team, including manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, was well aware of the system and didn’t stop him or his co-conspirators. In that light, it’s worth wondering about the easy narrative that has left Beltrán holding the bag; Hinch hardly had to break stride in getting another managerial job once his suspension ended. While Beltrán was not disciplined by the league, the fallout cost him his job as manager of the Mets before he could even oversee a game, and he has yet to get another opportunity.

Will Beltrán’s involvement in sign stealing cost him a berth in Cooperstown, the way allegations concerning performance-enhancing drugs have for a handful of players with otherwise Hallworthy numbers? At the very least it appears likely to keep him from getting elected this year. What remains to be seen is whether voters treat him like Rafael Palmeiro and banish him for a big mistake (a positive PED test) in the final season of an otherwise impressive career, or like Roberto Alomar and withhold the honor of first-ballot induction for an out-of-character incident (spitting at an umpire) before giving him his due.

2023 BBWAA Candidate: Carlos Beltrán
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Carlos Beltrán 70.1 44.4 57.3
Avg. HOF CF 71.6 44.7 58.1
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2725 435 .279/.350/.486 119
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Beltrán was born in Manati, Puerto Rico on April 24, 1977, the second of the four children of father Wilfredo Beltrán, a pharmaceutical salesman, and mother Carmen Beltrán, a homemaker. As a child, he played stickball in the streets, using a broomstick and a ball spun out of a roll of tape; at age five, he got his first baseball glove as a Christmas gift. In a 2016 Players Tribune article, he recalled waiting for his father to come home from work every day to play catch: “My dad used to play amateur baseball in Puerto Rico. So did my uncles and my older brother. Baseball runs in my family, like it does in many Puerto Ricans’ blood.” When he couldn’t find a game or a partner, he would walk 30 minutes to a baseball field, hit a bag of balls to the outfield, then go out and throw them back to home plate.

Like so many ballplaying Puerto Rican children, Beltrán grew up idolizing the late Roberto Clemente, whom he was too young to see play, and following the progress of the island’s stars such as Alomar, Edgar Martinez, Ivan Rodriguez, and Bernie Williams. He played shortstop as a youth, but one day, when he was 15, his team’s center fielder didn’t show up. He volunteered to play the position, then liked chasing balls and diving so much he refused to go back to shortstop.

In 1995, five years after Puerto Rican players became subject to the amateur draft, the Royals chose Beltrán in the second round and signed him for a $300,000 bonus. He was 6-foot-1 and 155 pounds at the time, swung only from the right side, and spoke no English; he lived on fast food meals that he could order by number. He hit just .278/.332/.328 without a homer in 52 games for the Royals’ Gulf Coast League affiliate in 1995 but showed more punch (.270/.359/.433 with seven homers in 59 games) at Low-A Spokane.

In June of that season, shortly after returning from in-season knee surgery, the 19-year-old told his Spokane manager that he was a switch-hitter and proceeded to collect three hits from the left side. The previous winter, he had worked out with Williams, who told him to “hit often off a batting tee and work on an inside-out swing.”

Beltrán’s switch-hitting helped land him on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list at no. 93 the following spring. He flopped at High-A Wilmington (.229/.311/.363) in 1997, but after improving upon repeating the level and then lighting up Double-A Wichita in 47 games, he was called up by the Royals. He debuted on September 14, 1998, coming off the bench in the seventh and hitting a single off Oakland’s Buddy Groom, then walking against Mark Holzemer. In a 14-game cup of coffee, he batted .276/.317/.466; his season vaulted him to no. 14 on BA’s list. The next year, he won the center field job in spring training and went on to hit .293/.337/.454 (99 OPS+) with 22 homers, 27 steals, and 4.7 WAR thanks in part to defense that graded out as 20 runs above average according to Total Zone (he offset his 12 errors with 16 assists, his first of four times leading the league). That offseason, he was named AL Rookie of the Year, receiving 26 of 28 first-place votes.

Beltrán’s 2000 season was a disaster. He hit just .247/.309/.366 (69 OPS+) with seven homers and 13 steals, missing two months with a bone bruise in his right knee; one month into his absence, the Royals suspended him without pay because he wanted to rehab with the big club rather than report to the team’s Florida complex. The Players Association filed a grievance on his behalf, but he reported to Florida two weeks later and returned to action before it was settled.

The 24-year-old Beltrán turned the page on that forgettable season, breaking out to hit .306/.362/.514 (123 OPS+) with 24 homers, 31 steals in 32 attempts, and 6.5 WAR — good for sixth in the league — in 2001. He slipped to a 114 OPS+ and 4.4 WAR in ’02 but nearly joined the 30–30 club, finishing with 29 homers and 35 steals. Then he had his best season to date with the bat in ’03, hitting .307/.389/.522 (132 OPS+) with 26 homers and 41 steals (in 45 attempts); his 5.8 WAR ranked seventh in the league.

The Royals, after eight straight sub-.500 seasons, won 83 games that year, but the team’s burst of competitiveness proved short-lived. After starting 21–36 in 2004, general manager Allard Baird conceded that it was time to trade Beltrán, a pending free agent who was making $9 million. He didn’t wait until the July 31 deadline; instead, on June 24, about two weeks after declaring it open season, he sent Beltrán to the Astros as part of a three-team, five-player deal. The return to Kansas City was third baseman Mark Teahen and righty Mike Wood from the A’s and catcher John Buck and cash from the Astros.

Houston, which the previous winter had added free agents Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte to a nucleus that already included Roy Oswalt, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio, and Jeff Kent, was off to a 38–34 start when it added Beltrán. The team’s new center fielder and latest “Killer B” homered six times in his first 16 games and made the All-Star team — the NL All-Star team, despite his late arrival — for the first time. The Astros nonetheless scuffled during that stretch, finishing the first half 44–44, but they went 48–26 in the second half and snatched the NL Wild Card berth by winning their last seven games. Beltrán finished the regular season with a .267/.367/.548 line and new career highs in OPS+ (133), homers (38), steals (42, in 45 attempts), and WAR (6.8).

He was just getting started. Beltrán had never played in the postseason before, but he made up for lost time. In the Division Series opener against the Braves, he went 3-for-3 with a two-run homer and a hit-by-pitch in a 9–3 win. He hit a double and another two-run homer in Game 3 and went 4-for-5 with two homers and five RBIs in a 12–3 rout in Game 5; the homers in Games 1 and 5 all came at the expense of Jaret Wright. He then homered in the first four games of the NLCS against the Cardinals, collecting two hits in three of them; the Astros lost the first two in St. Louis but evened things up at home. His streak of five straight postseason games with a home run set a major league record (since surpassed by Daniel Murphy in 2015). In the ninth inning of a scoreless Game 5, he led off with a single off Jason Isringhausen, then stole second with one out, leading the Cardinals to walk Berkman intentionally. Kent followed with a walk-off homer that put the Astros one win away from their first trip to the World Series.

They didn’t get there, though Beltrán went 2-for-4 in a losing cause in Game 6 and scored one of their two runs in Game 7. Still, he tied Barry Bonds‘ record of eight home runs in a single postseason, set just two years before, and did it in just 56 plate appearances to Bonds’ 74 (Randy Arozarena would surpass both with 10 in 86 PA in 2020). He hit .435/.536/1.022; that slugging percentage is the highest of any player with at least 40 PA in a single postseason, and the OBP fourth. Oh, and he went 6-for-6 in stolen bases.

The 27-year-old Beltrán’s October showcase lined up well with the Mets’ desire to regain relevance after three straight sub-.500 seasons. In December, they signed Pedro Martinez to a four-year, $53 million deal. A month later, they inked Beltrán to a seven-year, $119 million deal — the largest in franchise history. He was just the 10th player ever to receive a nine-figure deal.

Though Beltrán homered in his second plate appearance (off the Reds’ Paul Wilson) on Opening Day and made the NL All-Star team for the second straight season, his first year in Queens was rough. He hit just .266/.330/.414 (97 OPS+) with 16 homers and 17 steals, both less than half the previous year’s totals, and on August 11, he was injured in a collision with right fielder Mike Cameron, whom he had displaced as the starter in center. Both players were pursuing a David Ross fly ball into right-center, and both dove, with horrific results. “They met in midair — head to head, cheek to cheek — and crumpled together, leaving a patch of bloodstained grass. The force was so great that Cameron’s sunglasses flew off and landed in center field,” wrote The New York Times‘ Lee Jenkins. Cameron suffered multiple facial fractures, including a broken nose, as well as a concussion — injuries that proved to be season-ending. Beltrán, who couldn’t remember the collision, suffered a small facial fracture, a concussion, and soreness in his left shoulder but missed just four games.

The Mets finished just 83–79 that year, but after trading for the Marlins’ Carlos Delgado that winter, they improved to 97–65 in 2006, winning the NL East for the first time since 1988 and returning to the playoffs for the first time in six years. Beltrán hit .275/.388/.594, setting new highs in slugging percentage, OPS+ (150, fifth in the league), home runs (41, also fifth), RBIs (116, seventh) and WAR (8.2, second). And thanks in part to his 13 DRS, he also brought home his first Gold Glove.

Relatively quiet in a Division Series sweep of the Dodgers, Beltrán awoke in the NLCS opener, with his two-run homer off the Cardinals’ Jeff Weaver providing all of the game’s scoring. In Game 4, he added a pair of homers, going 3-for-3 with two walks. His double off Jeff Suppan scored the first run of Game 7, but St. Louis tied it up in the second. The score remained knotted until the top of the ninth, when Yadier Molina’s two-run homer put the Cardinals ahead. The Mets’ first two batters of the bottom of the ninth, Jose Valentin and Endy Chavez, singled off closer Adam Wainwright; with two outs, Paul Lo Duca walked to load the bases, bringing up Beltrán. He fell behind, caught looking at a first-pitch fastball for strike one and then fouling a curveball off his right foot for strike two. With the game and the season on the line, Wainwright froze Beltrán looking at another curve for strike three. Ouch.

It was an unhittable pitch, and the rookie Wainwright, who in 2011 called it the “the best curveball I’ve ever thrown,” would build an impressive career thanks to “Uncle Charlie.” But Beltrán had to weather criticism for not swinging. It haunted Mets fans (not to mention principal owner Fred Wilpon), but not him. “If I would have hit the ball in the air, it could have been a fly ball and an out, or a ground ball could have been an out. I just couldn’t swing the bat,” he told the Times‘ Tyler Kepner in 2012.

Beltrán made All-Star teams and won Gold Gloves in both 2007 and ’08, producing 33 homers, 23 steals, a 125 OPS+, and 5.4 WAR in the former year, and 27 homers, 25 steals, a 130 OPS+ and 7.0 WAR in the latter, with both valuations bolstered by double-digit DRSes. That wasn’t enough for the Mets, who in ’07 lost 12 of their final 17 games and coughed up a seven-game division lead in the process, then the next year blew a 2.5-game lead with 15 to go, going 6–9. Had they won on the final day of either season, they’d have made the playoffs. Beltrán went 2-for-4 in the final game of the ’07 season, an 8–1 loss to the Marlins, and 1-for-3 with a two-run homer in the ’08 capper, accounting for all of his team’s scoring in a 4–2 loss, again to the Marlins.

After those near-misses, the Mets receded, spending the next six years below .500 and in disarray. Beltrán never played a complete season for them again. In 2009, he hit .325/.415/.500 but missed 11 weeks from late June to early September with a bone bruise in his right knee. In January, he underwent surgery to shave bone spurs and remove cartilage fragments, but the Mets turned it into A Thing, claiming he had gone against the team’s desire to get a third opinion. Through agent Scott Boras, Beltrán issued a response: “I am totally surprised by the reaction to my recent knee surgery… I have done nothing but follow the directions of my doctors. Any accusations that I ignored or defied the team’s wishes are simply false.” The Mets nonetheless sought advice from the commissioner’s office as to whether they could penalize the center fielder for having surgery without their approval. This was part of a much larger pattern of the Wilpons meddling in baseball operations and particularly medical decisions, minimizing injuries and publicly offering unrealistic timetables for returns.

Speaking of which, while the Mets told the public that Beltrán was expected to resume baseball activities in 12 weeks, which would have kept him out until late April, he didn’t make his 2010 debut until after the All-Star break and ended up playing just 64 games, homering seven times and posting a 109 OPS+. In September, he again raised the Mets’ ire by skipping a team trip to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to tend to a charitable endeavor of his own, a meeting related to the high school his foundation was building in Puerto Rico.

By this time, the Wilpons were reeling from the fallout of the Bernie Madoff scandal, which stretched the team’s finances and put Fred Wilpon in the spotlight. Via Cot’s Contracts, the Mets shed about $48 million in payroll (about 34%) between their 2011 and ’12 Opening Days, some of which they did by trading Beltrán and Francisco Rodríguez at midseason and letting José Reyes walk via free agency.

Before the Mets traded Beltrán, Wilpon took his shots, telling The New Yorker’s Jeffery Toobin for a May 30, 2011 feature, “We had some schmuck in New York who paid him based on that one series,” referring to his own willingness to sign Beltrán based on his outstanding 2004 postseason (two series, actually). He then added, “He’s sixty-five to seventy per cent of what he was.”

Beltrán, who moved to right field that season, earned All-Star honors again before being traded to the Giants on July 28 straight up for pitcher Zack Wheeler, a very solid return for a two-month rental. His play wasn’t enough to get San Francisco to the playoffs, but he finished with a .300/.385/.525 (154 OPS+) line, 22 homers, and 4.6 WAR, a promising rebound for the 34-year-old after two injury-marked seasons.

That winter, he signed a two-year, $26 million deal with the Cardinals, of all teams, and made the All-Star team in both seasons. He hit for a 128 OPS+ with 32 homers, 13 steals and 3.9 WAR in 2012, and a 127 OPS+ with 24 homers, two steals, and 2.3 WAR in ’13, with declining defense accounting for the lost value. St. Louis made the postseason both years, and Beltrán continued his big Octobers, hitting a combined .357/.440/.714 with three homers in 2012 as the Cardinals beat the Braves in the NL Wild Card Game and the Nationals in the Division Series before falling to the Giants in a seven-game NLCS. He homered twice in NLDS Game 2 and went 3-for-3 with two doubles and two walks in Game 5; with the Cardinals trailing, 7–5, in the ninth, his leadoff double off Drew Storen sparked a decisive four-run rally. He hit a two-run homer in the NLCS opener off Madison Bumgarner and doubled twice in a Game 2 loss, but missed most of Game 3 and all of Game 4 due to a left knee strain. He went 1-for-4 in each of the next three games, scoring the Cardinals’ lone run in that barren span before they were eliminated.

The following October, Beltrán hit a three-run homer off the Pirates’ A.J. Burnett in the Division Series opener, then homered and drove in three runs in a losing cause in Game 3. The Cardinals won that series and the NLCS against the Dodgers despite Beltrán enduring a 2-for-20 slump that he shook in time to help the team advance to the World Series. There, he went 5-for-17 without an extra-base hit in a six-game loss to the Red Sox, finishing the postseason with a .268/.388/.464 line and entering free agency once more.

In a hectic December during which they had already signed Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann and watched Robinson Canó depart for the Mariners, the Yankees inked Beltrán to a three-year, $45 million deal. He reportedly turned down a three-year, $48 million offer from the Diamondbacks, as well as interest from the Mariners and the Royals (who for once got the last laugh in terms of their 2014–15 success). Alas, his return to the Big Apple got off to a rough start, as he was limited to 109 games, a 98 OPS+ and -0.2 WAR, and hampered by a concussion after being hit by a batted ball during batting practice and by a bone spur in his right elbow, which was discovered when he hyperextended the joint while taking extra batting practice. He needed a cortisone shot to get through the year, which for him included only three games after September 9, by which point the Yankees were also-rans; he underwent a surgical cleanup after the season.

Beltrán rebounded in limited fashion in 2015, hitting .276/.337/.471 (119 OPS+) with 19 homers but -12 DRS en route to 1.1 WAR; the Yankees claimed a Wild Card berth but lost to the Astros. When it became apparent amid his strong 2016 season — .295/.337/.513, 29 homers, 2.2 WAR, and his ninth and final All-Star selection — that the Yankees would miss the playoffs for the second year out of three, he was among the stars on the outbound, sent to the Rangers in exchange for three prospects, two of whom (Dillon Tate and Erik Swanson) eventually become quality relievers after additional trades. He didn’t hit as well after the deal as before, but Beltrán helped the Rangers maintain their AL West lead and win the division, though they were swept out of the playoffs by the Blue Jays.

For the 2016 season, Major League Baseball and the Players Association took up a cause for which Beltrán had become a crusader based upon his own experience and his observations from a 20-year professional career: making mandatory the availability of Spanish-language translators in every clubhouse. Subsidized by the league and the union, it was a long-overdue move hailed throughout the industry.

After the 2016 season, Beltrán returned to the Astros via a one-year, $16 million deal. He viewed it as one more shot at a World Series ring with an up-and-coming club; Luhnow saw the 40-year-old switch-hitter not only as a capable outfielder and DH, but also as a potential leader who could bridge the fault lines in the clubhouse. That proved true, albeit in ways few could have imagined.

Serving as the primary DH and playing a career-low 14 games in the field, Beltrán hit just .231/.283/.383. Nonetheless, he was praised as a mentor on a team that won 101 games, then downed the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers en route to the first championship in franchise history. Though he went just 3-for-20 in the postseason, he was credited with sharing information with his teammates, most notably when it came to Dodgers starter Yu Darvish tipping his pitches; the Astros pounded him for nine hits and nine runs in two starts, each lasting five outs, including the clinching Game 7. Beltrán, who in 2016 had told the New York Post about studying pitchers for signs of tipping as far back as ’02 and how it had helped him become such a high-percentage base stealer, was willing to expound:

ESPN analyst Eduardo Perez corroborated an observation of Darvish tipping, but it turned out there was far more to the story than that. All of that wouldn’t come out, though, until two years after Beltrán announced his retirement via the Players Tribune in November 2017. Within a month, he interviewed for the Yankees’ managerial opening, though the team ultimately hired Aaron Boone.

By the numbers, both traditional and advanced, Beltrán is a strong candidate for election to the Hall. He’s one of just six players to accumulate at least 2,500 hits, 300 homers, and 300 stolen bases, and while he’s not in the class of the best of those six players, his stats are a dead ringer for those of one who’s already enshrined, albeit with more value attached:

Players with 2,500 Hits, 300 Homers, and 300 Steals
Player H HR SB BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
Barry Bonds+ 2935 762 514 .298 .444 .607 182 162.8
Willie Mays+ 3293 660 338 .301 .384 .557 155 156.1
Alex Rodriguez+ 3115 696 329 .295 .380 .550 140 117.6
Carlos Beltrán 2725 435 312 .279 .350 .486 119 70.1
Andre Dawson+ 2774 438 314 .279 .323 .482 119 64.8
Steve Finley 2548 304 320 .271 .332 .442 104 44.2
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

One of these things is not like the others, but it’s not Beltrán, whose counting stats are very similar to those of Dawson, a Hall of Famer with eight All-Star and Gold Glove selections. Dawson’s superior fielding and Beltrán’s superior baserunning more or less cancel each other out; the WAR gap between the two comes mainly from Beltrán’s higher on-base percentage and greater share of time spent in center field, which shows up via Rpos, the sum of each player’s positional adjustment runs:

WAR Components Comparison: Carlos Beltrán vs. Andre Dawson
Name PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA WAA Rrep RAR WAR
Carlos Beltrán 11031 262 55 10 39 -15 351 34.4 372 723 70.1
Andre Dawson 10769 233 14 6 70 -58 265 29.2 357 621 64.8
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Beltrán’s total of 65 runs above average via baserunning and double play avoidance ranks 31st among integration era players (data coverage issues make it tough to go back much further). The players above him aren’t all Hall of Famers, but Rickey Henderson (147) is first, Tim Raines (122) is fourth, Mays (70) is 25th, and Derek Jeter (63) is 34th, just to cherrypick some good company from the list.

Anyway, Beltrán ranks eighth among all center fielders in career WAR, a lot closer to fifth-ranked Ken Griffey Jr. (83.8) than Griffey is to fourth-ranked Mickey Mantle (110.2). The rankings at the position are top heavy due to Mays, Ty Cobb, Mantle, and Tris Speaker; Beltrán is actually 1.5 WAR below the Hall standard but nonetheless ahead of 13 of the position’s 19 non-Negro Leagues enshrinees. Duke Snider, Dawson, Richie Ashburn and Slidin’ Billy Hamilton are bunched from 10th to 13th, and the overlooked Kenny Lofton is just above them in ninth. Beltrán’s 44.4 peak WAR is 10th, with Snider and current candidate Andruw Jones above him, and while he’s 0.3 WAR below the standard, he’s still ahead of 12 out of 19 Hall of Famers in that category. He’s ninth in JAWS, between Snider and Lofton; that he’s 0.8 points below the standard matters far less than the fact that he’s among the top 10, as the best eligible center fielder outside the Hall. (Like everybody but the top four, he’s looking up at Mike Trout in fifth). Throw in a Hall of Fame Monitor score of 126 (130 is considered “a virtual cinch”) based on various awards and accolades, as well as a .307/.412/.609 career postseason line with 16 home runs in 256 PA, and you’ve got a player who should be a no-doubt Hall of Famer.

That may not have been the prevailing view of Beltrán when he retired, but it wasn’t uncommon, and if he hadn’t lined up for first-ballot entry, he figured to build toward eventual election. But on November 12, 2019, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich dropped the first of several bombshell investigations that revealed that the Astros had illegally stolen signs using electronic means during the 2017 season. A day later, Rosenthal and Drellich connected three sitting managers to the effort: Hinch; Red Sox skipper Alex Cora, who had been the Astros’ bench coach in 2017; and Beltrán, who had been named the manager of the Mets less than two weeks earlier.

At the time, Beltrán claimed that the Astros did nothing wrong. “We took a lot of pride studying pitchers in the computer — that is the only technology that I use and I understand,” he told The Athletic. “(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.”

Major League Baseball opened an investigation into the allegations, and two months later, Manfred issued his report. According to his findings, the Astros’ efforts began early in the 2017 season, with a simple system where employees in the team’s video replay room viewed live footage from the center field camera, then decoded and relayed the sign sequence to the dugout, which then signaled that information to a runner on second base, who then transmitted the signal to the batter. Cora eventually began calling the replay review room to obtain the signals, and on some occasions, the information was delivered via text messages on smart watches or cell phones. About two months into the season, Beltrán — conspicuously, the only active player named in the report — suggested improvements to the system. 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 on a trash can to communicate the pitch type to the batter. That practice continued through the end of the regular season, past the point of the commissioner’s stern warning to all 30 teams following the so-called Apple Watch incident involving the Red Sox and Yankees that September.

Manfred suspended both Hinch and Lunhow for a year, living up to his threat to hold management accountable for violating his edict about using technology to steal signs. He fined the Astros and stripped them of draft picks but did not make any ruling pertaining to the validity of their 2017 World Series win. As for the players, allow me to quote from my own work:

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… 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.

Beltrán’s involvement stood out all the more because, as Rosenthal and Drellich had recently reported, “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 was a member of the Yankees during the period in question.

Hinch and Luhnow were immediately fired, and Cora soon parted ways with the Red Sox; he would later serve a year-long suspension in connection with his own team’s illegal sign-stealing efforts, which were less elaborate than Houston’s. The Mets did not immediately fire Beltrán, but once it became clear that he had lied to the New York Post’s Joel Sherman and Ken Davidoff about his involvement when the story initially broke, his continuation in the role became untenable. He and the team “agreed to mutually part ways,” and he issued a remorseful statement:

“Over my 20 years in the game, I’ve always taken pride in being a leader and doing things the right way, and in this situation, I failed. As a veteran player on the team, I should’ve recognized the severity of the issue and truly regret the actions that were taken. I am a man of faith and integrity and what took place did not demonstrate those characteristics that are so very important to me and my family. I’m very sorry. It’s not who I am as a father, a husband, a teammate and as an educator. The Mets organization and I mutually agreed to part ways, moving forward for the greater good with no further distractions. I hope that at some point in time, I’ll have the opportunity to return to this game that I love so much.”

After staying away from baseball in 2020 and ’21, Beltrán returned to the game as an analyst for the YES Network. He does not appear to have been considered for another managerial opening; both Hinch and Cora were quickly hired upon completing their suspensions.

Soon after beginning his job with YES, Beltrán addressed the elephant in the room on an episode of Centerstage, telling host Michael Kay, “[W]e didn’t feel that we were really crossing the line there… We felt in our hearts that we were being more efficient and smarter than any (other) team.” Elsewhere, however, he said, “[L]ooking back now, yes, we did cross the line… we were wrong. I wish I would’ve asked more questions about what we were doing.”

As I have noted before, the origins of sign stealing go all the way back to the beginning of the National League in 1876; as early as 1899, the Phillies were using an electronic buzzer system that would shock their third base coach to convey signs relayed from a spotter beyond the center field walls. The famous comeback of the 1951 Giants that culminated in Bobby Thomson’s pennant-clinching “Shot Heard Round the World” home run was aided by a buzzer system as well. The surviving Giants sounded anything but remorseful when that story came out.

Particularly after it passed the point of Manfred’s memo, what Beltrán and the Astros did was a violation of the rules, one that tarnishes the team’s championship and by extension the players who participated in it. And based on the data gathered by Astros fan Tony Adams, practically every player hit against the backdrop of the banging scheme at some point, though some far more than others in the 58 home games he was able to analyze. Beltrán was seventh on the team in plate appearances but fourth in “total correct bangs;” team plate appearance leader Jose Altuve, who reportedly told his teammates he didn’t want signs, was 11th, with less than one-sixth of Beltrán’s total. His own performance for the season (an 81 OPS+ and -0.8 WAR) speaks for itself; he didn’t seem to benefit personally, but that’s beside the point. He did something against the rules, and it continued through a postseason in which his team won a championship. Not every player was comfortable with it, but if we’re to believe the various reports, nobody stood up to Beltrán, who therefore saw no need to stop. But given that Hinch reportedly destroyed two monitors, it’s worth questioning both his leadership capability and the convenient scapegoating of Beltrán as a lone actor.

It’s also worth noting that like spitballing/ball-doctoring, sign-stealing is a behavior that exists along a continuum of baseball history, in this case one that stretches back nearly a century and a half. Should it be considered a capital crime as far as Beltrán’s Hall of Fame chances? I honestly don’t know. The fan in me — one who grew up a third-generation Dodgers fan, I’ll add — empathizes with that great 2017 Los Angeles team being cheated out of a title. The industry professional in me knows that the Astros were merely the most extreme example of a team stealing signs electronically, some of which were ultimately reported and others just whispered about.

I also understand why Manfred didn’t attempt to discipline Beltrán or any other players. He had already singled out the team brass as the ones to be held accountable for violating his September 2017 edict, and any attempt he made to suspend or ban players would have been challenged by the union and subject to appeal. I get that such an outcome has left fans angry that the players weren’t punished, but man, that’s baseball itself — a sport full of failure and imperfect outcomes even under the best of circumstances.

I have not decided yet whether I will include Beltrán on my ballot this year. At this juncture, it’s not clear the degree to which the voters are going to penalize him; he’s 1-for-6 in published ballots, a rate that will keep him eligible, but that’s too small a sample from which we can reliably extrapolate. I haven’t found anybody who believes he’ll be elected this year, and notably, the Ballot Tracker’s poll taken back in January (in which I participated) did not, either:

I would hate for Beltrán to fall below the 5% mark and off the ballot. Even given his sins, I think his career merits better treatment, and the ease with which he’s been singled out makes me particularly uncomfortable and concerned about the potential for heavy-handedness among voters. At the same time, I also feel like the issue is fresh enough and the feelings raw enough — particularly with the Astros winning another World Series just last month — that not many people are ready to see Beltrán elected and celebrated so quickly.

I generally shy away from the “first-ballot” distinction when it comes to election; if you’re good enough for Cooperstown, you should be in the Hall of Fame, and they don’t give you a golden plaque instead of a bronze one. In this case, I don’t think it would be inappropriate to withhold the honor for a year (and perhaps longer), but I do think it would be a mistake to send Beltrán’s case into oblivion.





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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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EonADS
2 months ago

I see Beltran as a roughly average HoFer in terms of production, but knowing that he cheated to get a ring after ring chasing like a normal desperate fading player and failing to get anywhere leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I would like to see him stick on the ballot for at least a little while and see if he actually owns up to his failings. If he does, yeah, okay. Vote him in. Otherwise, I could pass.

Mean Mr. Mustard
2 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

As per the article, he did address it while working as a YES Network analyst.

Cool Lester Smooth
2 months ago

The YES apology is a lot better than the initial one.

The rationale I can see for voting him in is close to the one I use with Sheffield trusting his friend and his trainer.

He was a player. He brought an idea to his coach/friend. The coach thought it was a great idea and the manager didn’t veto it, even when another vet objected.

Barney Coolio
2 months ago

Who was the vet who objected?

Cool Lester Smooth
2 months ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

Brian McCann, which does quite a bit to dispel the whole “WAHHHHH !!!! IT SNOT FAY-WAHHH!!!! THUH WANKEES WUH DOIN IT TOOOOO!!!!!” schtick from Astros fans, haha.

Definitely think that every smart team was cracking signs in the video room, but it seems like doing it live without a man on base was very much Cora and Beltran’s baby.

But, like I said: Beltran was a player and Cora was his coach.

68FCmember
1 month ago

How does McCann objecting, but doing nothing to stop it on the 2017 Astros, mean that the Yankees weren’t stealing signs? Both McCann and Beltran were teammates on the Yankees from 2014-2016 during which time the Yankees were fined for using the dugout phone to relay signs. It would be one thing if McCann was the one going public because he was so opposed to it, but all he has done is after the story broke say that he was against it and told them to stop, basically the AJ Hinch defense. Obviously Hinch had much greater responsibility as the manager than McCann did as a veteran clubhouse leader, but if even an old school red-ass like McCann just quietly let it happen, there is even less reason to think that it wasn’t widespread.