How Astros cheating scandal will affect Carlos Beltran’s Hall of Fame chances

On each BBWAA voter’s Hall of Fame ballot you’ll find the following instructions: 

Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

That’s just broad enough to cover everything, which is the point. Within those 23 words, though, are some puzzling word choices. For instance, how is the voter supposed to discern between a candidate’s playing record and his playing ability? And how are those distinguished from his “contributions to the team(s)”? Then, of course, there are the three words — “integrity, sportsmanship, character” — that have come to be known informally as the “character clause” of the ballot instructions.

As we know all too well, the character clause has been wielded inconsistently over the years and decades. Right now, it’s keeping Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, two of the greatest performers ever based on the numbers, out of the Hall because of PED allegations. It’s probably costing Curt Schilling some votes because of his controversial behavior on social media since his retirement. On the other hand, a number of players who used amphetamines in the 1960s and 1970s have been enshrined. Any number of racists and rogues from the early days of modern baseball have plaques. Gaylord Perry leaned heavily on a banned spitball to build his Hall of Fame credentials. Juan Marichal attacked a player with a bat during a game. Mickey Mantle squandered a non-quantifiable amount of his legendary talent through his lifestyle choices (and may have used a corked bat). Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb were involved in a gambling scandal. 

We could go on, of course, in citing examples of those who have fallen prey to the clause or had it conveniently ignored to their benefit. The point is its grossly inconsistent application.

Such longstanding uncertainty brings us to the recent sign-stealing scandals that have afflicted the game. You’ll recall that the Astros were punished for stealing signs via electronic means during their championship season of 2017 and beyond. As part of the fallout, Alex Cora, former Astros bench coach, was cut loose as manager of the Red Sox (penalties likely loom for Boston and Cora for similar behavior during their championship season of 2018), and Carlos Beltran was forced to step aside as manager of the Mets before he’d skippered even a single game.

According to MLB’s investigation of the Astros, Beltran in his final season as a player helped devise the Astros’ sign-stealing system. He was the only player named in commissioner Rob Manfred’s report. As well, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic reported that Beltran was asked by at least one teammate to stop what he was doing: 

During the season, small groups of Astros discussed their misgivings. McCann at one point approached Beltrán and asked him to stop, two members of the 2017 team said.

“He disregarded it and steamrolled everybody,” one of the team members said. “Where do you go if you’re a young, impressionable player with the Astros and this guy says, ‘We’re doing this’? What do you do?”

This is all relevant because Beltran will appear on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2023, and he figures to be a borderline candidate for whom every vote will be precious. Thus the question is to what extent, via the character clause, will Beltran’s role in the biggest baseball scandal in a decade and his subsequent exit from the Mets affect his Hall candidacy. 

As for his merits, Beltran’s case is easy to make. Across parts of 20 big-league seasons, Beltran authored an OPS+ of 119 with 2,725 hits; 435 home runs; 565 doubles; 1,587 RBI; 1,582 runs scored; and 312 stolen bases. Beltran won three Gold Gloves and for years was one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. He made the All-Star team nine times and twice finished in the top 10 of the MVP balloting. On top of all that, Beltran had a legendary postseason career. In some quarters he’ll always be remembered for sitting on an Adam Wainwright called-strike curveball to end the 2006 NLCS, but that’s unfair in the extreme. In 256 playoff plate appearances, Beltran batted .307/.412/.609 with 16 home runs, which makes him one of the most productive hitters in postseason history. That figures to matter a great deal to voters and in a vacuum should more than make up for any perceived deficits in Beltran’s regular season body of work.

According to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, which evaluates Hall of Fame candidates based on peak and career value and compares them to inducted players at the same position, Beltran grades out as the ninth-most worthy candidate among center fielders. Of the eight names ahead of him, only one — Mike Trout — isn’t already in Cooperstown. In terms of peak and career WAR, Beltran is right at the average for Hall of Fame center fielders. If common sense prevails, then his postseason outputs will easily put him over the line in the minds of voters. That, of course, is no guarantee. 

Obviously, the sign-stealing scandal could complicate all of that, especially for voters who see Beltran as right on the edge of being Hall-worthy. Even a slight penalty for the scandal could be enough to knock him off those ballots. What will also be key is how voters remember Beltran’s response to the controversy. As it was still unfolding, Beltran issued a disavowal to Joel Sherman of the New York Post. Sherman wrote: 

Carlos Beltran, a member of the 2017 Astros, denied knowledge of a camera that his team allegedly used to electronically steal signs that season, claiming that the World Series champions stole signs organically and legally.

“I’m not aware of that camera,” Beltran told The Post in a text message exchange. “We were studying the opposite team every day.”

In the full light of MLB’s probe, it’s hard to imagine that Beltran wasn’t aware of the camera. As such, he was almost certainly being dishonest in his text to Sherman. Will that small detail be remembered when it’s time for Beltran to be evaluated for a plaque? Or is it more likely that his genuine-sounding apology, first issued to Marly Rivera of ESPN, will be remembered? Here that is: 

“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.”

Therein you’ll find contrition and accountability, and that should mitigate some of the damage that’s been done to Beltran’s cause — provided, of course, that his apology is in anyone’s mind when the time comes to vote. Also, that apology was issued before Rosenthal’s and Drellich’s reporting on Beltran’s recalcitrance. 

Perhaps to Beltran’s credit is that the sign-stealing scandal occurred in his final season as a player. In other words, there’s nothing to suggest that Beltran’s career numbers benefited to any meaningful degree from illegal sign-stealing over the years. (Recall that only electronic sign-stealing is banned, and that’s a semi-recent rules clarification.) While some voters surely concluded that, say, PED use inflated Mark McGwire’s career numbers across multiple seasons, there’s no plausible way to make a similar assumption about Beltran’s career with regard to banned sign-stealing. 

The ballot itself may also be working in Beltran’s favor. It probably won’t be an especially crowded one when it comes to obvious Hall of Famers. Bonds, Clemens, and Schilling with either be inducted by 2023 or off the ballot. Jeter will long have been in. Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz will each be on the ballot for a second year, assuming neither goes in as a debutante (Ortiz would seem to have a better shot at first-ballot status than A-Rod does). Tim Hudson and Mark Buehrle will very likely be on their third ballots. Some players in recent history have suffered from crowded ballots, as voters can’t check more than 10 names in a given year. Beltran, though, figures to have no such worries. As well, appearing on the ballot alongside the far more tarnished A-Rod might prompt voters to put Beltran’s misdeeds into a fuller and more accommodating perspective. 

There’s also some time for Beltran to reconstruct his image. It’s seems unlikely that he’s going to be tabbed for another managerial gig in the interim, but if he’s able to work his way back into the game in some manner then it would serve as a tacit sanction of sorts. Also recall that — unlike former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, former Astros manager A.J. Hinch, and former Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman — Beltran wasn’t disciplined by the league. Cora, once MLB rules on the Red Sox’s sign-stealing, will also likely be in for a lengthy period of ineligibility, which would be another point of distinction for Beltran. Still, Beltran likely needs to undertake a public accounting for allegedly ignoring Brian McCann’s entreaties and hope that nothing else damaging comes to light.

CBS Sports conducted an informal survey of some current Hall of Fame voters on the subject of Beltran’s candidacy, and the consensus was “wait and see.” For instance, here’s what one veteran BBWAA Hall voter said: 

“My policy is not to prejudge any candidate until he reaches the ballot. And especially in this case, I’m sure we’ll know more when Beltran shows up on the ballot — about all of this. His role. Their team. Every team. So I’m neutral right now on everybody.”

Almost every voter surveyed said something along these lines, which means that additional reporting or official disclosures on this matter could either hurt or help Beltan’s case, depending upon the particulars. If, for instance, electronic sign-stealing is found to be widespread in recent years — a reasonable possibility — then the Astros and Red Sox become part of an unfortunate trend as opposed to lone bad actors. That would help Beltran.

One voter offered up this perspective on Beltran: 

“I see a long and storied history of cheating in MLB and while this is more egregious than previous instances I see it as being of a similar kind to previous acts.”

“Not good but maybe not disqualifying” is likely going to be one sentiment, particularly among the growing demographic of younger and newer voters, and that will be to Beltran’s benefit. 

So what’s the probable outcome, barring further revelations that damage Beltran? While this writer considers him to be a fairly obvious Hall of Famer, the consensus, to repeat, is probably going to be that he’s a good candidate but not a lock. The memory of this scandal in tandem with that uncertain status means that Beltran is probably not going in on the first ballot. After that “penalty phase,” though, Beltran’s acceptance of responsibility in tandem with the gradual on-boarding of Hall voters less inclined toward value judgments mean that his support figures to grow from whatever his first-year baseline is. Beltran’s role in the scandal will always be part of his story, and it’s entirely possible that his role will grow as more and more reporters dig in and more and more players speak out. Right now the guess is that the scandal will delay rather than prevent his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. That could be said with more certainty before Beltran was reported to have refused calls to stop stealing signs, and every subsequent revelation may further erode that confidence.