One of the biggest takeaways after the hammer came down on the Astros yesterday was “why weren’t the players punished?” After all, Rob Manfred specifically said in the report that it was a “player-driven” scheme. If, however, you read Manfred’s full report on the matter — and remember some recent history — you know why that is, but let’s refresh anyway:
Manfred, after the Red Sox Apple Watch scandal in 2017, specifically said that managers and general managers would be held responsible for future cheating, putting them on notice;
Manfred did this, in all likelihood, because he correctly realized that managers and general managers had the ability to (a) see electronic sign-stealing as it occurred; and (b) order it stopped if they wanted to. Both of which A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow failed to do despite being on notice;
Practically, Manfred could not find out the facts of the scheme without talking to players and players would not be likely to cooperate with the investigation if they risked punishment. While in the PED cases Bud Selig had drug dealers who turned snitch, Manfred had no one to do that, requiring him to give players amnesty in exchange for information; and
All of that aside, logistically, it’d be a nightmare to punish players given how many of them there were, given how difficult it’d be to determine how much or how little involvement they had with the system, and given the fact that many of them now play for other teams, which means that punishing them would harm teams that had nothing to do with it. Indeed, it might harm teams that were specifically victimized by the sign-stealing.
So, it makes sense no players were punished.
But one player — one former player — was mentioned by name:
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.
In this passage — which talks about how the sign-stealing evolved from video techs decoding signs and texting the dugout to players banging on trash cans — Beltrán is the only Astros player specifically identified. He was not punished, but he was named.
Why was he named? Part of that, one presumes, is that his name was one of the only player names that was tossed around a lot in the wake of the initial reports about the sign-stealing back in November. Originally, you’ll recall, it was said that the plan was hatched in large part by a “veteran player” who had recently come to Houston, and it was hard to deny that Beltrán fit that description. Later his name was more directly connected. Naming him here may have been Manfred’s way of addressing that speculation and keeping anyone from saying anything was missed.
It’s also worth noting that, in the wake of the initial reports, Beltrán quite obviously and quite publicly lied about it. From the New York Post on November 12:
Beltran, who is well-regarded for his baseball IQ and was named Mets manager earlier this offseason, insisted the Astros only stole signs from standing on second base.
“We took a lot of pride studying pitchers [on] the computer. That is the only technology that I use and understand,” he said. “It was fun seeing guys get to the ballpark to look for little details.”
When Manfred first announced his investigation, it was reported that people who obstruct or lie to investigators would be dealt with most harshly. That Beltrán was not blasted back to the Stone Age suggests to me that he recanted his spiel to the newspapers and spilled completely once Manfred called him in. He was wise to do so. That said, Manfred likely called him out in the report as a subtle way of flexing his muscle. People who remembered Beltrán’s initial denial can put 2-and-2 together and realize that Manfred broke him. As far as warnings go, it’s not an ineffective one.
Most significantly, I think, is that after the 2017 season Beltrán moved into positions of authority, first in the Yankees’ front office and now as the Mets’ manager. Manfred has much more leeway to talk to and punish management as opposed to players, and he can thus name a name and even do things to a guy who is a manager than he can’t do to a player. He may not have been able to punish Beltrán for things he did as a player, but he can single him out now. He can subject a guy over whom he has a lot of authority — and who no longer has the protection of the players’ union — to some public scrutiny.
That scrutiny will play out next month when spring training starts and Beltrán has to meet the press every day. I suspect that once people start caring more about Jacob deGrom‘s velocity and Pete Alonso‘s BP sessions that it will die down, but for the first few days after pitchers and catchers report, Beltrán will likely face a lot of questions from the press.
Manfred can’t punish players out of all of this, but he can make one of them uncomfortable, and that one is Carlos Beltrán. A guy who skated on the sign-stealing scandal, but just barely.