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Carlos Beltran, A.J. Hinch and the Cheating Scandal

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A theory of the team leadership dynamic that may have contributed to the cheating scandal.

MLB: Houston Astros at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Carlos Beltran, an Astros hero in two separate playoff runs more than a decade apart, is also a main villain in the infamous cheating scandal. Reportedly, the old veteran is the one who introduced the young Astros to the more advanced nuances of sign stealing.

It’s unfortunate in a way, because there is so much to admire about Carlos Beltran the player, Carlos Beltran the person, and Carlos Beltran the baseball mentor. Despite an illustrious, possibly Hall of Fame calibre career, he will be remembered mainly as the instigator of one of the worst cheating scandals is baseball history.

In some ways, Beltran’s interest in bending the rules about sign stealing was an extension of his obsession throughout his career in researching and discovering every possible edge. Even when baseball video was still on tape, Beltran spent countless hours, even as a young player, poring over tapes, looking for any detail that would give his team an edge. He had become an expert at finding how pitchers tipped their pitches, reportedly sharing such a discovery during the World Series, allowing the Astros to bomb Yu Darvish.

When he arrived in Houston, one of the first contacts he made was with Dallas Keuchel, advising him how the league had discovered how he was tipping pitches in 2016.

In his great study of the Astros system, Astroball, Ben Reiter spent an entire chapter analyzing the impact of Carlos Beltran on team chemistry. The picture he draws is of a player who was acquired mainly for his mentoring abilities, who was eager and expected to be almost a kind of player-coach.

Upon his arrival to Houston, Reiter says that Beltran approached every player on the team and said, “My friend, I am here to help you. Even if it looks like I’m busy, you won’t bother me. If you sit down next to me and ask me a question, I would be more than happy to give you the time that you need.”

According to Reiter, this advice was highly valued. Carlos Correa credited Beltran’s mentoring for seven of his 24 homers in 2017. George Springer gave credit to Beltran for providing the mental ballast that allowed him to hit a career high in homers. (34) Indeed, many Astros experienced career years in 2017 up to that point in their careers, Jose Altuve, Correa, Springer, Josh Reddick, Marwin Gonzalez. Whether or to what extent Carlos Beltran deserves credit can never be fully known.

Of course, in retrospect many will say that Beltran’s influence was simple. He taught everyone how to cheat. That’s no doubt an oversimplification, and you might notice that two of the names above, Altuve and Reddick, according to audio data, didn’t participate in the trash can bashing scheme.

Reiter gave Beltran credit for an even more subtle influence on the Astros’ clubhouse. Reiter claimed that the Astros management believed that cohesion and unity (an absence of fault lines) in an organization was integral to the success of that organization. For a baseball team, the Astros front office believed that an extremely harmonious internal chemistry could account for three wins. An extremely discordant clubhouse could cost three wins.

According to Reiter, the hidden value of Carlos Beltran was his unifying influence. A wise, knowledgeable and highly successful 40 year-old veteran. A man who had played the game in the Big Leagues for almost 20 years at the highest level, a man who seemed to have unparalleled knowledge, was a willing mentor, and bridged one of the worst potential fault lines on the team, that between native born Americans and Latinos.

And here’s where A.J. Hinch comes in. Beltran was brought to the Astros precisely because it was believed he would have a strong and positive influence on the clubhouse. When Reiter asked George Springer why he asked Beltran for advice about hitting and not the coaches, he said, “You always just think a coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (Beltran) is a player.”

The question is, did Beltran’s influence inadvertently undermine Hinch’s authority?

It seems that Beltran had become a kind of shadow government within the Astros clubhouse. Up to a point, generally that is not a bad thing. A good manager like A.J. Hinch encourages leadership within the clubhouse. The Astros were playing great, chemistry and morale were sky high.

But Hinch and Beltran had developed a major fault line. Beltran had turned the young team to the dark side. Hinch was opposed to the sign stealing scheme.

One of the mysterious aspects of the cheating scandal is the behavior of Hinch. He made his displeasure with the cheating known, for example, by destroying the monitors in the clubhouse. And yet, as manager he did not simply lay down the law and say, “stop it.” He would have had a powerful clubhouse supporter, Altuve, and yet he didn’t feel powerful enough to “just say no.”

History will remember Hinch as a weakling, but I think that is too simple. Carlos Beltran had become an integral and generally highly positive part of the Astros chemistry. Beltran had become a beloved, admired kind of player-coach, the glue in a happy clubhouse who seemed to be helping most everyone play better.

To take on cheating, HInch had to take on Beltran. It’s not so much that Hinch was unable to take on the almost same-aged and more illustrious Beltran, but that to do so would create exactly one of the fault lines, at the very highest level, that Beltran’s presence was supposed to alleviate.

Admittedly this is all conjecture and speculation, but in my opinion, to some extent Beltran’s role in the clubhouse undermined Hinch’s authority. Thus he did not feel he had the real power to act against the cheating without dividing the clubhouse. Hinch did not want to mess with a clubhouse arrangement that seemed to be working (by going against Beltran).

Hinch’s handling of the clubhouse got the team a championship.

And ultimately, it got him fired.