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Do teams hire managers because of their sign-stealing skills?

Alex Cora and Carlos Beltrán were both members of the 2017 Astros. Now they’re MLB managers. It’s not hard to make the connection.

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New York Mets Introduce Carlos Beltran - Press Conference Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Astros sign-stealing debacle is still unraveling. We may never learn the full extent of this scandal, nor the pervasiveness of cheating across baseball. It seems there are more connections and implications each day. At this point, it’s fair to assume anyone involved with the 2017 Astros was complicit— or at least aware that systemic and sophisticated sign-stealing occurred.

As The Athletic’s Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal point out, there were three current MLB managers in Houston that season. Obviously, Astros skipper A.J. Hinch was one of them. His bench coach that year was Alex Cora, who was hired to manage Boston after the season. The third is Carlos Beltrán, who was an active player, named manager of the Mets earlier this month.

From the Drellich and Rosenthal article:

Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Astros and sign stealing is virtually certain to include interviews with three current managers — the Astros’ AJ Hinch, the Red Sox’s Alex Cora and the Mets’ Carlos Beltrán.

Cora and Hinch declined to comment. Beltrán, in a text message, said the Astros did nothing wrong.

We can’t know for sure that Cora and Beltrán were involved in any cheating, but we surely can’t rule it out by any means. In fact, it’s very possible that proficiency with stealing signs made them especially attractive managerial candidates.

Before going any further, we need to be extremely clear: Cora and Beltrán and both exceptionally qualified for their jobs, even without sign-stealing. They’re both baseball lifers who seemed to be beloved in every clubhouse throughout their careers. Cora is 192-132 through two years in charge of the Red Sox, with a World Series ring from 2018. Beltrán was immediately offered coaching and front office positions pretty much wherever he wanted as soon as he retired.

Additionally, they represent two of just six non-white managers, as well as the only two managers to grow up in a Spanish-speaking homeland (Puerto Rico). People of color represent 42.5 percent of MLB players, yet only 20.3 percent of managers. With eight managerial openings this winter, Beltrán was the only non-white person hired (the Pirates job is still vacant).

MLB has done an awful job hiring managers, coaches, and front office personnel who represent their on-field talent. There are thousands of former players from outside the United States, yet not a single MLB manager. Gate-keeping in front offices is even worse, as upper-middle and upper-class white males dominate the most desirable jobs. MLB needs to completely reevaluate their hiring practices to be more inclusive, especially with such a large talent pool available.

In a way, this actually underscores the problem. If we assume Cora and Beltrán are accomplished sign-stealers— and those assumptions are optional— they evidently needed to cheat to be considered for jobs, even though they were completely qualified. If true, this illustrates the inequity of MLB’s hiring practices for post-playing gigs— especially the most desirable ones.

However, there’s another element to consider. What exactly does a modern manager do that’s so special? Gone are the days when the manager was the most important decision maker in the hierarchy; no one wants to hire the next Tommy Lasorda. Decisions regarding pitcher usage and lineups are driven by data, which comes from the front office. Managers and coaches have reams of information at their disposal, which they necessarily consult for in-game management. “Hunches” are dinosaurs.

Modern managers need to be able to understand and utilize data, certainly. They also need to excel at the human and communication aspects of the game. They must keep a clubhouse of 25 testosterone-fueled alpha-males functioning cohesively. Ideally, they should know how to keep the media happy as well.

That’s about it. Those are the key aspects of a manager’s job: know how to use data to inform decisions, and keep people motivated and content. That’s not easy by any means, but there are probably 50,000-100,000 (rough estimate) willing and able former major and minor league players. If just one percent of them are capable, that’s close to 1,000 qualified candidates.

Cora and Beltrán are clearly two of them. What made them so highly sought for managerial jobs, even though the data indicates MLB is biased against Spanish-speaking candidates of color, born outside the 50 states? What skill stood out on their hypothetical resumés? Given their involvement with the 2017 Astros, it’s fair to question whether sign-stealing put them at the top of the candidate pool.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.