HOUSTON — Carlos Beltran has not played in a Major League Baseball game for two years, since he helped the Houston Astros win the 2017 World Series. Now he works for the Yankees, and in an odd twist, the Astros could be preparing for him just as they prepare for Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres, two of the Yankees’ best uniformed personnel.
Beltran works as a special adviser to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, and the Astros know firsthand that he has a special skill. As a player, Beltran developed a reputation as one of the best sign stealers in baseball, a practice that is permissible as long as no outside help, particularly technology, is used.
Beltran, as far as anyone can tell, used only his wits.
“Oh, he’s the best at it,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said on Friday.
“We are very aware. I mean, Encarnacion is really good at it,” Hinch continued, referring to Edwin Encarnacion, the Yankees’ designated hitter. “The teams that are elite at it are as dangerous as ever. You’ve got to be aware, you are always aware.”
Stealing signs — or the potential threat of it — could become a game within the game during the American League Championship Series between the Yankees and the Astros, which begins Saturday night at Minute Maid Park. The Astros must at least prepare for the possibility that Beltran will be debriefed about any inside knowledge he has about his former club, and they will guard against him, Encarnacion or anyone else looking to break their secret codes.
But it goes both ways. The Yankees will surely employ counterespionage measures of their own, in part because the Astros were under suspicion of illicit sign stealing during last year’s A.L.C.S., although Major League Baseball cleared them of any wrongdoing.
Call it paranoia, but being paranoid does not mean the other team isn’t trying to swipe your signs.
Sign stealing has existed in baseball for as long as there have been spikes and gloves. Often, it is legal, such as when players on the bases or in the dugout use their own mental dexterity to decipher the other team’s signs. Roberto Alomar, the Hall of Fame second baseman, was one of the best ever at stealing signs, whether from catchers, third base coaches or managers, but many others perfected the craft, too.
Likewise, there is a rogue history of using forbidden tools to enhance sign-stealing capabilities. The 1951 New York Giants used a telescope and a buzzer to steal signs from the scoreboard in center field at the Polo Grounds, and the 2017 Boston Red Sox were caught using Apple Watches to transmit information.
During the 2015 A.L.C.S., the Kansas City Royals suggested that the Blue Jays were using people in the stands to relay signs in Toronto. Russell Martin, then with the Jays, denied it, but said the Yankees had done that when he played for them.
The possibility that the Astros use center-field cameras at their park to steal signs — for which there is no evidence — was brought up during Game 5 of the American League division series. Seth McLung, a former pitcher with the Tampa Bay Rays and Milwaukee Brewers, noticed on television that Rays catcher Travis d’Arnaud was running through extra sets of signs. McLung never accused Houston of doing anything wrong, but he wrote on his Twitter account that the extra signs meant that the Rays were suspicious.
Were the Rays concerned? D’Arnaud had no evidence that there was illegal sign-stealing going on, but like a nervous A.T.M. user shielding keystrokes even when no one is around, he took no chances. As McLung pointed out, the Rays were using three sets of signs, even when Houston didn’t have runners on base peering into the catcher’s signs — the most common method of swiping signs.
“Yeah, we were just making sure that nothing was happening,” d’Arnaud said after the Astros beat the Rays, 6-1, to clinch that series. “I was giving three signs with nobody on. We just wanted to make sure that nothing was going on.”
As it turned out, Tyler Glasnow, the Rays starter, was tipping his pitches — inadvertently doing something in his windup to signal to the hitters what kind of pitch was coming. That is not uncommon in baseball, but it is self-inflicted, and a totally separate issue from sign stealing.
The Astros scored four times in the first inning, and after he came out of the game, Glasnow looked at video and said it confirmed his fear that he had been tipping.
Glasnow’s admission undercut the theory that the Astros had benefited from illicit intelligence gathering, but that certainly did not stop the Rays from continuing their countermeasures. After all, the game’s history breeds suspicion.
“I’m not sure,” Rays left fielder Austin Meadows said when asked after Game 5 about sign-stealing concerns. “I really have no comment on that. I don’t know if there’s cameras or not, but obviously they did a good job putting four on the board early in the game, and that kind of shifted momentum to their side.”
Hinch dismissed the idea that the Astros had used any technology to enhance their code-breaking capabilities. But like the Rays, he said, his team must guard against the possibility that others are spying. To do otherwise would be a dereliction of duty.
“Everybody is worried about pitch tipping and everybody’s worried about stealing signs across the league,” Hinch said. “Everybody’s doing it, not just to us, but to everybody. I’ve watched so many games this year where everybody is paranoid that they’re giving something away. We were running through multiple signs with nobody on base because that’s the era that we’re playing in. You’ve got to guard against every advantage that you think somebody can get.”
Billy Witz contributed reporting.