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Let’s rethink the language and meaning of minor league assignments

It’s not as a simple or negative as being “demoted” or “sent down”

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Here are three recent headlines:

Rockies send opening-day starter Jon Gray down to Triple A” — USA Today

Ryan McMahon surprisingly sent down, despite major adjustment” — RoxPile

“Rockies’ Noel Cuevas Sent Down to Triple-A” —

And the introduction from a Nick Groke piece:

“The​ puzzling descent​ of​ Jon​ Gray​ into minor-league purgatory​ reset​ the Rockies rotation​ like a hard​ reboot.”

See any similarities?

Notice the words “sent down”— Groke goes so far as to reference “purgatory.” These are terms associated with failure and punishment.

In fairness, being “sent down” and “called up” corresponds to the hierarchical arrangement of professional baseball: The A-level minor leagues provide a gateway to Major League Baseball. A player — say, Brendan Rodgers — works his way through the minor leagues as he improves his game.

But I’m bothered by saying that players are “sent down” or “demoted.” This is language that stigmatizes learning, and players can’t avoid it given that this is the vernacular of MLB.

As a teacher (granted, of writing not baseball), I find this language problematic. I realize that understanding APA documentation isn’t the same as mastering a changeup, but the principles of learning are universal, and I’d like to rethink the notion of “sending down” by focusing on the recent experiences of two Rockies, Ryan McMahon and Jon Gray.

Let me begin by describing some of the pedagogy that provides a foundation for my teaching. I learned this approach from Maryellen Weimer (if you’re interested, I recommend Learning-centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice [2nd ed.]). Here are three relevant concepts:

  • Effective learning requires a safe environment that promotes trust.
  • Learning requires practice — and some of that practice will result in failure.
  • Low-stakes assignments build confidence that leads to higher-stakes assignments and success.

This practice is learner-centered, where the emphasis is on the student doing rather than the teacher telling. Fear can be an effective motivator, but any learner handles fear better in an environment where they feel safe to experiment, practice, fail, and improve. Repetition leads to confidence and success. A central premise is thinking of failure not as, well, failure but as part of a complex learning process.

Every semester, I work with students who have never experienced academic failure (even in low-stakes assignments), and they struggle to learn how to learn — they see failure as an end, not as part of a process. It’s the most important skill I teach (more even than the fact that “tacos” is a plural and not a possessive). As a culture, we tend to view failure as an indicator that a person is broken in some way (or a “head case”) rather than as a learning opportunity. In my experience, that’s a flawed approach. Being learner-centered leads to better outcomes.

With this in mind, consider the recent experiences of McMahon and Gray when they were sent to the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Rockies’ Triple-A affiliate.

Ryan McMahon

After a 47-game stint with the Rockies where McMahon hit just .211/.283/.337, he changed his swing by adjusting the angle of his bat. As he told Jake Shapiro, “It feels good to have a better idea, and to know all the other stuff I was doing wasn’t wrong.” In the game immediately following this adjustment, he hit a home run against the Mets. The next day. June 21, McMahon was sent to Albuquerque. Rockies Twitter was outraged. McMahon, fans argued, had fixed his swing only to be demoted. As Shapiro put it, “[T]he move itself felt off.”

But what if this was not to punish McMahon but instead to give him an opportunity for steady practice that he wouldn’t receive with the Rockies simply because the team couldn’t give him enough game time?

And, indeed, McMahon caught fire in Albuquerque. When he returned to the ‘Topes with his new swing, he hit .305 over 32 games (7 home runs and 27 RBIs). (For comparison, before that, through 55 games in Triple-A, he hit .290 with 11 home runs and 48 RBIs).

Here’s how McMahon described his time in Albuquerque: “I’ve been getting some consistent at-bats and I fixed some things that were flawed with my swing . . . . I worked on staying on line, things like that.” In other words, he got consistent practice — and he’s been a solid player since his July return to the Rockies. McMahon wasn’t being punished; he was placed in a low-stress environment where he could succeed.

Jon Gray

When Jon Gray was sent to Albuquerque on June 30, the move received national attention — as had his meltdown in the 2017 Wild Card Game. The puzzle of Gray’s pitching has been well documented. (See here and here.) Simply put, there is no precedent that explains the disparity between Gray’s traditional numbers and his advanced metrics.

Bud Black described Gray’s challenges like this: “Jon throws strikes. But he doesn’t command the zone with his fastball like Tyler Anderson does, or Chad Bettis.” Black continued, “We felt that this was the right time to get Jon to Triple-A to work on some things . . . . Not so much mechanically, but mentally, and for him to realize some inconsistencies that have happened. We have to get that straightened out.”

This is Black, the teacher, outlining what Gray, the student, needed to work on. Let’s be clear: Gray was sent to Albuquerque not as punishment; like McMahon, he was sent there for practice. Perhaps Groke put it best: “He [was] learning, again, to be a pitcher.”

Gray threw two games in Albuquerque before unexpectedly being called up after an injury to Antonio Senzatela, but his time in Triple-A appears to have worked. Gray returned to Coors and led the Rockies to a 4-1 victory in a four-hit game against the Mariners. He left the field to a standing ovation. As an emotional Gray told Anne Rodgers after the game, “I didn’t think I was ever going to have that feeling again.”

These are the words of someone who believed he had failed. Gray is only 26, a number 3 draft pick from the University of Oklahoma with a killer fastball-slider combo, who now pitches in one of MLB’s most challenging ballparks. These are the words of someone who thought his career was over, that he had failed spectacularly. He hadn’t failed, but he needed to go to Triple-A for practice.

In the four games Gray has pitched since his return to the Rockies, he’s allowed only 6 earned runs with a 1.43 ERA in 37 23 IP. He has shown command of his pitches and the ability to handle stress. Gray discussed the change with Groke. saying that he felt “more competitive,” and had changed his perspective:

“The way my thinking changed from Albuquerque to here was positive . . . . I was enjoying baseball. I was enjoying life. And I could see the positive results. There wasn’t so much negativity running around.”

Gray has learned to focus on single hitters, “sub-games,” Groke calls them. It’s a strategy that breaks complex tasks into smaller, more manageable ones. “I’m definitely gaining confidence,” Gray said. “I know that when I throw bad pitches, I’m not freaked out about it. If I throw a terrible pitch, it’s like, ‘OK, whatever, I know what a good one feels like too. So here we go.’ It’s just that sort of thinking that’s been different.”

Final thoughts

McMahon and Gray are only two examples, but they’re instructive. Professional athletes are exceptionally talented, but they’re also people working in a stressful environment. Rather than judge athletes by their failure, instead consider how they handle that failure. Needing a place in which to practice and reset isn’t a sign of weakness: It’s a mark of character.

A good illustration is Adam Ottavino, a visual learner, whose struggles in 2017 (think 16% walk rate) led to his removal from the post-season roster. During the off-season, he worked with Driveline, used high-speed cameras, and practiced in an abandoned Harlem shoe store. As Travis Sawchik put it, “For Ottavino, the offseason wasn’t so much about building a better pitch but a better way to practice.” It worked, and in 2018 Ottavino reinvented himself to the point that he has become a Pitching Ninja staple.

Being “sent down” isn’t a sign of failure: It’s the next step forward. We should use language that acknowledges this.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article mistakenly said that Jon Gray is 23 years old.