But it’s a story that bears revisiting, in part because baseball usually sucks ability away slowly, instead of slowly giving it back — and in part because the story isn’t over, and is now a part of the Nationals’ story, too.
“That’s the only reason why I’m here,” the 36-year-old Madson said over and over, motioning to a black backpack in his Angel Stadium locker on Wednesday afternoon. “It’s the reason why I’m here, in this clubhouse, and the reason I got back from injury.”
That backpack holds an Accelerated Performance Machine, a source of electric therapy perfected by Schroeder, who runs Evo Ultra Fit in Phoenix. That backpack, and the man who gave it to Madson in 2013, brought the Nationals’ newest reliever back from retirement and into a rare late-career renaissance. Most pitchers who surge late in their career do so with diminished stuff and enhanced wisdom. Madson’s stuff is getting better.
“[Tuesday] there was one experience of a pitch, a feeling I haven’t felt since 2009.” Madson said. “When I was 29, I threw 99 miles per hour. I hadn’t thrown it since. Tuesday, I threw 99 miles per hour and felt that same feeling.”
In reality, Madson threw a pitch 98.4 mph in his Nationals debut on Tuesday night. But forgive the six tenths difference because his point stands. Two seasons ago, Madson’s average fastball velocity was 94.9. In 2016, it was 95.4. This season, his fastball is averaging 95.7.
Fastballs are supposed to slow as time goes on. The lucky pitchers see their velocity stay the same. Finding a way to throw harder with age is the equivalent of stumbling upon the Fountain of Youth — so rare that those who find it are immediately inundated with suspicions of exactly what is in that fountain.
However apt the metaphor might be, Madson should probably stay away from fountains when it comes to his anti-aging secrets. The electric therapy to which he dedicates an hour and a half of every day during the season probably wouldn’t do well there. But while cause and effect are hard to prove with these things, the towering reliever believes the unorthodox approach sparked his well-documented revival that began where most revivals must — with a devastating fall.
In the late 2000s, Madson was a relied-upon reliever for the Phillies in their best years, won a World Series, and was set to be their long-term closer for the 2012 season before they pried Jonathan Papelbon away from the Red Sox.
Madson ended up signing with Dusty Baker’s Reds, then tearing his ulnar collateral ligament in spring training 2012, which served as an abrupt end to his Cincinnati tenure — a season lost to Tommy John surgery.
He signed with the Angels before the 2013 season, hoping to work his way back at some point that season, but his elbow was not getting better. He kept feeling pain, and his rehabilitation stalled, so much so that some outlets wrote about him as the exception to the Tommy John success rate. Buried in Arizona at the Angels’ spring training facility, he was, as he put it “spinning his wheels” — until his teammate’s landlord changed everything.
Pitcher Robert Cuello’s landlord was a regular guy with knee problems who had gone to Schroeder’s Evo Fitness facility to help heal that joint. He knew his tenant was struggling with lingering injury, too, and recommended EvoFit to Cuello. Cuello came straight to Madson, who he knew was rehabbing at two physical therapy facilities in addition to his work with the team.
“They have a kid in there they’re teaching to walk again. The doctors told him he can’t walk anymore. They’re working on him,” Madson remembers Cuello telling him. “If that kid can do it, you can go in and try.”
So Madson did, and after one treatment, the pinch in his elbow was gone. But the pain required for such improvement was so intense that he could hardly bear it. The machine is, as Madson describes it, 10 times stronger than the normal stimulation machines used at average physical therapy facilities. It can send anywhere from 10 pulses per second to 245 pulses per second into a muscle, with varied intensities and consistencies, all of which activates muscles and removes any injury caused by force or compensation. Normal stimulation is a widely accepted practice, used to activate muscles and create electric impulses that are, in themselves, natural pain relievers. But Madson’s treatment is not normal stimulation.
For the first year, the pain was so intense that Madson would sit in his car in the parking lot before treatment, postponing the agony for every second he could. Madson said the pain decreases as injuries heal, but he saw many others stop before they got to that point.
Madson nearly did. After working with Schroeder throughout the 2013 season, he held a workout before the 2014 season, hoping someone would sign him. No one did, at which point he was retired, out of baseball, coaching his kids and weighing the cost of enduring more pain for an outside chance at resurrecting his career.
Eventually, Madson ended up signing a deal with the Royals before the 2015 season. He won a World Series with them, and pitched well enough to earn the three-year, $22 million deal with the Athletics that will keep him with the Nationals through next season.
That machine has become the basis of Madson’s daily routine. He speaks in a language that sniffs of brainwashing, but nevertheless gains credibility from his numbers over the past three seasons.
Schroeder provides him with a “protocol” for whatever his body needs — tells him where to put the patches, at what intensity, and for how long. While he lift weights like most players in the offseason, he doesn’t work out in-season, for he might bear a load incorrectly and cause damage that could affect performance. Instead, he sits tall and hooks up the machine, which not only helps him recover, but serves as a strength-building workout as often as he needs it.
On Tuesday, Madson earned a few strange looks as teammates saw wires running to his forehead, part of a specific protocol aimed at his brain.
“Needed some mental clarity,” Madson said. “That one’s for mental clarity, for calm. So you watch videos of what you want to do, or listen to music you really like, and it will help you get in the right state of mind.”
Madson is in constant communication with Schroeder. He evaluates himself after each outing, giving himself a 1 to 10 rating on control, velocity, movement, deception, body feel. Then he watches video, at which point the ratings almost always improve.
The process has taught him that his perception is not necessarily reality, so he shouldn’t let confidence fluctuate with feel. If something hurts, pinches, grabs, or feels lazy, he tells Schroeder, who immediately responds with a protocol by which to fix the problem.
“People say it’s just like a placebo effect, like it’s something I need, like a pill or something,” Madson said. “But I physically feel different after using it. That’s the only reason why I’m here and got back … I know it’s not just a mental gadget.”
Madson has heard all the arguments against the therapy. A quick online search reveals as many skeptics of the treatment, and others are firm believers like Madson. Besides, if it works so well, why don’t more players, seeing Madson’s remarkable rise, use the techniques?
“Guys ask me. I tell them it takes a lot of dedication and belief. It also takes someone getting to the point where they need something like this,” Madson said. “If you’re not hurt, you’re not going to put yourself through it. But if I had this system through my whole career, I don’t think I would have gotten hurt and missed so much time. I think I would have stayed at the peak of my ability.”
Whatever others believe about the therapy, however few practitioners populate big league clubhouses, Madson believes in it wholeheartedly — and has statistics to support his faith. For the Nationals, newest beneficiaries of his stunning resurgence, those results — however he gets them — are all that matters.