WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Ryan Madson was absorbed in his own universe Monday morning. As his teammates prepared for another day of spring training, drumming up the usual pre-9 a.m. clubhouse din, Madson was zoned out at his locker with a patch attached to the back of his neck. At the other end, the patch was connected to a small machine generating electric currents. He then attached some patches to his waist and then to his shoulders and back to his neck. He completed a few basic exercises as he progressed.
That was Madson’s stretching routine for the day. He doesn’t partake in the group ritual with teammates every morning. It’d be in conflict with his training method, which is why he was in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse to begin with.
“It would slowly start cutting into my efficiency and strength and the way my muscles communicate with my brain,” Madson said. “That’s what I’ve learned so far.”
The tale has been recited over and over again, but what Madson is doing is perhaps unprecedented so let’s outline it one more time. The device he uses every day is called an Accelerated Performance Machine. It provides Madson with electric stimulation and has been by his side since 2013. He credits the gadget and the accompanying program developed by his trainer, Jay Schroeder, for reviving his career, which was left for dead during a three-year intermission.
Now, the 37-year-old right-hander is throwing harder than ever. There’s an argument to be made that he’s better than ever. The small machine is to Madson what 35 glasses of water are to Tom Brady.
“Maybe it’s a time machine,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle speculated. “I don’t know.”
It’s not that Madson was never a hard thrower. In 2009, his fastball averaged 96.1 mph, according to FanGraphs. He sometimes reached 99 mph. He coupled the velocity with a deceptive change-up to become one of baseball’s best relievers; from 2007 through 2011 he posted a 2.89 ERA and 3.14 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) while winning a World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies. Then his body betrayed him. He signed with the Cincinnati Reds for the 2012 season but never pitched in their uniform because he tore his ulnar collateral ligament during spring training and needed Tommy John elbow surgery.
The rehab didn’t go like so many of his peers’ did, and he turned his back on baseball in 2014. But he resurfaced with the Kansas City Royals in 2015. That April, his average fastball velocity was 93.68 mph. By September, the average spiked to 96.25 mph. He finished with a 2.13 ERA, the lowest mark of his career, and turned the revival into a $22 million contract with the Oakland Athletics.
It was just the start. Madson hit 100 mph for the first time in his life with Oakland last season. And, after he joined the Nationals as part of their three-pronged midseason bullpen makeover, his fastball velocity averaged 97.33 mph, 96.48 mph and 96.76 mph from August through October, according to BrooksBaseball.net.
“Pure stuff wise, he has the best stuff of anybody in the bullpen,” said Doolittle, who joined the Nationals alongside Madson in the trade with Oakland last July. “Maybe even in the staff. And I realize we have [Max Scherzer] and [Stephen Strasburg] on the staff, I just mean pure stuff.”
Last season, Madson was only slowed by pain in his right index finger that stemmed from an odd wrist injury, which forced him to miss three weeks. He is convinced the machine and accompanying program are the reasons he’s defying the downward slope most pitchers confront by their mid-30s.
“I’m with somebody who’s figured out the human body,” Madson said, “and how it works at a human level.”
Madson then pointed to a countertop in the Nationals clubhouse. There is, he asserted, a proper way for a human body to jump onto it. It takes lining muscles up and firing them. He said the same goes for pitching. There’s a technically perfect way to throw a baseball. He and Schroeder haven’t quite figured it out. They’re still tweaking things as they go. For example, he didn’t lift weights during the season last year but plans to this season. Even during spring training Madson sends footage of each of his outings to Schroeder, who responds with feedback and the next day’s exercises and electric therapy protocol.
“The best way to put it is if it was a racecar, he would know everything about the racecar,” Madson said. “Let’s say it was a stock car. Stock racing. NASCAR. He basically can make that car dial it in to go faster. You run laps and decide you need more air pressure or to adjust the lifters. That’s how he is with the human body.”
A few other professional baseball players, including a couple with big league experience, utilize the program, according to Madson. Athletes in football and hockey do, too, including the Chicago Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews. Madson is the only National. He hasn’t campaigned to have teammates join the electric stimulation movement, but he’s told some he’d force them to if they were his younger brothers.
Madson said he will have his sons use the training system if they play baseball when they get older because he is convinced it will help prevent injuries. He has some concrete evidence for support. Maybe he’ll still be around if one makes it pro. Schroeder thinks he can pitch until he’s 50.