MESA, Ariz. –- It took plenty of grit and determination for Ryan Madson to fight his way back to the Major Leagues.
Not to mention some seriously high-tech help.
The A’s new setup man used a cutting-edge recovery method, including a sometimes painful form of electrical therapy, to overcome years of elbow problems that he thought had ended his career.
The 35-year-old reliever still regularly uses an ARP wave machine (Accelerated Recovery Performance), consisting of pads that attach to his skin and shoot electrical currents through his body, helping to relieve pain and soreness all over his upper body and, the theory goes, to prevent future injury.
Madson says he was at “the end of the rope” trying to cure his elbow woes after complications from 2012 Tommy John surgery while he was with Cincinnati. There was a failed comeback with the Los Angeles Angels in 2013, after which Madson decided to retire.
“They were throwing everything at me that they could,” Madson said in reference to elbow treatment. “I tried everything else, basically. I mean, I had so many needles and medicines.”
It’s well-documented how Madson’s involvement tutoring a high school pitcher, Johnny Morell, helped kindle his desire to resume his career. When he got serious about a return, Madson was referred to EVO Ultra Fit, a Phoenix-based biomechanical training center that not only helped him rehabilitate his elbow, but completely re-worked his pitching mechanics in an effort to keep him healthy.
“They basically built me from the ground up again,” Madson said.
Jay Schroeder, the founder of EVO Ultra Fit, and his staff had Madson repeat his delivery with the ARP electrodes connected to his body. Electric currents surging through his body would nearly paralyze him if his mechanics got out of whack. Gradually, Madson was able to fight through the resistance and repeat his delivery in the proper manner.
The specialists at EVO emphasized using his lower body more to take the pressure off his elbow.
“Your body has to incorporate bigger or better muscles to do the work instead of the little ones that you’re trying to use,” Madson explained. “Humans, we’re built to do the least amount of work possible. So it’s kind of getting the body out of that mainframe. The machine makes your body move in an efficient manner so it prevents injury.”
Madson continues to use the ARP wave machine on his own. It’s stored in a small pack he keeps in his locker. He’ll sometimes attach the electrodes on the days he pitches and mimic his delivery in a continued effort to hone his mechanics.
But there’s also a rehabilitation element, as Madson uses the machine before and after he pitches. He also stresses the importance of the brains behind the ARP machine.
Because the specialists at EVO have studied his mechanics and are so familiar with him, Madson just shoots a text to them explaining what part of his body might be hurting after he pitches. They respond to him with a custom-made protocol, directing him where to attach the electrodes on his body and how much voltage to use.
The electric currents smooth out and extend muscles that want to bind up, which can cause injury, Madson said.
A’s closer Sean Doolittle admires Madson’s determination to work his way back to health, and he marvels at the methods Madson hit upon to help make that happen.
“I don’t know how it works or anything, and to be honest I don’t think he does either,” Doolittle said with a chuckle. “He said it’s really off the wall and looks really weird, but it’s what finally got it right.”
There’s no arguing with last season’s results. After not pitching in a big league game from 2012-14, Madson made the Kansas City Royals roster to begin 2015 and posted a 2.13 ERA over 68 appearances, serving a key role in the bullpen of the eventual World Series champs.
The A’s signed him to a three-year, $22 million deal in December, confident that he’ll remain durable and productive over the life of the deal.
And if it sounds like Madson is the mere beneficiary of advanced science, don’t underestimate his commitment to making his program work. He underwent grueling workout sessions during his first few months with EVO. Because added weight helps the body deal with the ARP wave therapy, Madson says he packed on roughly 35 pounds –- going from 200 to 235 -– in just a few months leading into the 2015 season.
Two “shakes” a day made of raw eggs, olive oil and orange juice, sandwiched around four full meals.
“Once I trained to eat that much, I had to eat that much,” said Madson, who’s now listed at 225.
His untraditional route to recovery has helped pave the way to one heck of a comeback story.
“I think you can learn a lot from a guy like that,” Doolittle said. “You go through something like (Madson’s injury struggles), the only way you’re coming back is if you have a passion for the game.”