The Brain Machine That (Maybe) Brought Ryan Madson Back

pov-machine Deep in the bowels of Oakland’s Coliseum, you’ll see Ryan Madson working out with wires strapped to his body. The wires head to a little pack he carries with him, and in that pack is a machine that has helped him recover his career.

The device, pictured here, is the Accelerated Recovery Performance machine, which was administered to Madson by the EVO Ultrafit group in Arizona. The ARP sends electrical stimulation to your muscles much like the stim packs and microcurrent versions out there, but claims to have a proprietary wave form that allows for deeper penetration of the muscles.

The Oakland closer is not alone in believing in the benefits of the ARP machine — many out there tout its abilities to help the body recover and retrain — and yet there are equal shares of doubt about its efficacy.

When I talked with Madson recently, he spoke about the ability to retrain his body with the ARP machine. “It makes the connection to your muscles better,” said the righty. After years of pitching, the neurological pathways between your brain and your body get worn down and “your brain starts guessing,” he explained.

So when he uses the ARP machine now, he uses it mostly to make sure he’s got his ideal mechanics going. “You want to put it on certain areas while you do your pitching motion extremely slowly,” he said, “as slowly as you can go. The whole time, the machine is sending 245 pulses of information per second into your muscles.”

Before the Tommy John surgery and the three years Madson spent out of baseball trying to get back in, the reliever’s old mechanics were causing him to recoil too much, and putting too much stress on his pitching elbow. So for the righty and his machine, the focus was on the front foot, and using those large muscles to absorb the stress of pitching instead of the small ones in his arm. The machine helped him train his arm and landing leg into better timing.

The ARP helps strengthen the connections as he mimics his best mechanics, he explained. It even intervenes. Once Madson goes into his motion, the machine “can cut the power off” to his arm, so that the pitcher can’t control his arm. “There was no power in my arm,” he said, and agreed that it felt weird, but that it helped him train so that “the arm is just along for the ride, it’s just a guide.”

As weird as it sounds to shut off power to a limb, some of the underpinnings here are generally accepted. The front foot is important, and it is a great idea to train for a delivery that uses the big muscles rather than the small muscles in your arm. So, even if he got there in an unorthodox manner to some, the main tenets here seem solid.

But the machine is also supported by some dubious medical evidence. In Jeff Passan’s excellent new book, The Arm, he details a story of Tommy John’s son, Tommy John III, and his enthusiasm for the ARP machine. He relates an anecdote in which John administers the machine to a high schooler with a partially torn UCL, followed by the amazing news that the UCL has healed without surgery. John claims that the muscles around the UCL it had been strengthened, allowing the ligament to heal.

Passan remained suspicious, writing:

“There are no studies on the efficacy of the ARPwave, nothing to back up its claims aside from the unverifiable anecdotes and cases with no control to isolate what really promoted the most healing. Other electrical-stimulation devices regularly adorn pitchers’ arms in clubhouses after outings to encourage blood flow. Never had I heard anyone suggest it can mend the UCL, and the idea of a ligament healing on account of the muscles around it growing stronger does not compute.”

Moreover, the voices of detractors seem roughly as numerous as the supportive anecdotes. You can watch it all play out on consumer advocacy sites like the Complaints List, where reports of pain and ineffectiveness sit right next to other comments whose authors claim they owe their athletic lives to the machine.

At five digits per machine, these things aren’t cheap. And the descriptions of the work at EVO Ultrafit sound just as painful. It took a couple years where “team standard procedures weren’t working,” as Madson put it, and then tons of pain and hard work to get this right-handed reliever back to where he was. Nobody wants to take that away from him.

And nobody argues against the finding that electrical muscle stimulation can aid muscle strengthening. There are studies to support that — and stim packs are standard in every professional pitching facility.

So in the end, let’s laud Ryan Madson for his hard work in revamping his mechanics and getting healthy enough to get back on the mound. He wasn’t in the right position at the right time, and maybe this machine helped him get there while at the very least helping him get stronger. The machine probably didn’t heal any of his ligaments, though.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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