“I heard a little secret,” I said to him. “Your manager told me you got all your catchers a pair of shoes.”
Madden’s face had a strange look. “I didn’t know we were going to take that public,” he said.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“It’s something I’ve always tried to do — take care of my catchers,” Madden said. “They sit back there and take a beating all season. So I just got some shoes from my guys.”
“Did you literally go to a store?” I asked. “How did that work?”
“I have a New Balance deal,” he said. “I just told them to pick out whatever they wanted on the website and send it to me and I ordered it for them.”
This small gesture says everything about Madden, 22 years old. He could have kept that merchandise for himself. But he gave it to his guys.
“I’ve never had that done to me before,” catcher Josh Crouch said. “I’m more than appreciative. It means a lot.”
High-A Whitecaps manager Brayan Peña, who was also a catcher, thinks it shows Madden’s leadership. “He appreciates the sacrifice those guys are making,” Peña said. “That is leadership, man, you know, being a professional. That says a lot about his character.
“I want to give a lot of praise to our scouting department. We went out there and we got not just a great player on the field, but also a great player off the field.”
Madden was a gift from the draft gods.
He went into the 2021 draft as MLB Pipeline’s No. 9 prospect and the No. 3 college pitcher after piling up 137 strikeouts with 44 walks in 113⅔ innings at Texas.
But he fell down some draft boards and the Tigers took him with the No. 32 overall pick, surprised and thrilled to get him there. One report said though his velocity was excellent, “it doesn’t play nearly as well up in the strike zone as it does when he drives it down in the zone,” which was not a fit with what teams were looking for in today’s game.
Madden made his professional debut in April for West Michigan. He started well with the same approach from Texas, relying mainly on his fastball and slider, racking up strikeouts with low walks.
In his first four games, he recorded 18 strikeouts in 18 innings with four walks.
“I started out hot and was doing what I’ve always done,” Madden said.
But armed with scouting reports and more data, everybody seemed to figure him out. In early May, he struggled through three starts, giving up 13 runs in 10⅓ innings.
He was at an early crossroads of his career. What should he do?
“Just looking myself in the mirror and figuring out what I need to do to get better each week and how I needed to attack the game and my preparation,” Madden said. “It’s different here.”
He started throwing his curveball harder and using his changeup more.
“I think that’s definitely helped,” Madden said. “Now my changeup percentage is up, my curveball percentage is up and each week, the more I throw them, they’re getting better.”
That is part of the natural maturation process.
Learning what works.
Figuring out what doesn’t.
And making an adjustment on the fly.
“You just have to be more adaptable,” Madden said.
Madden has been dominant again his past two starts — with10 strikeouts in 12 innings without a walk, he has allowed just one run.
“I’m getting better each week,” he said. “And I think it’s heading in the right direction.”
Madden is 3-4 with a 3.58 ERA over 11 starts this season, with 41 hits, 51 strikeouts and 13 walks in 50⅓ innings. Batters are hitting .215 against him, though they’ve hit nine home runs.
He’s heading the right direction, on the field and off.
“He wants to go out there every single day for his teammates,” Peña said. “That is so impressive. He’s a winner. It’s his poise, his confidence, his commitment to be great. He’s on the right track. Hopefully he can be in Detroit sooner rather than later, but it takes time.”
There is one thing that has been a pleasant surprise to Madden: The vibe of his team.
“You hear a lot of minor league baseball, like it’s very, like, individualized, so you’re gonna be on your own,” Madden said. “But we have a good chemistry here, and guys are great. We pick each other up after bad outings. It’s been way better than I expected as far as my teammates go. We are a team, and we want to go out there and win ballgames together.”
And now it’s a team with something else: Catchers sporting fancy new New Balance shoes.
Contact Jeff Seidel: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.