Name: John Madden
DOB: December 2, 1982
The official title, however, didn't come until he was tabbed with the "Mr. Automatic Award" at the Padres' fall Instructional League but it was a trait he displayed throughout the year.
An eighth-round pick out of Auburn in the 2005 MLB Draft, Madden began his career with the Eugene Emeralds of the Northwest League, going 2-5 with a 3.48 ERA over 38 appearances.
Ticketed for full-season ball, the right-hander closed out 20 games in 24 chances for the Fort Wayne Wizards and could have had plenty more if the Wizards had kept games "closer". With three months gone in the season, Madden had just six saves. He piled on 14 over July and August.
"Obviously the way our games were won or lost by five or seven runs over the first half he didn't get a lot of appearances the first half but John is real methodical," 2006 Fort Wayne manager Randy Ready said. "We were looking at pictures of when we got off the bus in April and how we were going out of town in September – there was a lot of maturity not only in John but in all these young men."
"John didn't have a lot of opportunities in the first half but the last month or so went from having 11 saves to 20," 2006 Fort Wayne pitching coach Tom Bradley said. "He was durable. He wants the ball and he was pretty much lights out the last six weeks of the season."
"I think he is a sleeper," Padres' minor league field coordinator Bill Bryk said. "I don't hear many people talk about him. He has movement, velocity, a good breaking ball – is big, strong – Madden could move fast. As long as he is throwing strikes and keeping the ball down and he could move fast."
Madden allowed an earned run in just seven of his 49 outings and kept the opposition to a .202 average against. In 51 innings, he allowed the leadoff batter to reach base 11 times, a .216 on base percentage.
A side-armer that has excellent downward movement on his pitches, Madden accumulated a better than 3-to-1 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. Only six of the 39 hits he surrendered went for extra bases.
"I think John was one of the guys that really matured," Ready added. "He got in a position where he really trusted his stuff and was very confident in those situations to close games out."
Madden has good velocity for a side-armer. He can hit 94 MPH on the radar gun while maintaining consistency with his delivery – one of the hardest things for a pitcher with his arm slot to accomplish. And the angle provides more than a hint of deception.
His unique arm angle was deadly on right-handed hitters. The ball comes out of his arm from left field and it isn't uncommon to see them bail on a strike that nicks the inside corner. The appearance, to a hitter, is that the ball is coming straight for the ankles. It led to a .150 average for right-handed batters in 113 at bats.
"He really improved this year," said Bryk. "His slider really improved. He had a consistent arm slot, which he didn't in the past. He was very inconsistent in the past."
The knock against the side-armer has always been their ability to pound the strike zone, as oftentimes they are wild and hang more than a few pitches. Madden doesn't have that problem. He wouldn't have been named "Mr. Automatic" if he did.
It is his two-seam fastball with late sink that is part of the bread before the butter. While it comes from third base, it also has a tendency to drift back towards a right-handed hitter. He compliments it with a slider that tails away and wipes out right-handers who are constantly pulling off the ball.
His success with those two pitches was enough to make him a force but there is room for improvement.
"His fastball is average velocity-wise and it has good sink and run," Bradley began. "At times, when he raises his arm angle, he can get it up to 94-95. We saw that a couple of times. They dropped his arm angle down because he gets better life and movement on it when he is at a low three-quarters.
"His slider really developed well for him. It became his wipeout, strikeout pitch. He got a lot of strikeouts and outs with that hard slider. He needs to work on his changeup to help with left-handed hitters and he knows that. But he has two really good pitches. He had a great year, an outstanding year for us."
This season he has been working on a changeup to help handle left-handed hitters. Lefties batted .275 off him and were able to get under some of his pitches, netting five of the six extra base hits he surrendered despite fewer at bats.
That extra offering could be the difference as he moves up the ladder and faces stiffer competition.
He is also a bulldog on the mound and relishes in handling the late opportunities to slam the door shut. If there are men on base, Madden has a determined approach and bears down with his command.
His 2.12 ERA proved excellent and his 18 walks allowed minimal for someone who has to always be cognizant of his release point.
The key to his success is keeping the ball down and inducing ground ball outs. In his two years in the system he has met that goal and there is little reason to believe it won't continue.
ETA: Madden, who will pitch the entire 2007 season at the age of 24, figures to have a foot put to his acceleration process through the minor leagues. He has two plus pitches and is developing a way to consistently attack left-handed hitters. If he masters that art, there is no telling how good he can be. Expect him in San Antonio late in 2007 and helping the big league club as soon as 2008.