Pick-up drills have been used in baseball for decades to improve lateral movement, enhance fielding and improve conditioning in both pitchers and position players. The traditional approach is to have a player and coach face each other, approximately 10 feet apart. The coach kneels on one or both knees with a baseball in one hand as the player gets down in a fielding position without a glove. The coach then rolls the ball approximately 3-5 feet to one side and the player responds by shuffling 2-3 steps laterally to the ball and then breaking down into a good fielding position with the chest up, shoulders over knees, back flat, hips and knees bent and arms and hands down in front of the body. The player fields the ball with both hands, tosses it back to the coach underhanded and then shuffles in the opposite direction to field the next ball. The drill usually concludes after 10-20 tosses to each side.
When performed properly, this drill teaches you how to move side-to-side while keeping the ball in front of you, improves mobility, lateral speed, agility and ball-handling and increases strength and endurance in the muscles of the hips, legs and back. When performed improperly, as often occurs with fatigue, it puts stress on the muscles of the low back and creates a lot of residual muscle stiffness and soreness, especially in those with a history of low back issues.
In the modified pick-up drill, the coach tosses the ball to shoulder height as the player shuffles side-to-side while maintaining a good “ready” position throughout the drill. Tossing the ball to just below shoulder height instead of rolling it on the ground allows the player to maintain a back-friendly, safe posture, keep stress on the muscles of the lower body, improve lateral movements and avoid the fatigue-induced bad fielding posture and subsequent low back issues associated with bending over to field the ball on the ground.
While tossing the ball to near shoulder-height does not exactly simulate the posture used when fielding ground balls in game situations, it does reduce the risk of low back problems and allows you to improve mobility, enhance agility and improve conditioning using movements that require players to start and stop, move side-to-side and change directions quickly.
In addition to being more user- and back-friendly, the modified pick-up drill is also more versatile than the traditional drill. Because there is less stress on the low back, it can be used as part of a warm-up routine, as a finisher at the end of a workout or be combined with other exercises as part of a super-set, tri-set or quad-set training routine. Players have reported good success super-setting 5-6 sets of modified pick-ups with 25-50 yard sprints; tri-setting them with short sprints and core work; and-quad setting them with sprints, core and stretching exercises. Modified pick-ups are an excellent stand-alone exercise and can be combined with other movements to increase the density of the training program.
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC-E, FACSM, was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012 and is currently a strength and conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers and Professor in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake.