A MARTINEZ, HOST:
This summer, the bats are hot in ballparks around the country.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL COMMENTARY MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: Deep right centerfield - gone to souvenir city.
UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: Oh, my - put into orbit.
GARY THORNE: That thing went over the popcorn wagon in the concourse, I think.
UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #3: Way back and goodbye, home run.
UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #4: And that baby's gone - even further than the last two.
MARTINEZ: That is happening a lot this season. Major League Baseball players are on track to hit more home runs than ever - more than 6,000 if the numbers hold up. But as exciting as homers can be, they're actually part of the problem with the sport. This week on Out Of Bounds - long shots, strikeouts and the slowing pace of baseball.
Tom Verducci is senior baseball writer for Sports Illustrated, and he joins me now from Princeton, N.J. Tom, welcome.
TOM VERDUCCI: Thanks for having me.
MARTINEZ: All right, so let's start with those home runs. People are hitting more and more of them, and the ball is going further. Why?
VERDUCCI: (Laughter) Well, let's look at it from two perspectives. First, from the hitters' perspectives - there is more of an emphasis on power, so they don't mind striking out at the risk of just swinging for the fences because a lot of guys now get paid on not how much they get on base, how often they get on base, but how much damage that they do. And that comes with the home run ball.
Now when you talk to the pitchers, they go directly to the favorite conspiracy theory, that it must be about the baseball itself - that the baseball is actually tighter than in previous years and the seams are lower. Lower seams mean less drag on a baseball. Less drag means more carry. And of course, more carry means more home runs.
MARTINEZ: What about drug testing? I know that Major League Baseball is trying to test a lot more.
VERDUCCI: Well, absolutely. They are. And especially this year, their incidents of tests, off-season and in-season, have gone way up. But listen, with the amount of money that's in the game, there are certainly incentives still for someone to try to beat tests and get that extra edge. But baseball will tell you that it's much more difficult to circumvent these tests than they were, say, even five years ago because they are much more sophisticated.
MARTINEZ: Tom, I'm a big baseball fan. I've been a baseball fan my whole life. It's like pizza for me. I will eat it and consume it however it's served up. So I don't mind the home runs and the strikeouts, but I can see how a fan might think this is boring. What's going on that got us here if maybe fans aren't so in tune to the in-between?
VERDUCCI: Yeah. Well, certainly love home runs - they literally bring people to their feet. And even the home run - the game literally stops so someone can take a jog around the bases. So when you factor in the fact that strikeouts now are for the 12th consecutive year going up to a record level, it's the yawning gaps in between the excitement in the game that have people concerned.
MARTINEZ: Which fans suffer the most with this? Is it the ones that are watching on TV or the ones that are at the ballpark?
VERDUCCI: I think it's the viewer experience at home that is the one that concerns baseball because we have so many distractions available to us. And I think when we get these gaps in between pitches or the ball being put in play, it's very easy for someone to get disengaged from the game that they're watching on television or a phone, however. But it really is about - how do we as baseball attract and keep viewers, especially the younger ones?
MARTINEZ: Are they struggling getting these younger viewers? Or - how are baseball ratings in general?
VERDUCCI: The ratings last year for the World Series were the highest in 25 years, a quarter of a century. That was primarily due to the Cubs. And even if you weren't a Cubs fan, you wanted to see if they could break a 108-year drought. As far as the regional sports network goes, their ratings are actually very strong. I think the concern, based on polling that MLB has done, is that the audience does tend to skew a little older. So they're looking at the polling and saying, hm, you know, where are our next generation of fans? And that's what they're seeing, some erosion in the younger demographic.
MARTINEZ: Tom Verducci, senior baseball writer for Sports Illustrated. Tom, thanks a lot.
VERDUCCI: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.