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Gaming Service Time: A Comment

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I find the gaming of service time to be one of the most distasteful things about baseball's weird salary structure. It's fundamentally dishonest and violates all kinds of notions about why we should care about a competitive sport in the first place. Yet, until the system changes, you're left hoping that your team plays the game as well as anyone else.

Given that the Royals now have the Greatest Farm System Ever Seen, we're likely to talk about service time with a much deeper passion and interest than we ever did before. (Though I tried, in the past, to get people fired up about the intricacies of Billy Butler's a time or two.)

As such, I'd like to begin with a small comment on service time: Generally speaking, the gaming of service time is much more important with regard to position players than pitchers.

It's surprising how often people assume that pitchers and position players follow the same kind of development arch. They don't. Quite often, a pitcher is as good at 23 as he'll be at 27. Quite often, a pitcher only has a small margin in which to improve. When you factor in injuries, you'll find countless examples of pitchers who looked better at 22 than they did at 27, when they're on team number four and the subject of flickering hopes each spring that they'll "put it all together again."

The corollary to this is that fans and analysts are often mistakenly in awe of the imagined future of young pitchers... never quite getting the lesson. Pitcher Y is 10-3 with a 2.30 ERA as a Rookie! Imagine him once he really figures things out! Dude, he already has. If anything, there's a considerable risk to holding out too long on young pitchers, in waiting for a peak (at the Major League level) that might never come. As long as you don't absolutely hopelessly suck: get the value you can. There's always the major injury scenario lurking anyway.

Of course, when the team is terrible, it's really a non-issue. You game the time. Unlike some, I'm not even sure this is truly an issue for the Royals in 2011, though I appear to be in the minority. As we move forward, just try to remember that pitchers and position players develop in nearly completely different ways.