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The Pirates create their own extreme advantages to beat you

Do you remember what “Moneyball” was about? What it was really about, not the part where the movie caricatured the entire profession of scouting into a collection of geriatric dimwits or the obvious “walks are good.” No, I mean the core concept: Using the means at your disposal, creating advantages you use to beat everybody else. And once again, the Pittsburgh Pirates are doing just that, creating their own advantages.

The Pirates are a team of cultivated extremes. Consider some of the league-leading performances the Pirates are delivering:

Pitching inside: Guess who leads the major leagues in pitches thrown inside? The Pirates are the only team in the majors throwing more than a third of their pitches on the inside third of the plate, 34.6 percent of all pitches thrown.

It’s a rotation-wide trait, with Jeff Locke (49.1 percent) and Charlie Morton (39.3 percent) ranking first and second to lead the majors. All six rotation regulars, including newly acquired J.A. Happ, rank among the top 43 pitchers when it comes to throwing inside. You can consider the MLB-leading 63 hit batsmen as one of the wages of fear -- Pirates pitchers come after the inside corner, come what may.

The Pirates are also second in the majors in pitches thrown on the lower third of the plate (49.9 percent of all pitches thrown). So they’re killing people throwing low and inside, which creates an additional benefit: Using TruMedia data, you’ll find that they’re allowing an NL-low well-hit balls average of .121.

As a matter of staff-wide execution, it’s no surprise they’re preventing batters from barreling up, but that pays off in another key area:

Defense: The Pirates are once again leading the league in defensive shifts used, shifting in 1,935 plate appearances this season, or a little more than 41 percent of the time. And that’s paying off that much more because, with all of those pitches they’re throwing low (and inside), the Pirates generate more ground balls than any other team (an MLB-leading ratio of 1.10 grounders to flies) and more ground-ball outs (1.61 ground-ball outs for every caught fly). And that’s feeding that MLB-leading total of double plays (124) despite their being nowhere close to the MLB lead in baserunners allowed, but that’s thanks to their MLB-best rate of double play opportunities converted (14 percent).

The two go hand in glove, or pitching hand in fielding glove, and it’s a matter of intentional design and outstanding execution.

Then there’s the offensive side of the equation, where the Pirates may not lead the league in much, but they do some things extraordinarily well while ranking fourth in the NL in runs per game. They’re second in the NL in well-hit average (.171), and unsurprisingly they’re also last in infield fly balls. Take those two things together, and it suggests that the Pirates execute in their at-bats exceptionally well.

Last night in Saturday’s Top 5, I also noted that the Pirates have several hitters who do something better than most: Killing fastballs. Jung Ho Kang was Saturday’s hero, belting a pair of blasts on heat thrown by Mike Leake and Hunter Strickland, and he ranks ninth in MLB in OPS vs. fastballs (1.033) -- which doesn’t even lead the Pirates. The guy who does? Pedro Alvarez, because the hard-hitting lefty’s got a 1.071 OPS against the hardest hard stuff, good for sixth in MLB. Andrew McCutchen’s no slouch either, ranking 18th overall (1.000).

One more thing to think about: If you can kill fastballs, when do you think that might come most in handy, given the state of pitching today? Going up against relievers, because if there’s one thing people love to use with the game on the line, it’s late-game velocity. Unsurprisingly, as a team the Pirates are better than average in “Late & Close” situations as defined by Baseball-Reference.com, with a .692 OPS. And where the National League OPS versus relievers is 40 points lower than against starting pitchers (.684 vs. 724), the Pirates are actually better against the guys coming out of the bullpen (.726 OPS, vs. .713 against starters).

You can bet that the Pirates know all of this. Travis Sawchik’s superb book “Big Data Baseball” goes into some depth about the extent to which the Pirates do things by design and deliver extraordinary results. While they also have some of the best players in baseball to rely upon -- guys like McCutchen or Gerrit Cole or Starling Marte, whom we’ll be talking about for years -- they’re also third in the majors in wins because they have a plan for beating you with every means at their disposal, and doing it their way.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.