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Pirates Series Preview: Battle of small market giants

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The Pirates and Royals used to be the poor laughingstocks of baseball. No more.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

From 1995-2012, the Royals and Pirates were the laughingstocks of baseball. The two combined for losing seasons in 35 of 36 seasons over those years, losing 100 games or more six times. They were two of the smallest markets in baseball, constantly trading their bigger name players for prospects in what seemed like an unending rebuilding movement. They were the epitome of everything wrong with the inequities of baseball, or the frugality of cheap owners, or both.

In 2013, their fortunes began to change. The Pirates, who were actually in the hunt for a Wild Card in 2012 until an awful late-season collapse, won 94 games and made the playoffs for the first time since 1992. The Royals kept an arm's length from the Wild Card, but gave fans a taste of a pennant race. In 2014, the Pirates again made the playoffs, while the Royals went on their incredible run. This year, the Pirates and Royals have two of the three best records in baseball. You've come a long way, baby.

The Pirates, like the Royals, have a team with a nucleus of homegrown players, complimented by some mid-tier free agents. Pittsburgh's strength is the pitching staff, which ranks second in the National League in runs allowed, with just 3.41 per contest. The pitching staff is anchored by former first-round pick Gerrit Cole, who made his first All-Star team this year. Cole loves to throw his 95 mph fastball - he throws it more than all but five starting pitchers in baseball. He will also throw a very effective hard slider, although his change-up and curveball have been less effective this year.

The seemingly ageless A.J. Burnett is enjoying his best season at age 38, making his first All-Star team as well. Burnett has benefited from the fifth-highest "left-on-base" rate in baseball and fewer of his flyballs have left the ballpark than any other pitcher. He has thrown the third-most effective fastball in the majors this year, despite a velocity only around 91 mph. Charlie Morton is like a younger Jeremy Guthrie. Like Guthrie, he had one terrible outing this year to skew his numbers a bit - Morton's ERA would be 2.97 if you took out his June 21 start against Washington. Like Guthrie, Morton has survived despite a very low strikeout rate - if he qualified it would be the seventh-lowest in baseball.

Closer Mark Melancon has the most saves in baseball, despite the lowest strikeout rate among any closer with at least 15 saves. He has a 1.49 ERA, has converted 29-of-30 save opportunities, and hasn't given up an earned run since May 11. The Pirates have the second-best bullpen ERA, but many relievers are outperforming their FIP, including right-hander Jared Hughes and left-hander Antonio Bastardo. Lefty-specialist Tony Watson has a reverse split this year, but is striking out a hitter per inning out of the pen.

The Pirates offense is a bit more pedestrian, ranking eighth in the National League in runs scored. They are seventh in on-base percentage, tenth in slugging percentage, and only three teams in baseball have hit fewer home runs. Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen is clearly the star of the team, and he's ninth in the league in fWAR this season. Free-swinging left-fielder Starling Marte and first baseman Pedro Alvarez are the only other serious power threats in the lineup. The team has been hurting from the down season from former All-Star infielder Josh Harrison, who is out for this series with an injury, but rookie Korean infielder Jung-Ho Kang has filled in nicely at third and shortstop.

The Pirates are a good baserunning team and are third in the league in stolen bases, with a success rate of 71.9%. They are an average defensive team with Pedro Alvarez being a huge liability when on the field, but the rest of the fielders are average.

The Pirates were swept over the weekend by lowly Milwaukee, but have otherwise been hot the last few weeks, winning 11 of 13 before that series. They have the best interleague record in the National League at 10-5. Pittsburgh has struggled a bit against the cream of the crop, going 15-16 against teams with a winning record, and they are just 21-22 on the road. Make no mistake, they are a very good team and the pitching matchups bode well for the Bucs, but the Royals have done well against top pitchers all year. At the very least, this should be a very entertaining matchup of two top teams, something that would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago.