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Wild Card: Baseball's Uber-Overachiever
In early May I filled this space with a list of five teams that I thought were overachieving. The following is a chart detailing the records of those five teams then and as of today:
I got the Braves, Brewers, Indians, and Pirates right, but the Mariners have not only avoided a correction, they’ve gotten better. Since I declared them overachievers, the Mariners have gone 41-28 (.594) and have only gotten stronger as the season has gone on. The M’s have posted an 18-7 (.720) record over their past 25 games and appear unaffected by manager Mike Hargrove’s surprise resignation; they’ve gone a solid 8-6 under replacement John McLaren, splitting a four-game set with the equally hot Tigers to open the second half.
So what’s the deal with the Mariners? Here’s what I wrote on May 4:
"The Mariners are the only team in the major leagues with a winning record that has failed to outscore its opponents for the year. Richie Sexson (.143/.233/.377) is a candidate for improvement, but the bullpen, particularly closer J.J. Putz (1.38 ERA) and LOOGY George Sherrill (no runs allowed) will have their struggles. Similarly, Jarrod Washburn (2.88 ERA) is due for some correction. Finally, though Felix Hernandez is expected to return next week, the M’s aren’t out of the woods with respect to his elbow problems just yet."
Sexson has indeed improved, though not as much as one might have expected. He’s hit just .217/.322/.407 since May 4. Hernandez has taken each of his turns since returning from the DL in mid-May, but has posted a roughly league average 4.18 ERA over that period, while Washburn has indeed added more than a run to his ERA. What about Putz and Sherrill? Here's our first clue. Prior to May 4, Putz and Sherrill had combined to allow two runs in 20 1/3 innings. That’s a combined 0.89 ERA. Sherrill allowed three runs in one inning to the Yankees the night of my original column, but the two have combined to allow just three more runs since then, good for a combined 1.03 ERA since the morning of May 4.
Of course two relievers alone do not make a contending team, but Putz and Sherrill do appear to have had an unusual influence. Consider Pythagorean record, which translates a teams’ runs scored and allowed into wins and loses. (For those who doubt the usefulness of Pythagorean record, the Indians' Pythagorean winning percentage on May 4 was .583. Compare that to their winning percentages in the chart above.) One reason I pegged the Mariners as overachievers back in May was that they had a winning record despite allowing more runs than they had scored. The Mariners’ runs scored have since surpassed their runs allowed, but not by much. Of the 901 runs scored in Mariners games, just eleven more have been scored by the M’s than by their opponents. That works out to a .512 Pythagorean winning percentage, which falls nearly six wins short of the Mariners’ actual record.
A couple years ago I contributed some research on Pythagorean records to Baseball Prospectus’ Mind Game, a book on the 2004 World Champion Red Sox. My findings were that teams that regularly outperformed their Pythagorean projections did so by "losing big and winning small." That’s actually just common sense. A team that loses more than their share of blowouts but wins an unusual number of close games would have a skewed run differential. Indeed, the Mariners’ average margin of victory has been 3.36 runs, while their average margin of defeat has been 4.28 runs. Having Putz and Sherrill to protect those small leads (more than half of the Mariners’ wins have been by three runs or fewer) has been crucial to the Mariners’ ability to maximize their success thus far this season.
That, however, is only half of the story. Somehow the Mariners, a team that has rotated Jose Vidro, Raul Ibañez, and Jose Guillen in the third spot in its batting order and plays its home games in an extreme pitchers' park, has enjoyed the seventh-best offense in baseball judging by raw runs per game. Consider too that their first baseman has hit .199/.303/.399 on the season, their current three-place hitter, Ibañez, is hitting .264/.314/.408, and his predecessor, Vidro, is slugging just .366. Where’s all that offense coming from?
A lot of it has come from Ichiro Suzuki, who is perpetually overrated, but just happens to be equaling his best season this year. Some of it has come from Guillen and third baseman Adrian Beltre, both of whom have shown some signs of life at the plate this season. And some of it has come behind the plate, where Kenji Johjima has been a league-average hitter (which is impressive for a catcher), and his backup, minor-league veteran Jamie Burke, has been enjoying one of those fluke seasons that every backup catcher seems entitled to at some point (see Bard, Josh). In general, however, it seems the Mariners have squeezed every run they can out of their lineup.
Taking a closer look, the M’s appear to be doing this by simply putting the ball in play. The Mariners have a league-average on-base percentage, but that OBP is comprised of a higher ratio of hits to walks than is typical (the average AL team reaches base 73 percent of the time by hit and 27 percent of the time by walk; the Mariners reach 79 percent of the time by hit and 21 percent of the time by walk). Meanwhile, the M’s have posted the major-league’s lowest strikeout rate. This approach is radically divergent from that of the league’s other top offenses, who typically walk and strike out in bunches. The Mariners’ approach is largely dependent on luck, on the hope that enough balls drop in to sustain success (particularly as the M’s don’t hit many homers either). The M’s team speed certainly won’t help, as Ichiro is responsible for almost exactly half of the team’s steals.
One has to assume that the Mariners' luck will run out later, even if it failed to do so sooner. The M’s are a team that’s been riding two mind-blowing relief seasons, a trio of merely average starting pitchers (Washburn, Hernandez, and Miguel Batista), and a hope-and-pray offense. I still say they’re overachieving. They’re just doing a heck of a job of it.
Labels: Wild Card
AL West: A's can RIP
Let's take a trip back to last millennium -- 1998 to be exact. Back to a time when our Commander in Chief "did not have sexual relations with that woman," Dawson's Creek capitalized on teacher-student sexy time, astronomical disaster flicks ruled the box office (see: Armageddon and Deep Impact) and the A's were the worst team in the AL West.
Oakland finished 1998 -- Billy Beane's first season as general manager -- in the cellar at 74-88. The definitive stretch of that season came in late July when Oakland lost nine in a row -- something the franchise hadn't repeated since ... until Tuesday. Texas' 11-4 shellacking gave Oakland its ninth straight defeat. During futile spell, the A's also set a team record by scoring three runs or fewer in 11 consecutive games.
Granted, the A's ended the nine-game skid with a 6-0 win over the Rangers yesterday, but the win still left them five games below .500 at 45-50. With 67 games left, Oakland sits 11 games behind the division-leading Angels and 10 1/2 games back in the Wild Card. The recent ineptitude has caused me to officially do something I promised I would never do: give up on Beane's A's in July. I know, I know -- considering the A's second-half brilliance in recent years, this seems highly premature. But I've watched enough of this year's Athletics to know they'll be busy on the links -- not the diamond -- come October. The '07 installment is just too flawed (and delicate).
First and foremost, Oakland's offense is nothing short of horrendous. The A's have scored the second-lowest amount of runs in the American League (ahead of only Chicago), thanks in large part to their major-league worst .234 average with runners in scoring position. Though Mike Piazza is on the verge of returning to the lineup, he's no longer a game-changing threat. Piazza hasn't been a steady run producer 2002, so don't expect the designated hitter to carry Oakland's offense down the stretch like Frank Thomas did last season.
This offensive ineptness leaves absolutely no margin for error in the pitching department. Oakland's pitching as a whole has been rock solid -- ranking second in team ERA (3.74) -- but it isn't without flaw. Oakland's top three starters (Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, and Chad Gaudin) are fabulous, but the back end of the rotation (Joe Kennedy and Lenny DiNardo) leaves something to be desired. And Rich Harden's second trip to the DL for a strained right shoulder could mean the A's will be without their flame-throwing right-hander for the rest of 2007.
The rotation is far less of a concern than the bullpen. Without closer Huston Street (on the DL since May 15 with elbow problems) and setup man Justin Duchscherer (out for the season after hip surgery), Oakland's 'pen has dropped off significantly since last year, ranking just 21st in baseball with an 4.34 ERA.
On top of all this, on Monday the A's traded veteran presence Jason Kendall to the Cubs, opting to start 23.-year-old backstop Kurt Suzuki full time. Though Kendall was hitting .226 at the time of the trade, his guidance of the young staff was invaluable. As Huston Street told the San Francisco Chronicle, "For a lot of us who trusted [Kendall], it's going to be a difficult transition." Also, Beane admits that this trade at least partially indicates the team is focusing on the future (past this season).
"I think certainly, with the injuries we've had, this isn't the place we'd like to be sitting right now," Beane told the Chronicle. "We've got an uphill battle to get back into this, given the way the Angels and Mariners have been playing and the fact that we still have some critical members of the team who won't be ready for awhile.
"At [catcher], there's no question that we're looking toward next year, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything beyond that or from the whole team's standpoint."
Labels: AL West
NL East: Catching up with Mo
Four years later, the man who remains the face of the overspending, underperforming pre-Minayan New York Mets is in many ways even more upset about the abrupt end of his career than is the legion of long-suffering Shea-goers.
For a story that appeared in SI’s recent “Where Are They Now” issue, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Mo Vaughn . Vaughn could write a primer on how an athlete ought to live his life once the cheering stops; he’s the antithesis of Everybody’s All-American. Shortly after he realized in 2003 that the arthritis and chronic pain in his left knee would never again allow him to play baseball effectively -- let alone at an MVP level -- he turned his full attention to Omni NY, the company (which he formed with his former lawyer, Eugene Schneur) under whose auspices he rehabilitates and manages long-neglected low-income housing developments.
Business is booming: Vaughn’s company already owns 10 developments containing thousands of apartments, and provides clean, secure housing for residents desperately in need of it while, yes, making a profit. And they have plans to expand rapidly, to places such as Las Vegas, Miami and Massachusetts. However, all that hard-earned and socially-conscious success doesn’t mean that Vaughn has completely moved on from his days on the diamond.
“I grew up 40 miles north of New York City, in Norwalk, Connecticut, and I came to the Mets -- back to my hometown -- to win a World Series,” Vaughn, who was traded to New York in December 2001 for Kevin Appier, told me as we drove in his new black Range Rover from one of his developments in Yonkers to another in the Bronx. “All of a sudden, it doesn’t work out like that. As great as what I’m doing now is, I don’t think it’ll ever be like baseball -- but like I’ve always said, you have to know when to get out.”
Although Vaughn, who looks as if he’s gained not an ounce of fat nor lost an ounce of muscle since his playing days, says that he remains in regular contact with former teammates and opponents (including Garrett Anderson, Cliff Floyd, David Ortiz and Frank Thomas), he hasn’t been able to bring himself to attend a game since his retirement. “I haven’t come up with a way to go just yet, I think I would miss it too much,” he explains. “I watch [the Mets] on TV, but I haven’t actually been to a ballpark. I don’t think I’m ready to do that yet, but I might go to the playoffs at Shea this year.”
Vaughn bristles at the notion that he might feel guilty about earning so much money while he sat on the bench (some $34 million in `03 and `04, according to baseball-reference.com, when he totaled 79 at-bats and three homers). "You can’t take away from me what I did do," he says. At the same time, he's surprisingly honest in assessing his place in baseball history. He admits, “I think Albert Belle should have won MVP” in 1995, when Vaughn nipped the Indians' slugger by one first-place vote. "Fifty home runs, 50 doubles. Maybe I was a little bit nicer."
Here’s his equally realistic view of his chances of election to the Hall of Fame, for which he’ll become eligible in 2009: "Never make it."
While fans in Flushing, with those elephantine memories of theirs, may never fully get past the fact that Vaughn hit only 29 homers and drove in less than 100 runs in an ephemeral Mets career for which it only seems as if the team’s still paying, it might come as some solace to know that Vaughn’s just as devastated about how things turned out as they are -- and that he’s now contributing to their community in ways that are likely deeper and longer-lasting.
Labels: NL East
NL Central: Trade bait
As the July 31 trade deadline nears, a look at some notable players that could be on the move in the NL Central:
With the closer's stock is higher than it's been in a few years, it's a no-brainer for Tim Purpura to deal Lidge, but it's looking increasingly likely that the righthander isn't going anywhere. Don't put all the blame on Purpura, though. Here's Houston owner Drayton McClane on trading Lidge: "I see no reason we should even consider it." According this note to the Red Sox are more interested in Lidge's teammates, Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler.
An Astros blogger says that Purpura dealing Wily Taveras and Jason Hirsh for Jason Jennings "could very well be the move that gets him the boot." But with starting pitchers hard to find in the trade market, Jennings could have some good value. A pennant changing player, he is not.
The Big Donkey thinks he's good as gone, and he's probably right. An intriguing destination is San Diego, where GM Kevin Towers is desperate for a big bopper. "San Diego's one big hitter away from running away with the NL West," says an NL GM. By the way, Dunn is on pace to become the eighth player with four consecutive 40-home run seasons all in his 20s. Pujols, A-Rod, Griffey, Kiner, Snider, Banks, and Killebrew are the others.
Ken Griffey, Jr.
Griffey shot down a report that said he expected to be traded this summer but GM Wayne Krivsky will have dropped the ball if he doesn't make a move with Junior's stock as high as ever. If you believe the talk, Griffey is only willing to accept a trade to Chicago, Atlanta, or Seattle.
Quietly, Arroyo reverted to his 2006 form over the last month; last week he was dazzling in seven shutout innings against the Braves. (Last year Arroyo led the majors with 3851 pitches thrown.) The Boston Globe wonders if the Red Sox would deal Arroyo to Cincy for Wily Mo Pena.
Stormy has been remarkably effective as Cincy's stopper, but how long can he keep it up? Not much longer; the Reds have gotten as much as they could possibly ask for out of the 37-year-old, plus Eddie Guardado should be back soon.
Labels: NL Central
AL Central: 'Joel Zumala'
I am at odds with President Bush.
On a number of issues, frankly, but none more pertinent to an AL Central blog than this: the President predicts the Tigers to win the division.
Part of Bush's reasoning, you see, is that the Tigers have great young pitching and will benefit from the impending return of the "flamethrower Zumala" -- that's Joel Zumaya, if you're scoring at home. He should be back in mid-August after having finger surgery, and the same goes for Fernando Rodney, who joined Zumaya to form a dynamic seventh and eighth inning relief corps in front of Todd Jones last season.
As I wrote last week, my divisional pick is Cleveland, in large part because I think they have a sturdier bullpen. The return of Rodney and Zumaya will be significant for the Tigers, though neither has approached his success from last season. And a lot of that success was predicated on durability a year ago. Zumaya had a 1.94 ERA in 83.1 innings in 2006; he sports a 3.63 ERA through his first 17.1 innings this season. Rodney is 1-5 with a 5.40 ERA in 28.1 innings so far; he was 7-4 and 3.52 in 71.2 innings last year.
What may ultimately tip the balance in the Tigers' favor, however, is the ability to buy relief at a price far greater than a pack of Rolaids.
Let me channel Speed for a moment ... Pop quiz, hotshot: Who has the lowest payroll in the AL Central?
According to these figures presented by the USA Today, the answer is not Kansas City. It's the Indians, who at $61.7 million have the 23rd highest (and, conversely, 8th lowest) payroll in the majors. The Royals are one slot ahead of them, spending $67.1 million in salaries.
Detroit, meanwhile, clocks in at $95.2 million, second to Chicago's largely unproductive $108.7 million in the AL Central rankings. That type of payroll offers the Tigers a flexibility the Indians don't have as we enter the final fortnight before the July 31 trading deadline.
As the Detroit Free-Press reports, the Tigers have their eyes on a top reliever to bolster the 'pen, possibly targeting someone as high-profile as Eric Gagne of the Rangers or Brad Lidge of the Astros. The Indians, meanwhile, are relegated to inquiring about a lower-tier option like Texas's Akinori Otsuka, but he's had tightness in his right forearm and probably won't be dealt.
While the Tigers can afford to add a more proven and, thus, higher-priced arm, the Indians will need to find help from within. Namely, the answer may well be Jensen Lewis, who made his major-league debut last night. He allowed no hits in a scoreless 1.1 innings, though he did walk three batters. His promise comes from his track record in Double and Triple A since May 1: a 0.68 ERA in 40 innings, with a .177 batting average against.
It's development from within, trading primarily for prospects and locking up future stars early that has worked well for Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. Just as he extended Grady Sizemore with a seven-year, $31.5 million contract (including a club option year) before his star centerfielder was even arbitration-eligible, Shapiro made a smart move in giving Travis Hafner a four-year, $57 million deal last week. The contract gives Hafner a hefty mid-season raise and foregoes next year's club option at a discount price, but it's good faith negotiating from Shapiro to keep his star happy and -- more importantly -- keep his star in Cleveland. Similarly, it was also shrewd to tie up manager Eric Wedge, popular among the players, earlier this week.
Clearly, the Tigers don't approach the free-spending ways of a New York or Boston. Still, they were able to trade for a veteran like Sean Casey at last year's deadline, they dealt young pitching for Gary Sheffield in the offseason and they can afford to acquire a Gagne or Lidge this summer -- those are moves the Indians can't (or won't) make. And for proof that Cleveland's more frugal strategy can work, just look under Twins, Minnesota for divisional results.
Labels: AL Central
AL East: Five up, five down
With the second-half of the season is less than a week old, I thought it would be a good time to look at who might have a strong second half and who might fall off.
Bobby Abreu: How much do the Yankees miss Gary Sheffield? On the field, plenty, as Abreu inexplicably fell off the map. Though he once possessed a powerful throwing arm, that alone cannot mask his fielding inadequacies anymore. Moreover, his ability to get on base has covered a sharp decline in power, but in the first half he just didn't do very much of anything well. He's become a poor defensive player and while his OBP is respectable (.353) it is far from below his career average (.409). The Yankees have an option on him at the end of the year. While he may not play well enough to remain in New York, he'll salvage what has been a down year.
Manny Ramirez: There are a bunch of candidates on the Red Sox that should improve as the summer rolls along, notably Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew and Coco Crisp. Ramirez (.288/.385/.473) has respectable numbers but this is Manny Ramirez, Hall of Fame Hitter, we're talking about. He's got just 12 home runs. Look for a late season flourish and for Manny to hit 30-plus by the time it’s all said and done.
Akinori Iwamura: The D Ray's third baseman has only played in 56 games due to assorted injuries, but he's hit to the tune of .285/.366/.416. At the plate, Iwamura looks like a combination of countrymen Ichiro and Godzilla. He pulls off the ball like Ichiro but his body is thicker like Godzilla's. If he can remain healthy, he'll do a little bit of everything well, including running the bases and fielding his position.
Roy Halladay: Toronto's ace is 10-4 but his ERA is 4.66, just about the worst of his career (he did have a 10.64 ERA in just 67 innings in 2000). Halladay has battled through injuries, sure, but if he can keep himself off the DL, there is every reason to believe that he'll return to form, get that ERA down below 4.00 and win close to 20 games.
Nick Markakis: OK, this is pushing it, seeing as how the second year outfielder is having a good season (.288/.350/.453). Right now, his rate numbers are almost identical to his final 2006 stats. But Markakis was a monster in the second-half last year (.311/.364/.532) -- he hit 14 of his 16 home runs after the break. Why not again?
Mike Lowell: Boston's third baseman was thought to be washed-up when he joined the Red Sox with Josh Beckett last year. He's been anything but, providing solid defense and a steady bat. Last year, he hit .307/.359/.516 in the first half (with 31 doubles), .257/.315/.424 (just 16 doubles) after. Look for a similar slide this year.
Alex Rodriguez: He's been the Yankees' best player this year. With 30 homers and 86 RBIs at the break, there is almost no place to go but down. Rodriguez has bounced back from his "poor" 2006 season, and has thrived in spite of controversy, much of it of his own doing. However, with the Yankees teetering and an off-season that is sure to bring many more distractions (not to mention dollars), will Rodriguez will be able to maintain his level of play?
Jeremy Guthrie: The 28-year old right-hander has been heaven sent for the Birds this year, with 75 strikeouts and just 21 walks with a 3.07 ERA in 105 innings. But as the innings mount and the losing in Baltimore swells, look for Guthrie to come back to the pack.
Alex Rios: The Jays' lanky right fielder has picked up nicely where he left off in 2006 before a bizarre staph-infection sullied his season. He already has a career-high 18 home runs, and before it is all said and done should set career marks in walks, doubles and runs scored. That said, I just don't envision him slugging .532 the rest of the way. Very nice young player, but I won't be sold on him until he proves it over the course of a full season.
Labels: AL East
NL West: Bonds' big slump
Well, heck, his 2007 on-base percentage has just now dropped below .500.
It's important to keep things in perspective -- Barry Bonds hasn't tumbled irredeemably off a cliff, not as far as on-field performance goes, anyway.
That didn't make it any less mind-blowing to see the San Francisco Giants' lightning rod short out this past weekend against the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, going 0-for-12 (with three walks) and grounding into three double plays. No fewer than 16 runners were on base during Bonds' at-bats in the series, and he failed to drive in any of them.
Bonds is actually zero for his past 20 since July 5 (with eight walks). Some have speculated that he's trying too hard to hit home runs as he closes in on the career record, although I seem to recall a time in the past when history was on the line and he had no trouble producing.
Nor did Bonds seem tired this weekend, coming off the All-Star Break. In Saturday's game, Bonds put himself in position to score the tying run in the bottom of the ninth inning after he walked by dashing to second on a hit-and-run to forestall a double play, and earlier made a diving stop in the outfield to prevent a base hit from going to the wall.
San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy offered that Bonds had become "pull-conscious," according to The Associated Press, a thought that Bonds quickly dismissed. In fact, in what little time Bonds gave the media after Sunday's game, he was less concerned with the why than the what.
"It's an embarrassment for me to be wearing this [expletive deleted] uniform 'cause of the way I'm playing," Bonds said. "There, that's it. Now go away,"
And the thing is, that really is probably the whole story right there. He's slumping, but right on the heels of a stretch from June 22-July 3 in which he went 11 for 24 with 16 walks, three homers and a 1.600 OPS. Even with Bonds' 43rd birthday approaching later this month, it would be a mistake to read too much into this particular dry spell.
That didn't make it any less stunning to see the Dodgers' chief tormentor fail to produce, at-bat after at-bat. With one timely Bonds hit Saturday or Sunday, the Giants could have ended their home losing streak to Los Angeles. Instead, the Dodgers have won 11 straight in San Francisco, their longest such streak in nearly 30 years.
"Barry Bonds, he's human," said Dodgers catcher Russell Martin after Sunday's game. "He's going to have times when he's not swinging the bat really well. We pretty much got lucky."
Colorado won Friday to move over .500 after the All-Star Break for the first time since ... well, actually, it was only last year that the Rockies were 44-43 until the final out of their first post-Break game.
In any case, Colorado is right on the edge of threatening in the postseason chase, but the Rockies dropped their Saturday and Sunday games. That will make them even more anxious to get pitchers Brian Fuentes and Jason Hirsh back to health.
Fuentes is tentatively scheduled for a minor-league rehab assignment Tuesday in a Single-A game, Thomas Harding of MLB.com reports. But Hirsh, recovering from a July 2 ankle sprain suffered during a game in which he shut out the New York Mets over six innings, still hasn't even completed a bullpen session yet.
In their first two days after the All-Star Break, the San Diego Padres got crushed in one game, had their renowned bullpen blow a cushy lead in another, fell out of first place in the division, had starting pitcher David Wells get suspended for seven games (now under appeal) and, perhaps most frightening, had staff ace Jake Peavy push his scheduled Sunday start two days into the future because of a sore biceps.
Though Peavy is expected to be just fine, the Padres were ready for anything to keep the weekend from total disaster. And, just as it should be for a title contender, someone stepped up: Justin Germano threw 6 1/3 shutout innings Sunday to lead San Diego past Arizona, 4-0.
Germano, a waiver-wire acquisition by the Padres this spring, had a 2.67 ERA while averaging six innings in his first nine starts. But he also averaged only 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings, leading many to believe his unpedigreed performance was a fluke -- a theory only enhanced when he posted a 10.13 ERA in his final two starts before the All-Star Game.
It still remains to be seen how well Germano will fare for an entire season -- he had only 28 career innings in the majors before 2007 -- but manager Bud Black, who had a 3.84 career ERA while striking out 4.6 batters per nine innings, and 41-year-old future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who also gets by mostly on guile these days, are there to tutor him on making the most of his command.
"There was a lot of 80s, 81s, 82s that weren't really his fastball and weren't really his changeup," Arizona manager Bob Melvin told Michael Schwartz of MLB.com. "He gets ahead of you and all of a sudden humps up a [mid-80s] pitch in to get an out."
Labels: NL West
AL East blog (Monday)
NL West blog (Monday)
AL Central blog (Tuesday)
NL Central blog (Wednesday)
AL West blog (Thursday)
NL East blog (Thursday)
Wild Card (Friday)