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Why is Miguel Cabrera hitting better during the day than at night?

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Miguel Cabrera is hitting better in day games. MUCH better. Will his not-so-great night game numbers continue to be not-so-great?

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

This has been a strange season for the Detroit Tigers so far. The team leads the American League in stolen bases, yet their speed has done nothing to keep them from leading the majors in hitting into double plays. Anibal Sanchez, who since coming to Detroit in 2012 has never given up more than 10 home runs in a season, has given up 11 home runs already in 2015. His ERA is an unsightly 6.12, and his peripheral numbers aren't much better.

And then there is Miguel Cabrera's "day and night" difference at the plate. The issue has been raised several times already in the past few weeks, as Cabrera has mashed in the daylight but struggled when the sun goes down. It was brought to a head on Memorial Day, when the Tigers played a day game against the Oakland Athletics, and manager Brad Ausmus gave Cabrera the day off. The Tigers got shut out, and both fans and official talking heads trotted out the stats.

Split BA OBP SLG OPS HR RBI
Day .447 .520 .882 1.402 10 28
Night .232 .364 .317 .681 1 4

For a guy who is regularly called "the best hitter on the planet," these splits are ... odd. Let's see if we can sniff out any answers.

Team and League Splits

The first question to answer is whether these splits are specific to Cabrera, or whether they carry over to the team as a whole. A good follow-up question would be whether the same broad gap exists in the American League as a whole.

The answer to the first question is, yes. The Tigers as a whole are hitting better during the day than they are at night. (From here on out, we'll be using OPS to do comparisons.)

Split OPS
Day .856
Night .659

A difference of 197 points is nothing to sneeze at. How does it compare to the league average?

Split OPS
Day .731
Night .705

There's still a difference there, and the entire league is hitting better in the daylight, but the split is less extreme at just 26 points. (Remember, for the sake of reference, that Cabrera's OPS split is a difference of 721 points.)

Cabrera vs. Cabrera

The next question to be asked is how Miguel Cabrera in his 2015 incarnation compares to the Miguel Cabrera of past years. Does he normally have large day/night splits?

Day OPS Night OPS Difference Year
.706 .981 -.275 2008
.851 .995 -.144 2009
1.060 1.031 .029 2010
.954 1.080 -.126 2011
.953 1.029 -.076 2012
1.010 1.118 -.108 2013
.741 .983 -.242 2014
1.402 .681 .721 2015

It turns out that Miguel Cabrera has been known to have some wide day/night splits in his career with the Tigers, but they're normally in the opposite direction. Since coming to Detroit, at least, he's usually better at night. Much better, in fact.

Is Anyone Else Having this Problem?

It's one thing to look at league averages and career norms, but let's face it, we're trying to compare apples and oranges so far. Cabrera's splits at the moment are particularly difficult to evaluate because it's not even the end of May yet, and we're dealing with sample sizes that can easily be skewed by a few good (or bad) games.

So the next thing to do is to compare what's happening with Cabrera to the other top hitters in the majors right now. There are 30 hitters in MLB right now with at least 150 at-bats who are hitting .300 or better. Of those 30, more than half (57 percent) are performing better in day games than they are at night. The following 14 players have OPS differentials of 50 or more points.

Player Day OPS Night OPS Difference
Miguel Cabrera 1.402 .689 .713
Nori Aoki 1.166 .636 .530
Adam Jones 1.180 .661 .519
Salvador Perez .944 .709 .235
Freddy Galvis .893 .664 .229
Prince Fielder 1.146 .930 .216
Lorenzo Cain .893 .735 .158
Dee Gordon .940 .801 .139
Adeiny Hechavarria .825 .688 .137
A.J. Pollock .874 .758 .116
Jhonny Peralta .933 .828 .105
Kendrys Morales .925 .823 .102
Bryce Harper 1.246 1.150 .096
Matt Carpenter 1.018 .956 .062

This is starting to look more familiar. Miguel Cabrera still leads the pack by a long-shot, but he is certainly not the only .300+ hitter in the majors to be experiencing this early-season "sunset split" at the plate.

MOAR DATA DAMMIT!

Well, at this point, we might as well just go the whole nine yards and search the past 20 years of statistical data, limiting ourselves to batters who finished the season with an average of .320 or higher, and had a minimum of 550 at-bats.

There were 96 batters who met the criteria, and 57 percent of them had higher OPS stats in the daytime. Here is the list of players whose OPS differential in day games was over 100 points.

Player Year Day OPS Night OPS Difference
Ellis Burks 1996 1.293 .905 .388
Larry Walker 1997 1.330 1.037 .293
Ivan Rodriguez 1998 1.046 .827 .219
Ryan Braun 2011 1.143 .928 .215
Albert Pujols 2004 1.209 1.000 .209
Omar Vizquel 1999 .976 .783 .193
Matt Holliday 2007 1.146 .962 .184
Jeff Kent 2000 1.118 .948 .170
Ichiro Suzuki 2009 .971 .803 .168
Miguel Cabrera 2006 1.115 .952 .163
Lance Johnson 1996 .944 .788 .156
Melvin Mora 2004 1.077 .925 .152
Miguel Tejada 2006 .966 .834 .132
Mark Loretta 2004 .985 .858 127
Albert Pujols 2001 1.086 .967 119
Albert Pujols 2007 1.073 .961 112
David Wright 2007 1.039 .928 111
Albert Pujols 2009 1.170 1.063 107

So what have we learned, aside from the fact that baseball statistics are a fun way to waste 10-15 minutes of your day? We learned the following:

  • Miguel Cabrera has some extreme day/night splits in 2015
  • The whole Tigers team is hitting better in day games this year
  • The whole American League is hitting better in day games this year
  • Cabrera's 2015 stats are definitely out of line with his career-as-a-Tiger numbers (he's usually better at night)
  • There are several great hitters in 2015 who have similar day/night splits, some fairly extreme
  • There have been many great hitters in the past 20 years who had much better success in day games
  • Conclusion: Cabrera may end the season with better daytime numbers, but expect the extremes to level out and trend more towards his typical splits