But that trend has stopped. New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, arguably the greatest pitcher of his generation, has never won a Cy Young Award, though he has finished in the Top 5 in voting five times, including one second-place finish and three third-place finishes.
Trevor Hoffman, the long-time San Diego Padres closer who is also likely headed to the Hall of Fame, had three Top 5 finishes, placing second once. Each time they had a tremendous season, Hoffman and Rivera were beat out by starters who threw more innings and piled up wins.
That's probably how it should be, said John Smoltz, who won the 1996 National League Cy Young Award with a 24-8 record and a 2.94 ERA in 253 2/3 innings pitched for the Atlanta Braves.
Smoltz, now a baseball analyst for TBS, has a fairly unique perspective. He also saved 44 or more games three times in his career, including a league-best 55 in 2002.
"Everything is perception," Smoltz said. "Let's just say I had to put my Cy Young year, 24-8, against 55 saves and let's just say I didn't blow a save. I would have a hard time with the guy getting 55 saves being put ahead of the guy who is 24-8 for Cy Young."
In 1996, as a starter, Smoltz finished first in the Cy Young voting and 11th for MVP. In 2002, as a reliever, he finished third in the Cy Young voting but eighth for MVP. That makes sense, according to Smoltz, because he believes closers are more like position players in how often they affect games. And so it's his belief that relievers should be considered for MVP before Cy Young.
"It's hard for me, having done both, to give the Cy Young to a guy who has pitched 200 innings or 180 innings less [than a starter]. He is super important and affects the team more on a day-to-day basis," Smoltz said. "So his remarkable year — say Fernando Rodney's or Jim Johnson's, and there's nobody else comparatively close to them — I would be more apt to say that that is more worthy of a MVP than a Cy Young."
It's in the definition of the award, says Smoltz. MVP is for the most valuable to his team, whereas Cy Young is for the year's best pitcher, Smoltz believes.
"Think about it. The MVP does not always go to the guy who has had the best year. It's gone to the guy who in [the writers'] estimation has affected their team," Smoltz said. "Without him on their team, there is no way they would have been in the playoffs or where they are at. That's why the Cy Young can win on a losing team. The argument of a MVP would be, 'Well, that guy on a losing team is still on a losing team.'"
In the past, relievers have won the Cy Young Award primarily in seasons in which there were no starters that have had standout years. In the AL in 2012, no starter is running away with the award, but there are five who have won at least 13 games with an ERA under 3.00: Tampa Bay's David Price, Chicago's Chris Sale, Los Angeles' Jered Weaver, Detroit's Justin Verlander and Seattle's Felix Hernandez.
"You have five, sub-3.00 ERA starters," said Fox Sports baseball writer Ken Rosenthal, who has one of the 28 votes for AL Cy Young this season. "I just can't see selecting a closer over a starter having that kind of year. I just don't see it. I know you can make the argument, but I just think closers are more MVP candidates. It would have to be an extraordinary circumstance for me to vote for a reliever over a starter."
Even those who are hoping to promote their own players begrudgingly understand that reality. Despite Rodney's importance to his club, the Rays have sent out promotional information to potential voters supporting Price's candidacy — and not Rodney's.
"We sent out on Price because he is a starter and we think, historically speaking, he has a better chance as a starter than Fernando the reliever," said Rick Vaughn, the Rays' vice president of communications. "But we joked internally about how funny it would be if Fernando wins it after we sent out our Cy Young propaganda on Price."
The decision was based on practicality and not a preference for one or the other. In fact, when asked to choose between Price and Rodney for a fictitious Cy Young ballot, Maddon, the Rays' manager, said, "That's like, do I vote for my oldest son or my second-oldest son? You talk about choosing within your family. … I think both are deserving of consideration."
ESPN.com features a Cy Young Predictor based on a formula that includes past voting results. In it, Price is listed as first this year in the AL and Rodney second. Johnson is seventh.
Another potential indicator is the Sabermetric baseball statistic known as WAR, which is designed to provide how many wins a particular player would give his team beyond a replacement, or reserve-level player, at that position. According to ESPN, the highest WAR for an AL pitcher is 6.0, assigned to Verlander, the league's defending MVP and Cy Young winner.
Rodney is 10th highest in WAR with 2.9; Johnson is tied for 43rd in the AL with 1.6, which is actually behind fellow Orioles relievers Strop, Darren O'Day and Troy Patton.
The WAR figures lean heavily toward elite starters, rendering the comparisons between the rotation and bullpen almost useless. But there's no arguing that both roles are important, just difficult to compare against each other.
That's why Stark, the ESPN writer, has attempted to create a new BBWAA Award strictly for relievers. It's long due, Stark believes, plus it would allow writers to better quantify a reliever's career versus other relievers when it comes to Hall of Fame voting.
In December 2010, at a BBWAA meeting, Stark's proposal was shot down. Among the most prevalent reasons was that relievers can win the Cy Young since they are pitchers.