One of baseball's century-old enticements is the way the sport begs for statistical analysis, then proves inscrutable, wrapping itself in a veil of decimal points.

Fans divide into sects - those who invent stat systems and those who must listen to them.

"Eureka!" cries one. "The ultimate stat."

"Yeah?" answers the agnostic. "I'll go stand in the hot dog line. You explain it to this empty seat here."

Since the 1880s debate over whether a walk was truly "as good as a hit" in figuring a batting average, one statistical puzzle has been the granddaddy of them all: How do you measure a player's total offensive ability?

All arguments on pitching and fielding numbers are tepid beside this.

How in the name of long division can battingaverage, slugging average, on-base percentage, stolen-base percentage and other parameters be consolidated into one supreme statistic? How can players with skills and styles as disparate as George Foster and Rod Carew, for instance, be compared?

Batting eye, raw power, place hitting for average, running the bases - all have their rightful place in an evaluation of total offensive worth.

But how can their relative worth be balanced? And how can a player's performance be, at least partially, isolated from the quality of his teammates?

Gather round and start getting annoyed. That all-encompassing offensive stat - which incorporates batting, slugging, bunting, drawing walks, stealing bases - has arrived.

Can it the Total Average. Or call it worse. Even this writer, who cooked it up and who believes in it, gets nervous around it.

Why? Because the Total Average says that:

Rod Carew is overrated. Minnesota's .388 hitter was only tied with Reggie Jackson as the seventh best offensive player in baseball last season.

Los Angeles Manager Tom Lasorda was right when he insisted that only Cincinatti's George Foster had had a better season than his Reggie Smith.

Oscar Gamble, Mitchell Page, Andre Thornton, Ken Singleton and Toby Harrah were among the 15 most productive players in the game on a per-at-bat basis.

Big names like Jackson, Steve Garvey, Pete Rose and many others finished far lower in total offensive contribution last year than Hal McRae, Harrah, Ron LeFlore, Jose Cruz and the rookie Page.

Baseball is packed with incredibly overrated players, especially those playing either in major cities or with World Series teams, or both.

Mickey Rivers leads this list of players whose value (in '77) ranged from mediocre to extremely poor. Others include Lou Brock, Dave Kingman, Bucky Dent, Lee May, and particularly the Dodger's Bill Russell, whose Total Average is almost invisible.

The most significant aspect of the Total Average is its simplicity. Anyone can prove almost anything with a sheet of year-end stats and a pocket calculator.

The premise for the Total Average is that baseball has two fundemental units of measure; the base and the out. Each base is one step closer to home plate; each out is a single step nearer the end of the inning. The eternal race - in every turn at bat - is between bases and outs.

Therefore, give a player credit for each base he accumulates: one for a single, walk, steal or being hit by a pitch, for a double, three for a tripleand four for a home run. Then add all the bases for the year.

Conversely, count each out that the player makes - whether he makes it at bat or is thrown out stealing.

Compute the Total Average just like a batting average: divide the player's bases by his plate appearances plus steal attempts.

What are the virtues of such a simple system?

Players with different styles and strengths can be measured on the same scale. The bunt hit, the walk, the steal and the home run are all given their proper due.

The gaudy .320 hitter with little power and almost no walks, like Rivers or Ralph Garr, is held down. The batting average, which players themselves have long said was grossly overvalued, is brought into perspective.

The low-average slugger will find his Total Average depleted by his many outs. Dave Kingman, for instance, who hits homers (28 in '77) and does little else, finds himself ranked behind 150 players in Total Average. But the .250-hitting home run champ like Harmon Killebrew. who also draws 130 walks, ranks very high.

Walks (building on-base percentage), the most neglected offensive category, finally are given added importance.

The strategic tend of baseball for the last 10 years - the stolen base - is incorporated in a major statistic.

The Total Average minimizes the advantage that a good player on a top team has over an equall good player on a bad team.

Every fan knows the advantages of batting cleanup for Cincinnati rather than Seattle. More runners on base to drive you home, better hitters behind you to drive you home, better selection of pitches because the hitter behind you is feared, and a dozen other added perks.

The highly respected Runs Produced statistic (runs plus RBI minus home runs) - is the most heavily stacked toward players in the midst of powerful lineups.

Of the 20 leaders in runs produced last season, 16 played for the top six scoring teams. Only four played for the other 20 clubs. Clearly that is a stat slanted toward star teams.

Of the top 30 players in Total Average, 16 played for those top six scoring teams. That's to be expected. But 14 of those top 30 came from the other 20 teams, which is certainly a more reasonable ratio.

Similarly, RBI is a statistic slanted toward the player in the heart of a great lineup. Total Average helps rectify that discrimination by ignoring both runs scored and RBI, which are tied to the performance of teammates, and concentrating on bases and outs.

The great boon from Total Average, however, is the way it invariably singles out great performances in recent years which no other single stat pointed out.

George Foster's .666 Total Average in '77 (460 bases in 691 plate appearances plus steal attempts) was the best in baseball. However, Foster drew only 61 walks and stole just six bases. In the last decade alone, eight players have bettered that .666 mark, Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey doing it twice.

Foster's own teammate, Joe Morgan, who has been the best Total player in baseball the last four years, had a .681 mark the year before.

Morgan is the perfect example of how versatility is better for Total Average than one dominant skill.

Though Morgan's .320 average, 27 homers and 111 RBI in 1976 didn't come close to any of the triple crown championships, only one player in baseball came within 99 points of his .681 Total Average because of his 60 steals, 114 walks and .576 slugging average.

In 1975 Morgan did not lead the majors in any category - except Total Average.

Yet, in both years, Morgan was the league MVP and acclaimed as the best player in baseball. Thus, we see now Total Average gives a statiscal reinforcement to common sense.

Perhaps the surprise superstar revealed by Total Average is Mike Schmidt, who, for the last four years, has challenged Morgan for Total superiority. Over those four years, Morgan (.634) and Schmidt (.618) are the only players with Total Average over .575.

Schmidt, too often demeaned for his strike-outs (highest ratio in baseball history) has not only hit the most homers in baseball in the last four years (150), but averaged 106 walks and 20 steals a year.

Also, it should be no surprise that Reggie Smith crept ahead of Schmidt in the '77 rankings (.651 to .647). Smith had the fourth best slugging average in baseball and the third best on-base percentage.

Gamble is not really an interloper either. He had baseball's second best homers-per-at-bat ratio to Foster (31 in 408).

The Total player of the future might be Mitchell Page, a raw 6-foot-2, 205-pounder with stats in the Morgan mold. The Oakland rookie hit. 307, slugged .521, had a .406 on-base average and stole 42 bases in 47 attempts. No wonder his Total Average (.612) was right on the heels of big names like Jackson and Carew (.616).

Just as batting average is based on hits, so TA is based on aggregate bases by hitting, walking and stealing. That raw "base total" is also valid statistic, though it is weighted toward the durable player who never misses a game.

Babe Ruth in 1921 had the highest Total Average in history: .876. That's over 200 points better than Foster with his 52 homers last year. Can Ruth really have been that much more productive than the best of today?

You bet. The Babe had 59 homers, 457 total bases, 144 walks, five hit-by-pitches and 17 steals for 623 aggregate bases. That's 66 bases more than any other player ever had in a season.

Only Lou Gehrig (.805 in '27), Ted Williams (.801 in '41) and Ruth (several times) ever had .800 Total Averages.

Just as players like Rivers (.469), Lee May (.459), Brock (.414) and Bill Russell (.395) had shockingly low Total Average last season, Ty Cobb is the dissappointed among the immortals.

Cobb was the best Total man in dead-ball days. Nevertheless, his best TA year ('11) was .662, lower than Foster in '77.

Perhaps the strongest argument for Total Average is the dramatic, yet persuasive, way in which it ranks the greatest players of live-ball times since 1920.

Granted that hitting conditions were far better in the '20s and '30s than ever before or since, the Top for Total Average is still a vastly more appealing listing of The Greatest Ever than any other statistic can claim (minimum 7,500 plate appearances).

Ruth's superiority at .751 is a staggering as it should be.

Ted Williams, the second best slugger in history and the hardest man to get out (on-base pecentage), takes the second t spot with a .710 mark that leaves other players of his era 50 to 100 points behind.

Lou Gehrig, who drove in more runs per game than other Hall of Famer, proves he belongs out of Ruth's shadow, taking the third Total spot at .691.

Mickey Mantle - fifth at .638 - is tthe surprise. His enormous walk totals, his speed and his sluggering - in other words, the total skills that made him so breathtaking - raise him higher than he is on any other all-time list.

The common denominator of those in The 10 is their multiple skills. Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Stan Musial and Hank Aaron were all fleet, powerful, complete players in their prime. The presence of Rogers Hornsby (.629) proves that a high homer-per-at-bat ratio is not necessary to rise to the top in Total Average.

Certainly no one average - not even our new friend Total - is the Rosetta stone to baseball's century of statiscal hieroglyphics. No true fan would want baseball's rich tradition of esoteric argument to be diminished. Nevertheless, Total Average may come closer to clarifying disputes than any single statistic before it.