One of the pleasant rituals of spring is the glut of prognostications in the waning houss before baseball's opening day.
Now, while every Grapefruit League victory means hope and every defeat still means nothing, fans like to let their expertise go head to head with reality.
However, before San Francisco treks to Cincinnati and California visits Seattle on Wednesday to start the major league season, serious fans long for something more substantial than spicy "preseason picks."
Give us provocative numbers to chew, they say. Offer us some semblance of an empirical scale for measuring players. Support your prejudies with figures that can be shoved back down your throat.
Last April, this writer offered, amidst a seemly amount of hemming and hawing, an ambitious statistic called "Total Average" that attempted to be an all-encompassing offensive measuring stick.
It purported to combine batting average, slugging average, on-base percentage, stolen base percentage and other parameters into one revealing statistic.
That assault on a supreme "average" was met with a smattering of "amens," a considerable number of judicious and uncommitted "hummmms," several suggestions for "improvements," but, suprisignly, not a single enraged refutation from the legion of fellow statistics freaks.
Such a response calls for a push-your-luck encore.
This April's project is a natual next step:
List the top 40 Total Average men in baseball last year.
Pick a Total Average All-Star Team by position.
Choose an All-Overrated Tem by position, singling out players who show up particularly poorly (relative to their reputations and pay scale) under the scrutiny of TA.
By pure coincidence, the Total Average All-Star Team is, with only two exceptions out of 10 players, a rather attractive All-Underrated Team.
Before going further, we must step back a year and give the shortest possible synopsis
of what Total Average is. The charm of the statistic is that it is a simple idea which yields some controversial but appealing results.
The premise for TA** IS THAT BASEBALL BAS TWO FUNDAMENTAL UNITS OF MEASUREMENT: THE BASE AND THE OUT. EACH BASE IS ONE STEP NEARER THE END OF THE INNING. THE ETERNAL RACE-IN EVERY TEAM'S 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, TWO FOR A DOUBLE, THREE FOR A TRIPLE AND FOUR FOR A HOME RUN. THEN ADD ALL THE BASES FOR THE YEAR. CALL THEM AGGREGATE BASES.
COVERSELY, COUNT EACH OUT THAT THE PLAYER MAKES-WHETHER HE MAKES IT AT BAT OR IS THROWR'S AGGREGATE BASES BY HIS PLATE APPEARANCES (AT BATS, WALKS AND HIT-BY-PITCHES) PLUS STEAL ATTEMPTS.
FINALLY, ANY STATISTIC MUST BE JUDGED BY WHETHER OR NOT IT GIVES COGENT RESULTS.
THE TOTAL AVERAGE ALL-STAR TEAM IS A STRONG ARGUMENT.
FOR EXAMPLE, TED SIMMONS AAND CARLTON FISK HAD EXCELLENT AND SIMILAR STATISTICAL YEARS BUT, BY STANDARD MEASURES, FISK'S MIGHT BE CALLED SUPERIOR BECAUSE HIS RUN PRODUCTION WAS CLEARLY HIGHER - 162-129.
FISK, HOWEVER, BATTED IN THE MIDDLE OF THE HIGHEST-SCORING LINEUP IN BASEBALL, WHILE SIMMONS LABORED IN THE MIDDLE OF THE WORST OFFENSE IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE. TA says Simmons gets the '78 nod as best offensive catcher.
By contrast, TA shows what all New York Yankees already knew - that Thurman Munson, playing with injuries taht drained his power, had his weakest season in many years with a 409 TA (extremely low) that belied his .297 batting average. No wonder Thurman talked so little.
At first base, Andre (Thunder) Thornton, a terror to pitchers but a man hidden in Cleveland, takes the TA prize ahed of Baltimore's Eddie Murray, a budding star who gets little attention outside Baltimore.
It is painful to say, but perhaps the leading casualty of TA is future Hall-of-Famer Rod Carew. In his greatest season ('7() he ranked a high, but not spectacular, seventh in Total Average. In '78 he ranked 40th - certainly a star performance, but not the equal of his fame.
Carew's '78 stats won't bear much scrutiny. They look like tte figures of a Punch-and-Judy Matty Alou. His batting average is a glamorous .333, but a No. 3 hitter with only five homers and 70 RBI may be a virtuoso artist but he is no offensive wrecking ball.
The rest of the Total Average infield is a real connoisseur's treat. Minnesota's Roy Smallery had a briliant and unnoticed year, leading big league shortstops in a passel of categories with his 19 homes, 31 doubles, 254 total bases, 85 walks and 77 RBI. Smalley also led the L in total defensive chances (839) and the majors in double plays (121).
Baltimore knows Doug DeCinces was the hottest bat in the AL from July 1 to closing day, and that he was third in the league in slugging. TA knows it, too, placing him 89 points ahead of Pete Rose among third basemen.
At second, Bill Madlock, the two-time batting champion who switched positions, was the best of a punchless lot.
The outfield cannot be called a surprise. Jim Rise and Dave Parker, their league's Most Valuable Players, obviously had the two best seasons in baseball. They rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the sport in TA.
However, Parker is closer to Rice (.639-628) than is usually thought. Rice's staggering total base figure (406) is largely a result of his astronomical plate appearances (746), nearly 100 more than Parker. Actually their slugging percentages are close (.600 for Rice to .585). Considering Parker's speed (20 steals) and outfield skills (16 assists), it is probably apropriate that he earn more than Rice - $800,000 to $700,000.
No one should be alarmed at little known Amos Otis's appearance as center fielder. He lead division-winning Kansas City in all three triple crown categories while stealing 32 bases and finishing fourth in the AL in slugging. He belongs.
To change our Total Average All-Star team to an All-Underrated team, simply remove the renowned Rice and Parker and replace them with the men who were runners-up to them in left and right field - atlanta's Jeff Burroughs (hardest man in baseball to get out in '78) and perennially underrated Reggie Smith who leaves Steve Garvey far behind among Total Average Dodgers (.622 to .532).
Our All-Overatted team is, frankly, more subjective - a group who are not the worst in Total Average by any means, but a lineup of players whose TAs didn't matche their reputations, at elast in '78. The point is that they may be stars who are slightly dimmer than sometimes thought.
Munson, Carew, and Mickey Rivers are all instant choices. Each had a season well below normal standards.
Rose was a touchy choice. His on base percentage-the measure of any leadoff man-was well known becasue pursuit of his hitting streak and his late-season desire for 200 hits led him to eschew walks. He reached base 40 times less than in peak years.
Larry Bowa and Dave Cash, splednid team leaders and infielders though they are, make the list because they have no power and draw so few walks (24 for Bowa) that one wonders why they continue to bat at the top of powerful lineups. "Feisty spark plugs rank high among baseball's perenniel list of overrated offensive commodities.
Carl Yastrzemski is a nasty choice for overrated because for a 39-year-old, he is exceptional. Nevertheless, he has no business continuing to bat third, fourth of fifth in the potent Boston order. That is damaging sentiment, and many Red Sox know it. Four Bosox teammates, including Fred Lynn and even Dwight Evans, have higher TAs than Yaz's .498.
Rusty Staub makes the list out of pure perversity-he is simultaneously over-and under rated: the exception that proves the Total Average rule.
The painfully slow Staub needs three singles to score him Staub needs base and constantly clogs the base paths. His slugging percentage is not high, his on-base percentage fair. His .498 TA matches Yastrzemski and does not make the Top 40.
However, Staub personifies the clutch hitter with his 121 RBI. That unique ability in crucial situations is worth a world of dry statistics.
That, of course, is the inevitable closing note. No one would wish for a statistic that damaged baseball's heritage of rich debate. Total Average is only an adjunct to common sense and good eyesight. It does not supplant the wide range of fascinating offensive yardsticks. Nevertheless, it is probably more trustworthy than any one other baseball statistic now in common use.