Nothing is more welcome in February, the month of blizzards, than the thought of baseball, sweet baseball, just a few days away.

Spring training starts this week; many a camp, including the Baltimore Orioles', will be open by Friday. So let's gather 'round the hot stove and argue about the one true faith--baseball, of course.

Who were the true stars of 1982 and the worst flops? Who were the game's hidden, underrated standouts, and which big names were secret failures? Who needs to redeem himself in '83 and who must guard against overconfidence? Which of the winter's trades were smart or dumb?

Fortunately, one statistic can help us answer all these questions, plus other queries we might not even dream of asking.

The statistic is: Total Average.

For five years, I have been proprietor and purveyor of Total Average, a statistic that, it is brazenly claimed, comes closer to being the ultimate offensive yardstick than anything before it. This simple stat--the ratio between a player's bases and his outs--cleanly combines the virtues of batting average, slugging average, on-base percentage and stolen-base proficiency.

Let's see what its most dramatic results are when applied to last season:

* John Lowenstein, Baltimore's journeyman outfielder, was the most productive offensive player in baseball, per at bat. Lowenstein was also, easily, the most improved player in the game, raising his TA from .654 to 1.108.

* The biggest flop was the Mets' George Foster, who, in the first year of a contract that made him the highest-paid player in baseball, fell from the status of star to that of nonentity. Of the 78 starting outfielders in baseball last year, 65 had better Total Average seasons than Foster.

* Among regulars, Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt was the most efficient offensive player in baseball, edging Rickey Henderson of Oakland, who stole 130 bases, and Robin Yount, the American League MVP.

* Behind the trio of Schmidt, Henderson and Yount, arguably the three best all-around players in the game, two new young stars are emerging as future MVP candidates, Pedro Guerrero of Los Angeles and Eddie Murray of Baltimore, who complete the list of the top five offensive players of '82.

* Rick Cerone, Pete Rose, Manny Trillo, Bucky Dent, Hubie Brooks, George Foster, Al Bumbry, Charlie Moore and Roy Howell sound as if they might make a good ball club. However, they have a shocking distinction in common. They are the 1982 All-Overrated team. Each of them was the worst offensive player in his league at his position--dead last among all regulars.

Honorary cocaptains of the All-Overrated team are National League home run champion Dave Kingman and the erratic Garry Templeton, who ranked 15th and 16th, respectively, in the majors in offensive production at their positions.

By contrast, Gary Carter, Murray, Bobby Grich, Yount, Schmidt, Henderson, Dale Murphy, Guerrero and Hal McRae were the best regulars at their positions.

* Bob Boone, Steve Garvey, Jerry Remy, Larry Bowa, John Bench, Dan Ford, Omar Moreno, Tony Armas and Ken Singleton sound like a club that might win a division flag. Maybe they would have in some seasons, but not last year. In '82, each of these "name" players ranked 10th or worst in his league at his position in offensive value.

On the other hand, Terry Kennedy, Jason Thompson, Damaso Garcia, Dickie Thon, Toby Harrah, Gary Roenicke, Leon Durham, Dwight Evans and Oscar Gamble didn't get nearly as much publicity last season as the All-Overrated gang. Yet they were standouts, each ranking in the top three players in his league at his position; they're the All-Underrated team.

* For an All-Improved team, go with Lance Parrish, Al Oliver, Frank White, U.L. Washington, Doug DeCinces, Lowenstein, Murphy, Reggie Jackson and McRae. These worthies came from far back in the TA pack in 1981 to the top in '82.

Now, what exactly is the stat that makes these controversial evaluations?

The TA theory is simple. Baseball's fundamental units of measurement are the base and the out. Each base is one step closer to home plate. Each out is a single step nearer the end of an inning. That's Total Average--the ratio between the bases a player gets for his team and the outs he costs his club.

For illustration, look at Milwaukee's Yount, who probably had the best season in baseball when you couple his TA and run production with his Gold Glove fielding at shortstop.

Yount had 123 singles (123 bases), 46 doubles (92 bases), 12 triples (36 bases), 29 homers (116 bases), 54 walks (54 bases), 14 stolen bases (14 bases) and one hit-by-pitch (one base). That's 436 aggregate bases.

Then, subtract Yount's hits (210) from his at-bats (635) to find out how many outs he made (425). Add the three times he was caught stealing, plus the 19 times he grounded into double plays, since each cost his team an extra out (sacrifices and sacrifice flies are not included, because I say so). That's 447 outs.

Now, divide his bases by his outs and you have his total average: .975.

TA has three charms. First, players with different styles--sluggers, speedsters--can be measured on the same scale. Second, the advantage that a good player in a great lineup has over an equally good player in a weak lineup is minimized by ignoring both runs and RBI. (For example, Milwaukee's vaunted lineup had only one TA over .860; the Brewers were great because they had seven good-to-very-good TA players, plus Yount.)

Any TA over 1.000 (i.e., more bases than outs) is fabulous. Last year, only Schmidt (1.044) and Henderson (1.030) managed it, Lowenstein aside. In history, 17 players have career TAs over 1.000--led by Babe Ruth (1.432), Ted Williams (1.369) and Lou Gehrig (1.255). The only active player on the career list is Schmidt (1.003).

Any player with a career TA over .900 will probably end up in Cooperstown. A career mark in the .800s means you'll own plenty of all-star rings. A player in the .700s is still a dangerous offensive threat, but often has one or two weak areas in his game. Fellows with annual TAs in the .600s--even when their names are Kingman, Rose, Garvey or Bench--had average seasons. A TA in the .500s is only acceptable for defensive wizards; for Milwaukee to have a DH (Roy Howell) with a TA of .513 was a scandal. Aunt Blabby could do better.

No one with a TA below .500 should be allowed on a major league field unless he is a top-flight shortstop. This means you, Rick Cerone; only George Steinbrenner could give a $3.5 million contract to a catcher after back-to-back, sub-.500 TA seasons.

If your TA is under .400, your name must be Doug Flynn (Mr. .396); as unequivocal proof that batting averages mean nothing, Flynn hit .244 last year; the Expos still think he had a decent season.

For reference, the TA of the entire National League was .638, while the American League, helped by the designated-hitter rule, had a mark of .675.

As a rule, players at the traditional defensive positions--catcher, second base and shortstop--have median TAs almost 100 points below the league average. Players at the traditional power positions--first base, left field and DH--have median TAs almost 100 points above the league average. And, the median TA of players at third base, center field and right field is usually close to the league average.

When we see that Toby Harrah's TA is .938 and that an aging Pete Rose's is .621, that tells us some serious reevaluations are in order.

When the Red Sox traded Carney Lansford to Oakland for Tony Armas, did they know that 62 regular outfielders had higher TAs than Armas' .628 last season?

When the Indians traded for infielder Manny Trillo, did they know that Trillo had gone from the second-best TA player at his position to the second-worst?

When the Orioles wonder if John Shelby "can hit enough" to replace Al Bumbry in center, will they know how little Shelby would have to hit to improve upon Bumbry, whose TA (.565) ranked 73rd out of 78 outfielders in the majors?

When the Orioles said they would take Gary Roenicke to salary arbitration, did they know that he ranked 13th in all of baseball in TA last year? As the O's try to trade for a third baseman, do they know that TA star Roenicke once led a minor league in fielding--as a third baseman?

When we see Steve Garvey's TA sequence for the last five years--.806, .766, .724, .640, .621--we wonder if the San Diego Padres will get their money's worth.

When we see Eddie Murray's go up every year of his career--.729, .811, .834, .846, .875, .962--we wonder where it will stop. When we see Cal Ripken with a rookie TA (.732) almost identical to Murray's first year, we wonder if he'll go up, too, or will he start thinking he's already a star.

Fans seldom realize the vast differences between the game's best and worst players. For instance, Astros' outfielder Tony Scott made 360 outs and got 169 bases (.463 TA). By contrast, Schmidt made only a few more outs (388) while piling up 405 bases. The difference between Schmidt and Scott was something on the order of 220 bases--the equivalent of 55 home runs.

For any addicted baseball fan who even half believes in total average, the following charts--showing the TA ranking (by position) of every major league regular in 1982--offer surprises, both pleasant and shocking.