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A change works for Cubs rookie Hendricks

Kyle Hendricks is taking full advantage of the scouting and preparation tools available in the bigs. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

CHICAGO – Every pitcher has that pitch. The one he goes to when trouble is brewing and he desperately needs an out. For Chicago Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, it’s his changeup.

“I feel really confident with it,” Hendricks said. “Really comfortable. It’s 100 percent been my go-to pitch when I get into jams. It’s nice to be confident in one, maybe two pitches because it’s something you can fall back on.”

The right-hander is scheduled to take the mound Tuesday night against the Milwaukee Brewers for his sixth career start. But already his changeup is getting buzz around the league. According to ESPN Stats & Information, opposing batters are hitting .156 (5-for-32) against Hendricks in at-bats that end with a changeup. That’s third best in all of baseball, behind only Johnny Cueto and Felix Hernandez -- not bad company. You can see why Hendricks throws it when he does.

“He has a couple different ones,” Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “He’s unpredictable -- that’s what makes it good. The biggest thing with Kyle is the element of surprise.”

Hendricks said he isn’t concerned with the velocity of his off-speed pitches as much as the movement. And he’s getting that movement, particularly against left-handed hitters. Fifty-seven of 59 (96.6 percent) changeups to lefties have been to the outer third of home plate or farther away. Overall, he’s thrown his changeup to that area 77.8 percent of the time. That would rank first in the league, if Hendricks had enough innings under his belt.

“He’s doing exactly what he did in the minor leagues,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said recently. “He’s as polished and prepared as you’ll see with any rookie.”

Hendricks is off to a fast start to his career and is coming off road wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers (the National League West leaders) and the Colorado Rockies (in their hitter-friendly park). He’s done it throwing his changeup almost 18 percent of the time. He’s 3-1 with a 2.10 ERA entering Tuesday.

But that doesn’t mean everything has been easy. Hard-hit balls have often found his fielders, though a lot of that is by design. Not unlike a pitcher to whom the 24-year-old's approach is often compared -- Greg Maddux -- Hendricks isn’t afraid to put runners on via hits, just not via walks. As long as balls don’t leave the park -- hit hard or not -- it’s fine with him.

“A lot of those that have been hit right at people have been pretty good pitches,” Hendricks said. “I don’t worry about those results. If those had fallen in for a hit, then I have to approach the next guy different, like pitching to get a ground-ball double play. My focus is to go out there and just make the pitches. You can’t focus on results.”

So Hendricks doesn’t mind that he’s allowed line drives 26 percent of the time (fourth highest in the majors, per ESPN Stats & Info) or that the ball is hit hard off him 22.4 percent of the time. The league average is 15.2. But when hitters do hit it hard, they are batting .607 off Hendricks; that’s nearly 100 points (.699) below the league average. Maybe there is an element of luck right now with him, but Hendricks is OK with that too. Will these numbers come back to haunt him? The Cubs think his work habits and ability to break down a batter will allow him to overcome any deficiencies.

“We speculated he might take it to another level when he got to the big leagues because he uses all the tools available to him as well as anybody,” Epstein said. “We have video in the minor leagues, but we don’t have this much video. We have scouting reports in the minor leagues, but we don’t have them this extensive. He just attacks the video, attacks the scouting reports. It’s a huge weapon for him.”

The benefit of all the knowledge is confidence. Hendricks has the confidence to face any situation. Why not throw hittable pitches and let fielders do the work? Even if a few fall in, Hendricks knows he can break down the next guy -- usually with his changeup.

“No matter how good a hitter he’s facing, he’s likely to identify one area that he can attack and put himself in a good position to get him out,” Epstein said. “We’re awfully proud of the way he’s adjusted.”