If the particulars of Lennard Pietersz’ journey thus far were set to a medley of songs, an appropriate title track would be “The Long and Winding Road”.  

The native of Curacao, a former Dutch colony in the Caribbean now a “constituent country” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, started learning the game at the age of six, emigrated to the United States at 14, played high school ball in Florida, and played college ball in Oklahoma and Texas before returning to Florida.  Then came a winter ball stint in California, followed by a season in Austria. Next was Japan, where he became the first member of Baseball Jobs Overseas to play in the Japan Winter League (JWL) and now is performing in the independent Hokkaido Baseball League.  

“It’s been a long road, for sure,” the 24-year-old says with a laugh.  “Not something I ever expected.”

Certainly not when he was a youngster, despite the fact that he came from a baseball family – several older relatives having played the game, and his father and one uncle having gone to the Netherlands to play.  But his first move came 10 years ago when he moved to Naples, Florida, to live with an uncle, Robert Guda, who has continued to be a key mentor.    

The next turn came when he earned a scholarship to Western Oklahoma State, the alma mater of fellow Curacaoan and four-time Gold Glove Award winner Andrelton Simmons.  Pietersz batted .364 with a .965 OPS in his one season there before moving farther west to Clarendon College in Texas, where he batted .317 with an .868 OPS in 2019.  

The road then took him back to Florida – to Warner University in Lake Wales, though he was ineligible to play because not enough of his credits transferred.  He became eligible after two seasons, but another bend in the road took him to California for Winter League ball in January 2022, and it was there that his next moves came into focus.

Listen to Lenny’s podcast interview with us here: 


“While in California, I met a Japanese guy who told me about the winter league there,” Pietersz said.  “And at the same time, I found out about Baseball Jobs Overseas.  I talked with them, signed up, and – to my surprise – got five offers within the first week.”

He chose Kufstein in the Austrian second division and batted .568 for the Vikings, driving in 20 runs in 12 games and stealing 11 bases in as many attempts.  He stayed there until August 2022 before going back to Florida where he expected to finally play for Warner, but another fork appeared in the road, so he followed Yogi Berra’s advice and took it.  

“I was finally eligible to play for Warner, but my uncle and I decided it would be a good idea to try for the Japan Winter League and get that extra experience,” he said.  “Also, my girlfriend at Warner, who is Japanese, was back in Japan.”

The JWL is more of a developmental league with two levels – one for players that may have pro potential and one for those more focused on the independent and industrial leagues.  The JWL season lasts approximately a month, from late November to the latter part of December, and Pietersz found the experience to be very worthwhile.

As has been pointed out many times, foreign players must make significant adjustments to the Japanese culture and approach to the game in order to succeed, particularly the stringent focus on repetition in the long daily workouts.  Many, including former MLB stars, have not been able to overcome the necessary hurdles.  

“It helped that my girlfriend, whom I met at Warner University, is Japanese, so I already had some insights into the culture,” he said, “but there are still so many differences.  It’s tough mentally when you’re alone and a long way from home.  

“And the workouts – Oh, man!  Back home, our practices were maybe two hours.  Here, we have individual practice from 1-3 and other stuff from 3 to about 7.  Even after games, they’ll run for 15-30 minutes and then go to the gym.  I had been doing a lot of extra work before, but their work ethic made me realize how much less I had actually been doing.  They take stretching very seriously.  Before, I’d just get to the field and get going, but I’m seeing how stretching can help, particularly by preventing injuries. There’s a lot of focus on meditation, too, and I’m trying to absorb that.

“The way they work is amazing.  It helps motivate you.”

Pietersz made the adjustment on the field.  Playing primarily at shortstop but occasionally slotting in at second base and third base, he batted .357 in 24 games with a .444 on-base percentage and .500 slugging mark.  

It helped, too, that he was able to connect with Hiroyuki Sakanashi, one of his coaches.  Sakanashi speaks English fluently – Pietersz speaks English, Dutch, Spanish, as well as Papiamentu, the language for Curacao, Aruba, and Bonaire – and has played and coached in Austria since 2004.   He coaches a club team with the first-division Vienna Wanderers and is head coach for the senior and U-23 Austrian national teams.

“When I was first talking with the players, I noticed that there were a few imports so I spoke in English, and I think that made him feel more comfortable,” Sakanashi said.  “When I first saw Lenny, he was tall and skinny, so I wasn’t sure what type of player he was,” Sakanashi said.  “Defensively, he was a little worried about his arm strength at first, but I think it was just that he wasn’t throwing as hard as he could.  We were playing five games a week, and he was not wanting to hurt his arm.  But he did well at all the infield spots.  We trusted him to play more than the others.

“As a hitter, he has great plate discipline, can read the game well, and move runners over.  He’s a very aggressive hitter and can drive balls early in the count.  He didn’t have much power in the beginning, but he started emerging once he got used to the Japanese style of pitching.”

Pietersz acknowledged that it takes time to get used to the different style of play in Japan, including more emphasis on “small ball” and pitchers who deliver more off-speed pitches.  

“They can slash, drag bunt – all that stuff.  It doesn’t matter if you’re the No. 3 or No. 4 hitter – you’re still expected to lay down a bunt,” he said. “It definitely takes some getting used to, but it’s still baseball.  And, luckily, I love small ball.”

Photo: Hiro Sakanashi recognizes Lenny as the 2022 Japan Winter League MVP

Sakanashi said that the JWL is a “tryout league”, in which the coaches make sure to give all players equal numbers of games, at bats, innings pitched, etc., so that everyone gets an equal opportunity to be seen by scouts.

The final day of registration for the 2023 Japan Winter League ends August 31st! Sign up here using our discount code BBJO2023!

That worked for Pietersz, who did well enough in the JWL to earn a contract with the Shibestsu Samurai Blades of the Hokkaido Baseball League. 

“There was another team – the Kochi Fighting Dogs, the team Manny Ramirez played for – that  came to see me, but the weather was bad that day and I played badly,” he said. “I played well the next day, though, and a scout from Shibetsu wanted to see me do some defensive drills after the game.  They hit about 10 balls to me and asked if I wanted to sign.”

He did, joining the team in May, 2023 after playing part of the spring season for Warner back in Florida and following his girlfriend’s graduation.  He’s continued to do well on the field, batting .297 as of August 20, though he missed nearly three weeks because of a wrist injury incurred on a slide and a pulled quadriceps muscle.  

Off the field has been a bit more challenging.  For one thing, there is a language barrier with many of his teammates.  And since his girlfriend is on another island, he’s more on his own, but he stays in regular touch with her and Sakanashi, which helps. 

“I don’t think he had much of a problem adjusting to the winter league, but I think he’s struggling a bit at the moment,” Sakanashi said.  “They wake up early and then leave early for the games so they can practice beforehand.  If a game starts at 10am, they need to be at the field by 6, so he’ll wake up at 5.”

And then there are normal activities that require more effort than back home.  “It takes more time to do things here,” Pietersz acknowledged.  “If I need to get groceries, or if I want to go somewhere on an off day, I have to plan it in advance. 

“But it’s manageable, and I’m learning a lot.”

He has more time, since the season will last until October.  What comes after that is an open question at the moment.  Ideally, he’ll get a contract with a team in a higher-level league.  If that doesn’t happen, he plans to go back to the winter league and then perhaps go home for a short break.  Regardless, his journey will continue.

“My goal is to get to the highest level possible,” he said.  “I just have to keep working and do whatever I can to get better.  I never got the opportunity to play in the States, but then I got the chance here, and it’s been a blessing.”

Below is our interview with Lenny followed by an interview with Hiro Sakanashi of the Japan Winter League.

Japan Winter League 2023 Registration (bbjo discount code: BBJO2023)

Not ready to hang them up?  Seeking a new career path?

Annually our members sign over 300 contracts overseas. There are a variety of levels overseas which present opportunities for players and coaches, both aspiring and established professionals.